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William Francis Gibbs, Creator of the Big Ship


William Francis Gibbs, Maritime Architect, 1886 - 1967



William Francis Gibbs was born in Philadelphia in 1886, and would become arguably the most renowned naval architect of the twentieth century.  Mr. Gibbs designed over 6,000 ships, a remarkable feat, considering that his shipbuilding skills were self-taught.  

Gibbs was known to have a keen interest in fire fighting equipment.  He designed New York's famed Firefighter, the most powerful fireboat ever built.  Gibbs also designed a land fire engine called the Super Pumper.  Gibbs' obsession with fire safety would again materialize in the building of the SS United States.

Gibbs was a visionary and knew how to think big.  During his early years, Gibbs was inspired by five great vessels:  St. Louis, Oceanic, Celtic, Lusitania, and Mauritania.  Gibbs witnessed the launching of the St. Louis and made transatlantic crossings on the later four vessels, which were technological marvels in their day.  Gibbs was keen to notice their strengths and weaknesses in great detail.  One of his lifelong ambitions was to build a 1,000 foot superliner, and this dream went as far back as 1908.  Gibbs envisioned a pair of 55,000 gross ton vessels capable of achieving 30 knots and delivering weekly transatlantic service.  Unfortunately, there were no maritime engines capable of producing such speed and power during that time period.

At a young age, Gibbs eagerly studied pictures of ships, blueprints, and read books on ships.  He attended Harvard University and studied science and engineering.  Mr. Gibbs refused to follow the formal curriculum and instead took courses of interest to him, mostly in the field of maritime engineering.  In his spare time at Harvard he would redesign British battleships, and lay their plans out around his room.  Following his father's wishes, William Francis Gibbs subsequently attended Columbia Law School and practiced law for a period of two years, disliking every minute of it.  Designing ships was his passion, and it did not take him long to transition into the field of maritime engineering.

In 1915 with his brother Frederic H., Gibbs joined the International Mercantile Marine Company.  With the backing of financier J.P. Morgan and the U.S. Navy, Gibbs and his brother began developing plans for a pair of 1,000 foot liners, capable of producing 180,000 horsepower.  A model which included many characteristics of the future SS United States was tested in the Navy's Taylor model tank.  Unfortunately, World War I would put Gibbs' plans for a 1,000 foot superliner on hold.  But the seeds for the SS United States had been irreversibly planted.  


 

Two early aritst impressions of proposed Gibbs superliners.  It would be several decades before Gibbs' dream would culminate in the design and construction of the superliner SS United States.


Gibbs was eventually promoted to Chief of Construction in 1919.  After World War I, the Gibbs brothers again began working on their pair of 1,000 foot superliners.  However, there was a large surplus of American ships following the war, and the time was not right for the implementation of Gibbs' dream.  The Gibbs brothers took on other projects and oversaw the design of the passenger cargo ships Minnewaska and Minnetonka.  

In 1922, the Gibbs brothers started a firm called Gibbs Brothers, Inc.  Their first notable contract was to convert the former German liner Vaterland into the 950 foot American luxury liner SS Leviathan.  Gibbs traveled to Germany to obtain the blueprints for Vaterland from her builders Blohm and Voss.  The German shipbuilder demanded over $1 million for the plans to the ship.  "I think," Gibbs replied calmly," that we will make our own set of working plans from the Leviathan itself."  And Gibbs would embrace what was arguably the single most challenging task of his career.  Gibbs headed an effort to study and redesign the ship's entire layout.  Between 100 and 150 draftsmen were put to work designing the ship's new configuration.  The conversion took place at Newport News, and the end result was a luxury liner that was superior to the original in virtually every respect.  The Leviathan went on to become one of the most successful luxury liners of that era and made America a forerunner in the transatlantic passenger market.


  

Left:  Captain Hartley & William Francis Gibbs aboard the Leviathan.  Right:  A young William Francis Gibbs congratulating officers onboard Leviathan after setting a speed record.


Around 1927, Gibbs' firm took on the design of Matson Line's Malolo (later rechristened the Matsonia) which was to be the first passenger liner to be designed by Gibbs from the ground up.  On her trials with both of the Gibbs brothers onboard, Malolo was struck by the freighter Jacob Christensen which unexpectedly came out of the fog, creating a 15 foot gash in the port side of the vessel.  The brothers were on the bridge when the incident took place and William Francis Gibbs quickly activated the watertight doors.  Both boiler rooms became flooded as the ship took on over 7,000 tons of water, but as a testament to the quality of Gibbs' design, Malolo remained afloat and was towed to New York for repairs.  The Malolo accident would further strengthen Gibbs' reputation for safety.  The Gibbs safety features built into Malolo, including compartmentation, would significantly influence the design of all subsequent American luxury liners.

In 1929, Daniel H. Cox joined the firm, and they became known as Gibbs & Cox, Inc.  Gibbs & Cox became known for its distinctive designs which included spoon sterns and raked funnels and bowlines which signified speed.  The firm designed numerous freighters, yachts, and liners.  Among them was Grace Lines' Santa Rosa, Santa Paula, Santa Elena, and Santa Lucia.  In addition, Gibbs pioneered increasing the steam pressure in many Naval ships to over 600 PSI, increasing the efficiency of the "new" Navy ships by over 25%.  Gibbs was continuously making advancements in maritime design and safety, and these advancements would be incorporated into future designs, most notably the SS United States.

In 1936, United States Lines was looking for a replacement for SS Leviathan.  The new tonnage was to be the SS America, the largest ship then to be built in the United States.  Of Gibbs & Cox design and launched on August 31, 1939, the SS America accommodated 1,202 passengers, was 723 feet long, and 94 feet wide.  Shortly after completion, she was renamed USS Westpoint and quickly became one of the most successful troopships during World War II, safely transporting over 450,000 troops to and from the war zones.  In 1946, the SS America was returned to peace-time service and served United States Lines well until 1964 when she was sold to the Chandris Line and became Australis.  Many of the advancements first used on SS America would be incorporated into the SS United States.


  

The SS America in Havana, February 1950.


During World War II, Gibbs & Cox was busy at work furnishing plans for America's warships.  Gibbs oversaw the design of thousands of American warships, including destroyers, LST landing craft, minesweepers, tankers, cruisers, liberty ships, and a variety of ship conversions.  74% of all naval vessels built during World War II were of Gibbs & Cox design.  Mr. Gibbs was undoubtedly one of the greatest individual contributors to the American war effort.


The US AT War:  William Francis Gibbs on the cover of Time Magazine, September 28, 1942.


After World War II, the time was right to begin rebuilding America's merchant marine.  Gibbs and his brother again began design work for a new 1,000 foot superliner which was to become the SS United States and the culmination of a lifelong dream for William Francis Gibbs.  Mr. Gibbs and his firm spent five years designing the SS United States.  Construction took only 28 months, and the result was an engineering marvel never again equaled.  The SS United States was the fastest, safest, and most technologically sophisticated ship of her day.  On her maiden voyage, the SS United States became the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic, averaging 35.59 knots, and reducing Atlantic crossing time by 10 hours.  The SS United States completed 400 problem-free voyages during the period between 1952 and 1969.  Gibbs would only cross the Atlantic on the SS United States once which took place on the maiden voyage in 1952.  Mr. Gibbs had tremendous admiration for the Big Ship and closely followed its career throughout the remainder of his lifetime.  He would call the captain and chief engineer each day the SS United States was at sea and would ask how the ship was performing and if there was anything he could do to improve the ship.  It became a Gibbs' custom to visit the pier to witness his ship arrive and depart New York each voyage.  Following the SS United States, Gibbs & Cox continued to produce a legacy of successful ships.  Headquartered in New York, the firm is still in existence today.


The silhouette of William Francis Gibbs as he gazes at his creation.


A Salute to Her Creator

On Wednesday, September 6, 1967 Mr. Gibbs passed away.  The SS United States was in New York, and sailed the following day, her flag at half mast.  Her master, Commodore L. J. Alexanderson walked from the bridge and stepped out onto the port flying bridge.  As the SS United States passed the Gibbs & Cox offices at 21 West Street, Commodore Alexanderson raised his right arm and saluted Mr. Gibbs' vacant office.  The SS United States sounded three deep-throated salutes to honor William Francis Gibbs, creator of the Big Ship.


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