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Design 12201: William Francis Gibbs' Confidential Plans for the Record-Breaking SS United States

On February 6, 1946, naval architect William Francis Gibbs presented "Design 12201" to General John M. Franklin of United States Lines for the very first time. This ambitious plan, for the construction of the vessel that would become the SS United States, would change the course of maritime history — introducing the world to the fastest, safest and most advanced ocean liner ever constructed.

On March 13th, 1946, the United States Lines board approved "Design 12201," on the condition that the US Maritime Commission granted an acceptable construction subsidy. After years of negotiation, the Maritime Commission would ultimately agree to cover nearly 60% of the total cost for a vessel that would double as a Cold War naval asset; on May 5th, 1959, the contract to build the SS United States was formally signed with Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co.

High security at the Gibbs & Cox offices in New York as craftsmen put the finishing touches on the model known as "Design 12201." This model of America's newest superliner would be presented to the press on April 5th, 1948. Photographs courtesy of Time Inc.

Today, the plans for "Design 12201" can be found in the Rare Book collection of the Mariners' Museum Library in Newport News, VA, where the hefty tome has been split into slimmer volumes for ease of reading.

The first volume of the plan has been split into four smaller volumes, seen here.

Photographs courtesy of the Mariners' Museum.

A blog post by the Mariners' Museum describes the contents of the text:

"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."

The SS United States on her record-breaking 1952 maiden voyage. Courtesy of Arthur C. Taddei.

The incredible passion of SS United States designer William Francis Gibbs is also reflected in the level of detail included in his plans for the ship. The blog continues:

"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."

Read the full Mariners' Museum blog post on their website. Learn more about the top-secret designs for the SS United States HERE, or check out Popular Science's coverage of the vessel's sea trials in their May, 1952 issue.


The SS United States has always been a soaring symbol of ingenuity, innovation, and our nation's ability to join arm-in-arm to advance common goals.

Your support keeps America's Flagship safe as we chart a course towards her revitalization, and continue our vital work to preserve and honor the vessel's incredible legacy. Join the fight to save the Big U — make your donation today!

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