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Innovative Design: The Famous Funnels of the SS United States

The SS United States' magnificent red, white and blue "sampan" funnels remain the tallest ever to be installed on a ship — at 65 feet they are themselves as tall as a 6-story building. Today, learn more about their innovative design:

Can you spot the differences between the iconic red, white and blue funnels of the SS United States (top) and SS America? Photograph courtesy of Jane Schuling.

Preventing fumes on deck from ships' funnels has always been a headache for the designers of ocean liners. Although it was proven that William Francis Gibbs' streamlined funnel design — used previously on the SS Santa Rosa, her three sister ships and the SS America — was also suitable for the great SS United States, some minor changes were made in order to improve the final result. This new design involved modifying the angle of the funnels' fins, making them parallel to the ship’s keel and not raked aft, as in all of Gibbs’ previous designs.

Wind tunnel tests prior to the vessel's construction further proved that the fins' rotation would direct the smoke fumes upward and aft, thanks to the strong wind currents created by at the trailing edge of the now horizontal fin design. The result was that decks remained virtually smoke free, as never before achieved on a liner. The man responsible of this successful idea was not Mr. Gibbs himself, but a Newport News Shipyard apprentice named Howard E. Lee Jr., who, as result of his experience with building and flying model airplanes, decided to apply the concept of ‘lift’ associated with airfoils to shipbuilding.

Top: images from the construction of the Big U's impressive funnels. Bottom: Howard E. Lee Jr. (on left) observes the smoke trail of the SS United States' funnels during a wind tunnel test.

Not only did the design of the SS United States' funnels serve to deflect engine exhaust away from passengers on deck, their angle lends the impression of motion and suggests a determination to race. The funnels are also asymmetrical, with the aft-most funnel marginally smaller than the fore-most. The proportions of the iconic painted stripes similarly differ: forward, the funnel is 75% red, 10% white and 15% blue; the aft-most funnel is 70.8% red, 11.7% white, and 17.5% blue.

Can't get enough of the SS United States? CLICK HERE to learn more about the vessel's innovative design, or HERE to check out the breathtaking panoramic views from atop the famous funnels of America's Flagship.


While they remain in fantastic structural condition, the funnels of the SS United States have a weather-worn appearance at the vessel's current Philadelphia berth. Why doesn't the Conservancy repaint the funnels? CLICK HERE to find out.

For more answers to frequently asked questions about the SS United States and the Conservancy, you can read our full FAQ summary. Additionally, you can always drop us a line at

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