In his first book, historian Ujifusa delivers a delightful account of the era of grand ocean liners and the brilliant, single-minded designer who yearned to build the greatest ocean liner of all.
Almost entirely self-taught, William Francis Gibbs (1886–1967) grew up reading technical journals and blueprints and designing his own vessels. In 1915, he and his like-minded brother completed plans for the world’s largest and fastest superliner. Amazingly, they persuaded the directors of International Mercantile Marine Company (builder of the Titanic) to finance construction, but World War I halted the project. Setting up his own company in 1922, Gibbs made his name building modest liners for American companies. By this time, large luxury liners required government subsidies, so all of them were European. As World War II loomed, Gibbs became the leading designer for the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine. It took the Cold War and energetic lobbying to achieve Gibbs’ dream. Agreeing that national defense required the ship as a potential troop carrier, the U.S. paid nearly two-thirds of the construction costs. Launched in 1952 to national acclaim, the SS United States was a technological triumph; rival liners never matched her speed, reliability or safety. Sadly, by the 1960s she was losing money; she retired in 1969.
Obsessed with ships, Gibbs seems a one-dimensional figure, but Ujifusa concentrates on his career, an excellent decision that results in a vivid account of the business, politics and technical details surrounding transatlantic travel in that time period.