The "Most Famous Ship that Didn't Sink": The SS United States vs. The Titanic
The most famous ship in history is unquestionably the RMS Titanic. The ill-fated luxury liner inspired countless books, poems, songs, and movies after striking an iceberg on April 14, 1912, and taking 1,500 passengers to a watery grave. Today, over 100 years after her sinking, the Titanic continues to capture the minds of millions, even though the era of the great Atlantic passenger liners is long behind us.
The SS United States, however, remains as a floating reminder of this earlier time. Like the Titanic, the SS United States was built to carry passengers across the Atlantic. Both were the largest ships built in their respective countries at the time, and both had first-class passenger lists filled with the world's famous. But it is the differences between the two that make the SS United States even more impressive.
The RMS Titanic. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The RMS Titanic was the largest moving object in the world in 1912, but there is a common misconception that the Titanic was the largest ship ever built — it was just one month after Titanic's sinking that a larger passenger ship was launched. In contrast, the SS United States is 990 feet long from stem to stern, over 100 feet longer than the Titanic. If you stood the SS United States on one end, she'd be the 5th tallest building in New York City. Today the SS United States remains the largest passenger ship ever built in America.
The SS United States. Photograph courtesy of Charles Anderson
The Titanic, despite what some film accounts implied, was not built for speed. The Titanic's intended speed would have brought her from Southampton, England to New York in five and a half days. The SS United States, however, was built to break all speed records, and on her maiden voyage made the transatlantic run in just three and a half days. Considering her size, imagine the Chrysler Building barreling across the ocean at over 40 miles per hour! Today, no other passenger ship has crossed the Atlantic faster both ways.
Sparse lifeboats aboard the RMS Titanic. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Many lessons learned in Titanic's sinking influenced the design of the SS United States. Both ships had double bottoms, but the United States' extended up along the sides of the hull so that a scrape along the side, like Titanic's iceberg collision, would only cause minimal damage. They both had watertight compartments to control flooding — but Titanic's only extended 10 feet above the waterline, so that when her bow began to dip, water began spilling into the next compartment until the entire ship flooded. The SS United States had compartments that extended 40 feet above the waterline, and she had 20 of them as opposed to the Titanic's 16. The SS United States even had a "redundant" engine room, so that if one of her engine rooms flooded, the other could still operate and generate electricity for the ship.
The Titanic also split in two, along one of her "expansion joints" — small seams in her steel superstructure that allowed the ship to flex in rough seas. In the unlikely event that the SS United States were to suffer catastrophic damage, the ship would not break in two because her superstructure was made of aluminum — much more flexible than steel and not requiring any expansion joints.
Aluminum lifeboats aboard the SS United States. Photograph courtesy of Don Stoltenberg.
Many ships of Titanic's era were also destroyed by fire, rather than collision damage. Taking this into account, the SS United States was built almost completely fireproof. Utilizing many new materials invented for use in World War II, it was said that on board this new ship the only wood was found in the "piano and the butcher's block." The Steinway & Sons wooden piano was even built out of a rare fire-resistant wood. According to legend, the ship's designers were only convinced after Theodore Steinway demonstrated by dousing the piano in gasoline and setting it alight.
The Titanic is famous because the tragedy of her sinking was the greatest the world had ever seen. The incident-free SS United States, on the other hand, is one of the greatest engineering feats in history and one of the last classic ocean liners left from this "golden age of travel."
In a 2012 USA Today article, Conservancy executive director Susan Gibbs notes:
"Today, the Big U quietly warns us that time, tide and complacency can threaten even our most awe-inspiring patriotic symbols.The Titanic and the SS United States both embodied their nation's loftiest aspirations. But only one of these legendary vessels can still be saved for future generations. Once the Titanic memorials, movies and television shows become a memory, we have a chance to save our own history."
America's Flagship has always been a soaring symbol of ingenuity, innovation, and the nation's ability to join arm-in-arm to advance common goals. It is inconceivable that she has endured all of these years, only to be lost now.