America forgets its heroes at a dispiritingly rapid rate. Barely does a statue go up in, say, Manhattan’s Bryant Park or Farragut Square in Washington, D.C., before passersby have to stop to read the plaque to figure out whom they’re looking at. Soon after, no one stops to read at all. The whole history of the Gold Rush and the founding of California as a U.S. state is told in the statuary of San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, yet among the thousands who wander through every day, how many could name a single likeness?
William Francis Gibbs, America’s foremost naval architect, never even got a statue. Ironically, his greatest work endures, rusting at a Philadelphia pier, nearly as unloved and unknown as her maker.
Gibbs is important for at least four reasons. First, he designed the SS United States, which may have been the greatest ocean liner of all time. It’s the fastest and finest single-hulled non-military vessel ever built in an American yard, and it will almost certainly never be surpassed. Second, he was crucial to the Allied victory in World War II: Gibbs’s firm designed 70 percent of the American naval and merchant tonnage built during the war, including the iconic Liberty ships. Third, techniques Gibbs pioneered to make construction of the Liberty ships cheaper and faster helped to revolutionize post-war manufacturing. Fourth, Gibbs was responsible for more advances in marine engineering — fireproofing, compartmentalization, and high-pressure, high-temperature steam, to name a few — than any of his peers.
Beyond all this, Gibbs’s life makes a great story, one that is ably told in Steven Ujifusa’s A Man and His Ship. The basics of Gibbs’s life have seen print before, but always in books that focus on his work. Exhaustively researched, Ujifusa’s book is the first to explore the man.
Gibbs was born in Philadelphia to a striving father with pretentions of upper-class grandeur. Part entrepreneur and part con man, William Warren Gibbs hustled enough money to buy a mansion on Rittenhouse Square, hobnob with the city’s Quaker elite, and send his elder son to Harvard. There, young Willy struggled, not because he wasn’t smart or didn’t study but because he devoted all his energies to a subject for which Harvard had no formal curriculum. Locked in his room in Claverly Hall, Gibbs spent his waking hours poring over engineering manuals and technical journals, teaching himself to design ships. Eventually he left without a degree. Gibbs would later claim that he flunked Latin. Ujifusa speculates that the family’s financial collapse played a more direct role.
The elder Gibbs disapproved of engineering as a profession and extracted a promise that his son would try the law. So William Francis enrolled at Columbia, earned a bachelor’s degree and a law degree in only three years, and dutifully took up a profession he hated, sending money home to keep his embarrassed family afloat. At night he and his brother, Frederic, continued to design improbably huge and fast ocean liners that they had no plausible reason to believe would ever be built.
A bold and persistent man, William Francis used his father’s connections to finagle a meeting with J. P. Morgan Jr., owner of International Mercantile Marine, at the time the world’s largest shipping company. That Gibbs was able to convince an astute businessman like Morgan to put up millions to build what would have been the largest and most expensive ship thus far in history — a ship first conceived in the dorm room of a student who soon dropped out of college and who had no formal engineering training — suggests that his schooling as an advocate was not altogether wasted.
Alas, it was not to be. American entry into World War I scuttled the plan. But the war also allowed Gibbs to quit the law and devote himself to naval architecture full time. The projects were mostly boring troop-ship conversions, but Gibbs never stopped dreaming about his “big ship.” Unfortunately for his dreams, the U.S. government seized so much German merchant tonnage during the war that, post-armistice, the economic rationale for building a new superliner was nil. Gibbs did, however, manage to win the most prestigious and important peacetime maritime project, the reconversion of the commandeered German Vaterland (renamed Leviathan) from troop ship back to luxury liner.
The project was a triumph for Gibbs personally, although the ship herself proved less successful. She lacked peers in her line and sailed with ships far inferior, which meant that passengers had to book their return sailing on a less prestigious vessel, not a happy prospect for most luxury travelers. Prohibition further disadvantaged Leviathan — she was the most expensive American ship, but many who could afford her preferred to sail on European liners where they could drink.