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A Few Humble Words

Hey there folks, and welcome back to the Library blog. In the past few posts of ours, we mentioned a variety of topics covering SS United States designer William Francis Gibbs, including both Steven Ujifusa’s book “A Man and his Ship” and Gibbs’ own design plans for the SS United States. But what did Gibbs himself think of the ship? In the December 1953 issue of the Journal of the Franklin Institute, Gibbs was awarded the prestigious Franklin Medal in recognition of his innovation, perseverance, and dedication in the pursuit of his shipbuilding projects. When he gave a speech during the formal medaling ceremony, Gibbs revealed quite a bit about his personality and how he felt about creating the fastest ocean liner in history.

Said liner, swiftly cutting her way through the ocean. From The Mariners’ Museum collection.

First and foremost, Gibbs was humble. The first things he said was how moved he was to be honored with the Institute’s trust, and frequently hoped the esteemed members of the audience would excuse his “feeble talk” and “poor understanding.” The rest of his speech was spent explaining that he accepted the award for the sake of his brother and everyone who worked on the SS United States with him. Gibbs insisted that not only did his brother do more work for the ship than he did, but all he did himself was push everyone to strive for perfection. Gibbs intercut all of his short, 9-minute speech with copious amounts of humor, almost all of which was aimed at his own person. The speech therefore offers an appealing glimpse of Gibbs – his use of humor and humility show a man comfortable and confident in his self, while his insistence that others were just as responsible as he was for the success of the SS United States shows a humble man sharing the glory with his team. And the truth is, the creation of the noble SS United States was indeed a team project on a massive scale: all Gibbs did was demand perfection, and American workers stepped up and created a masterpiece. In today’s climate of economic uncertainty, the image of Americans rallying together to make the fastest ship in the world is one worth keeping – and perhaps we should strive for perfection a little more frequently in our endeavors.

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