A Man and His Ship: America's Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the S.S. United States

A Man and His Ship: America's Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the S.S. United States

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by Steven Ujifusa
     
 

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In the tradition of David McCullough’s grand histories, the sweeping story of one man’s quest to build the fastest, finest ocean liner in history—set against the politics, culture, and enterprise of twentieth century America.

The story of a great American builder.

At the peak of his power, in the 1940s and 1950s, William Francis Gibbs was

Overview

In the tradition of David McCullough’s grand histories, the sweeping story of one man’s quest to build the fastest, finest ocean liner in history—set against the politics, culture, and enterprise of twentieth century America.

The story of a great American builder.

At the peak of his power, in the 1940s and 1950s, William Francis Gibbs was considered America’s best naval architect.

His quest to build the finest, fastest, most beautiful ocean liner of his time, the S.S. United States, was a topic of national fascination. When completed in 1952, the ship was hailed as a technological masterpiece at a time when “made in America” meant the best.

Gibbs was an American original, on par with John Roebling of the Brooklyn Bridge and Frank Lloyd Wright of Fallingwater. Forced to drop out of Harvard following his family’s sudden financial ruin, he overcame debilitating shyness and lack of formal training to become the visionary creator of some of the finest ships in history. He spent forty years dreaming of the ship that became the S.S. United States.

William Francis Gibbs was driven, relentless, and committed to excellence. He loved his ship, the idea of it, and the realization of it, and he devoted himself to making it the epitome of luxury travel during the triumphant post–World War II era. Biographer Steven Ujifusa brilliantly describes the way Gibbs worked and how his vision transformed an industry. A Man and His Ship is a tale of ingenuity and enterprise, a truly remarkable journey on land and sea.

Editorial Reviews

David Macauley
A terrific book! By turns entertaining, informing and ultimately inspiring, A Man and His Ship transforms its readers into passengers traveling across an ocean and through time. A skilled verbal navigator, Steven Ujifusa has charted an efficient and yet immensely satisfying course through a sea of facts, images and stories.
Publishers Weekly
In his debut, Ujifusa harks back to a time when men were men, and transatlantic ships were serious business. Over the span of a century, he examines the life and career of William Francis Gibbs (1886–1967), the Philadelphia native whose lifelong ambition was to build the biggest, fastest, safest liner ever. Ujifusa places everything into context as he breathes life into a golden age of ocean travel, invoking such storied names as Titanic, Lusitania, Leviathan, Queen Mary, and America. He follows Gibbs’s monomania over decades and through trials and tribulations, slowly building a picture of the era through the accomplishments of its movers and shakers. During WWII, Gibbs designed the most technologically advanced destroyer of its time. All of this leads up to Gibbs’s finest creation, the SS United States, which, in 1952, set speed records and took the prestigious Blue Riband back for America after nearly a century. Written with passion and thoroughness, this is a love letter to a bygone time and the ships that once ruled the seas. 32 pages of b&w photos. Agent: David Kuhn and Billy Kingsland, Kuhn Projects. (July)
The Wall Street Journal
“Few of man's creations possess even half the romance of the passenger ships that once steamed across the world's oceans, especially the North Atlantic. That is why Steven Ujifusa's ‘A Man and His Ship’ is such a compelling work.”
From the Publisher
"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."—Kirkus

"A fitting memorial to our greatest naval architect."—The National Review

David Macaulay
“A terrific book! By entertaining, informing and ultimately inspiring, A Man and His Ship transforms its readers into passengers traveling across an ocean and through time. A skilled verbal navigator, Steven Ujifusa has charted an efficient and yet immensely satisfying course through a sea of facts, images and stories.”
A. J. Langguth
A Man and His Ship, a hugely entertaining re-creation of the age of the ocean liner, will leave older readers nostalgic, younger readers envious, and all of them engrossed in the drama of William Francis Gibbs as he fights to build the greatest ship of them all, the S.S. United States. The Cunard Line once boasted that ‘getting there is half the fun.’ Now Steven Ujifusa has given us the other half.”
The New York Times (TMagazine)
“[An] absorbing, transporting new history…Ujifusa’s book is a portrait in determination, as Gibbs’s plans for his big ship are continually tossed about in political, economic and personal squalls.”
G. Richard Shell
Steven Ujifusa has done something remarkable in his book, A Man and His Ship: he has brought back an era of American dominance in shipbuilding through the life of one of its giants: William Francis Gibbs. In some ways, Gibbs was the Steve Jobs of his era – a perfectionist with few people skills who nevertheless was single-handedly able to change his industry by the power of his vision and overwhelming professional competence. We need more public historians like Ujifusa working in business history. Using the highest research standards, he has written a great book that tells great story.
The Wall Street Journal (best nonfiction of 2012) - John Steele Gordon
“Few of man's creations possess even half the romance of the passenger ships that once steamed across the world's oceans, especially the North Atlantic. That is why Steven Ujifusa's A Man and His Ship is such a compelling work.”
The New York Times Style Magazine - Stephen Heyman
Much of Ujifusa’s book is a portrait in determination, as Gibbs’s plans for his big ship are continually tossed about in political, economic and personal squalls. A less single-minded man may have given up at numerous times.
Booklist
"Ujifusa describes the construction of the ship in engrossing detail and provides informative digressions on the golden age of ocean travel, when liners carried millionaires, celebrities, and desperate refugees."
Admiral Dennis C. Blair
“The sea inspires obsessions in determined men, from Captain Ahab to Admiral Rickover. Steven Ujifusa introduces us to another – the naval architect William Francis Gibbs. His ingenious design of mass-producible Liberty ships helped win World War II, but Gibbs’ obsession was to build the world’s fastest, safest and most elegant Atlantic liner. He ultimately succeeded, but in a decade his masterpiece was obsolete and unprofitable. Ujifusa narrates this tragedy well, in all its technical, political and human dimensions.”
Kirkus Reviews
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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781451645095
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
06/04/2013
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
448
Sales rank:
359,658
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE

The Way It Was

The transatlantic ocean liner possessed a mystique now lost to the world. For the first half of the twentieth century, ships named Mauretania, Bremen, Normandie, and Queen Mary were known and loved by tens of millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic. When a big liner arrived in New York City for the first time, thousands lined the Hudson to watch a man-made object—one that seemed to have life and soul—move serenely upriver. Their eyes were following something simply massive—she could be up to five city blocks long and twelve stories high, her deep-throated whistles bellowing in response to a cheering crowd. Sculpted hull, gleaming paint, and raked-back smokestacks conveyed beauty, power, and speed.

In the New York newspapers, the shipping news doubled as society news, as readers learned if Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Margaret Truman, Vincent and Brooke Astor, or the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were aboard one of the ocean liners arriving or leaving that day. When a great ship left for Europe, it was an occasion awash in champagne and laughter. On board, first-class passengers enjoyed public rooms and private quarters that were decorative showplaces for the world’s most talented designers, men and women who created some of the most stunning interiors ever built on land or sea. En route, high standards of service for the ship’s most privileged passengers meant money for its owners and prestige for the nation whose flag she flew. Ships connected businessmen to transatlantic partners, diplomats to their posts, jazz artists to European audiences, students to adventures, immigrants to American jobs, and refugees to freedom. During two devastating world wars, liners converted to troopships carried millions of GIs to the front, and then brought them home again in triumph.

To the public, the ocean liner—once the only way to get across the Atlantic—was the epitome of glamorous travel. She also represented the pinnacle of technology—the most complex and powerful machine on earth. Deep inside her hull were engines capable of propelling a thousand-foot-long mass of steel through the giant waves of the North Atlantic at nearly 40 miles per hour. The liner that crossed the Atlantic the fastest captured a prize called the Blue Riband. A winner became the most famous ship in the world—until a faster rival bested her.

From the 1860s to the 1950s, all of the liners that captured the Blue Riband flew European flags, as a passive America seemed to accept the superiority of foreign engineering, manufacturing, and managerial prowess. One American did not, and this is the story of his quest to build the fastest, most beautiful, and safest ocean liner ever—the ship that was to become one of the greatest engineering triumphs in American history.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"In his debut, Ujifusa harks back to a time when men were men, and transatlantic ships were serious business . . . Written with passion and thoroughness, this is a love letter to a bygone time and the ships that once ruled the seas." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Meet the Author

Steven Ujifusa serves on the Advisory Council of the S.S. United States Conservancy. He received his master’s degree in historic preservation and real estate from the University of Pennsylvania and his B.A. in history from Harvard University.

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A Man and His Ship: America's Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the S.S. United States 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
BRich 5 months ago
If you love history, particularly maritime history, this is the book for you. Ujifusa paints the decades long epic saga of the dream of an aspiring naval architect. Set against the backdrop of 2 world wars at the precipice of the most significant transformation of transportation in history (air travel), the story weaves engineering, politics and world events into a rich story of Americas greatest passenger vessel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
appra15her More than 1 year ago
If you love luxury liners and their history, if you believe they were living, breathing entities, then this is the book for you. Easy read with plenty of background on not just the UNITED STATES, but other famous ships and the men who dreamed, created and built them. Not your typical coffee table book about liners, more like a love story between a man and his ship. I pass her weekly on my travels to Philly and hope to God someone will save this important piece of our American history before she's too far gone.
CapnAubrey More than 1 year ago
This book is a must read! For many years, I have driven along the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia and marveled the sight of a very worn and neglected SS United States. I have often wondered how it got there and what was its fate. Steven Ujifusa has done a masterful job of answering these questions through telling the life of its creator, William Francis Gibbs. Gibbs was a native of Philadelphia and turned out to be one of the world's most innovative and successful naval architects. The author describes in detail the dreams of the young man, the realities of the transatlantic passenger shipping business and the 40 year struggle to build SS United States. The book reads like a novel but it packed with plenty of historical facts and personal interviews conducted by the author. Frankly, I couldn't put the book down! The SS United States remains a record holder for transatlantic speed. It's military secrets were not declassified until the 1980's. Even in its current moldering state, the SS United States is a beauty. Its story is worth the telling and Ujifusa brings it back to life, taking the reader back to a time when the big passenger ships were the ultimate in luxury travel.
Superior_Shores More than 1 year ago
This book is recommended for those who have been on a cruise, are thinking about going on a cruise, or who can spell the word "cruise". The author tells an amazing story of a ship that is currently tied up to a dock in Philadelphia in total disrepair and yet this ship is such an incredible part of U.S. history. You can read the passion of the author in telling the story of the birth of one incredible vessel and the men and women that made it possible. Author Ujifusa has a writing style similar to David McCullough where the reader is transported to the location via strong and descriptive words. Few books truly deserve five stars. This one does.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a book I just wanted on my shelf not one that I thought I would actually read. I found I couldn't put it down after thumbing thru the first couple of pages. I was immediately captured by the scale and complexity of what a man with a single minded obsession can accomplish and now find myself hoping that the S.S. United States lives on for a very long time.