My Cart

Born in Ink – the Plans for the SS United States

Hello again, gentle readers. Welcome back to the Library blog – today, I would like to tell you about a unique volume from the Library’s Rare Book collection that has piqued my interest. I refer to the double-volume schematics and design specifications for the SS United States, a work that is only available at The Mariners’ Museum Library. The first volume of the plan is split into four smaller volumes, because the original work was so incredibly thick that using it was very unwieldy.

These four volumes used to be one book.

All four sub-sections of the first volume deal with the plans, schematics, projected costs, and potential profits of the SS United States. The vessel, often referred to by the number 12201, is compared heavily to the 1930s Cunarder RMS Queen Elizabeth in design, operating costs and potential speed. There is a lot of focus in the plans on the comparative speeds of the ships. In fact, it is often repeated that one of the primary goals in building the SS United States is so that she will claim the record for Fastest Atlantic Crossing several times in a row. How would she do that, you may ask? Well, the plan was to slightly underpower the United States in order to beat the Queen Elizabeth’s speed by a small amount. That way, if the British ever reclaimed the record, the United States could then repeatedly take it back and earn a healthy dose of prestige for her parent company, the United States Lines.

A poster for the SS United States. From The Mariners’ Museum Collection.

The amount of data in these volumes is staggering. Every single expense, facet and nuance of the vessel seems to be accounted for. They cover labor costs, future oil prices, specific equipment measurements, even paperwork confirming that the US Coast Guard approves of the safety measures implemented in the deck lining of the ship. It seems that every detail one would need is available, packed in somewhere amidst thousands of pages of text. The only problem is that there seems to be no table of contents, index, or reference sheet, making the navigation of the four sub-sections a bit of a guessing game. It is a relief that the data seems to be arranged chronologically, yet still this volume should not to be taken lightly. It is a complex and challenging work, detailing the conception of the fastest ocean liner ever to cross the Atlantic.

This is a metal chart of the SS United States‘ route between Europe and North America. The aluminum model of the ship would be moved along the hollow route line, showing the ship’s position. From The Mariners’ Museum Collection.

For those who would truly make use of it, there is no other place to do so than at The Mariners’ Museum Library.

The work is a bound photocopy of a confidential memo, titled “Design 12201 – S.S. United States: design particulars and information.” It was sent by William Francis Gibbs to his brother Frederic.

Scroll to Top