Celebrating the Big U's Pioneering Female Engineer, Elaine Kaplan
SS United States designer William Francis Gibbs was notable in his time for basing his hires on ability, rather than background. Of top priority was finding the best man — or woman — for the job; Gibbs found her in pioneering female engineer Elaine Kaplan, whose work on the top-secret propulsion system of the SS United States was essential to the ship's incredible speed.
Pioneering female engineer Elaine Kaplan, at table with SS United States designer
William Francis Gibbs (far left).
It was Kaplan and her colleagues that designed the Big U's innovative propeller configuration, featuring both four and five-blade manganese-bronze propellers. This unique design would become a closely guarded secret for Gibbs & Cox, and a source of professional pride for Kaplan as the project's lead engineer. Her daughter, Susan Caccavale recalls:
"In those days, a woman's identity was to stay at home and have children." However, "If you were to ask my mother her identity, she would say a nautical mechanical engineer, and then a mother."
Susan Caccavale, Conservancy board member and daughter of engineer Elaine Kaplan, poses on deck with one of the SS United States' propellers. Photograph courtesy of Professional Mariner.
As historian Steven Ujifusa records in "A Man and His Ship," Elaine Scholley Kaplan began working at Gibbs & Cox during the war, when she was an undergraduate mathematics major at Hunter College. As one of only two women on the firm's fifty-person design team, Kaplan faced the gendered conventions of the 1950s that relegated many women to support roles. However, the young engineer persevered, earning respect for her intelligence and meticulous work, and rising to be a top propulsion engineer.
Kaplan's work attracted the attention and mentorship of Walter Bachman, the company's chief marine engineer, and the admiration of William Francis Gibbs, who personally assigned her the design of the SS United States' propulsion system. Ujifusa notes of Gibbs and Kaplan:
"They were very much alike; like Gibbs, Kaplan could explain complex engineering concepts in a way that any layman could understand."
One of the impressive 60,000 pound propellers manufactured for the SS United States, and designed by Kaplan. Photograph courtesy of Life Magazine.
For the occasion of the SS United States' christening and official launch on June 23rd, 1951, Elaine Kaplan traveled from New York to Newport News. Before boarding the train, Kaplan's husband, Gibbs & Cox engineer Howard Kaplan, presented her with an orchid corsage to wear during the launching ceremony. As the train pulled out of Penn Station however, Kaplan removed the corsage. It was important to her that she be seen at the ceremony as an engineer, not as somebody's wife.
Engineer Elaine Kaplan continues to inspire. One member of Brownie Troop 74732 is seen here leading a presentation on Kaplan, whom the troop member describes as "an amazing woman."
You can learn more about Elaine Kaplan in Steven Ujifusa's "A Man and His Ship," or CLICK HERE to read more about the impressive propellers designed by Kaplan and her team, four of which are now preserved and accessible to the public.
The story of the SS United States is the story of the many extraordinary men and women who traveled and worked aboard her. This incredible vessel remains a soaring symbol of ingenuity, innovation, and our ability to join arm-in-arm to advance common goals.
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