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Architect icon William Francis Gibbs

William Francis Gibbs

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Any discussion on naval architecture is incomplete without the mention of architect William Francis Gibbs, we explore his life and work…

American architect and engineer William Francis Gibbs was famous for naval architecture and for designing cargo-carrying Liberty ships. He made many improvements in ship design and construction, notably in the passenger liner “United States”. He was born on August 24, 1886 in Philadelphia to financier William Warren Gibbs and Frances Ayres (Johnson) Gibbs.

He graduated from the DeLancey School in 1905 then entered Harvard College where he followed his own curriculum of science and engineering, studying plans of British battleships in his dormitory room. He left without a degree in 1910. He then attended Columbia Law School from 1911 to 1913, receiving a Bachelor of Law and Master of Arts in economics, both in 1913. At his father’s request, he practiced law for the next two years. While working as a lawyer, Gibbs visited the family home each weekend and, together with his brother Frederic Herbert Gibbs, began designs for a 1,000-foot (300 m) long ocean liner, each capable of producing 180,000 horsepower. 

In 1922 the Gibbs brothers won a contract to recondition the “Leviathan,” for which they organized their own firm. Success with that project led to further reconditioning work and finally to shipbuilding contracts. In 1927 Gibbs designed the “Malolo,” whose numerous watertight compartments provided an exceptionally high safety factor.

During the war, Gibbs & Cox created plans for thousands of American warships and cargo vessels, including destroyers, LST landing craft, minesweepers, tankers, cruisers, and Liberty ships. Between 1940 through 1946, 63 per cent of all merchant ships of 2,000 tons up and 74 per cent of all American naval vessels (destroyers, landing craft, escort carriers, etc.) were built to the designs or working plans of Gibbs & Cox. 

After the war, the Gibbs brothers were among the promoters for the US government and military to subsidize the construction and operation of a new 1,000-foot ocean liner. After overcoming resistance in the Truman administration for government involvement and competing designs, Gibbs & Cox was awarded the contract to design and supervise the construction of the SS United States. This ship was the culmination of Gibbs career, and he was fastidious in the incorporation of fire safety concepts, to the point that the United States surpassed most present day passenger ships in fire prevention and containment. 

The design was also revolutionary in the use of lightweight materials and construction techniques, including a welded hull and aluminum superstructure. While rivaling the largest liners for physical size, she was much lighter, enabling higher speeds. The United States entered service in 1952, after five years of design and 28 months of construction. 

In 1953 Gibbs was awarded the Franklin Institute’s Franklin Medal. In 1955 he was awarded the first Elmer A. Sperry Award. 

He died in New York City on September 6, 1967, two weeks after his 81st birthday.

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