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SS United States Design

Name: SS United States (nickname Big U, radio callsign KJEH)

Owner: United States Line

Builder: Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co.; Newport News, VA

Launched: 23-June-1951

In Service: 1952-1969

Maiden Voyage: 3-July-1952 (New York City, USA –> Le Havre, France –> Southampton, England)

Final Voyage: 1-November-1969 (Bremerhaven, Germany –> Southampton, England –> New York City, USA)

Tonnage: 53,330 GRT

Dimensions: Length 990 feet, Beam 102 feet, Height 175 feet, Draught 32 feet

Propulsion: Four Steam Turbines (double reduction geared) - 240,000 shp; 4 propellors (18’ dia., 13 tons)

Speed: typical 35 knots (40 mph), maximum 38 knots (44 mph)

Passenger Capacity: 1,930 total: 871 first, 508 cabin and 551 tourist class

Wartime Troop Capacity: 15,000

Crew: 900

Eventual Fate: Currently docked at Pier 82 on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, PA.

Owned by The SS United States Conservancy, dedicated to preserving the ship, see

Ship Designer William Francis Gibbs

The design goal was to be the fastest ship on the Atlantic while delivering comfort to passengers.  The propulsion system was designed by Elaine Scholley Kaplan, a rare female ship engineer in the 1940/50s.  She solved the design conflict of high speed with low vibration by using different inboard (5-bladed) and outboard (4-bladed) propeller designs. 

Dorothy Marckwald & Anne Urquhart

Dorothy Marckwald & Anne Urquhart

The SS United States was designed by William Francis Gibbs of Gibbs & Cox Co.  It was built jointly with the US Navy as a dual-purpose ocean liner and troop transport.  The total cost was $78MM ($880M in 2023 dollars).  The US Government paid approx. $50M and the United States Lines the remainder.  To serve its dual purpose the ship was heavily compartmentalized and had two separate engine rooms.  It was the largest ocean liner ever constructed in the United States.

William Gibbs was obsessed with the risk of fire at sea and required every element of the ship to be fireproof.  Everything above the hull was made of aluminum, it was the greatest use of aluminum in a single project at the time.  Even the coat hangers were aluminum.  Gibbs wanted the grand pianos to be aluminum as well but the Steinway Company convinced him their mahogany pianos would not burn by dousing one with gasoline and setting it on fire.  It did not burn after the gasoline burned out. 

Ship Design Engineer, Elaine Scholley Kaplan

Elaine Scholley Kaplan

With the requirement to be fireproof, Dorothy Marckwald & Anne Urquhart had their hands full with the interior design.  In the final design, the ship had 9,500 square yards of carpet in 15 different colors/patterns.  There were 3,700 pieces of portable furniture with 55 different upholstery fabrics and 35 different curtain/spread fabrics.  The cinema sat 350 first or cabin class passengers.  The wall murals were created by Constance Smith

William Francis Gibbs

SS United States Main Stairway
Constance Smith

Constance Smith

SS United States Main Dining Room

The passengers ate well!  There were 3 galleys that could serve 9000 meals per day.  For many of its sailings the Head Chef was Otto Bismarck who oversaw 160 chefs.  There were 142 items on the breakfast menu alone.  A typical dinner menu would offer 4 soups, 9 entrees, 2 fish options, 4 main courses, 6 vegetables and 12 desserts.   The evaporators could produce 200,000 gallons of fresh water per day.

SS United States microwave oven
Chef Otto Bismarck

The United States was the first ocean liner to have microwave ovens.  

The ship carried more than 15,000 glasses and 18,000 plates.  For a typical voyage 600,000 pounds of food would be loaded that included:

  • Over 200 pounds of caviar

  • 11,000 pounds of prime ribs of beef

  • 15,000 lb. of poultry

  • Almost 72,000 eggs (more than 6,000 dozen)

  • 2,000 pounds of cheese

  • More than 12,000 quarts of milk,


The passengers were not at risk of being thirsty either.  Some typical beverage amounts consumed on a voyage included:

  • More than 300 bottles of champagne

  • More than 750 bottles of wine

  • Almost 10,000 bottles of beer

  • Another 25 barrels of beer

  • 1,400 bottles of whiskey, liqueurs, etc.

  • 5,500 bottles of Coke, Ginger Ale, etc.


The ship had 3 sets of linen.  One set was on board the ship, one set was at the laundry in Southampton, England and one set was at the laundry in New York, USA.  A set consisted of 360,000 pieces of linen with approximately 200,000 pieces being used on a voyage.  The linen included 21 different table cloth sizes, 13 different sheet sizes and 18 sizes of paper doilies.

Passengers could bring onboard all the hand luggage they could carry plus 25 cubic feet of steamer trunks.  The ship could carry up to 43 cars being shipped by passengers.

On its maiden voyage eastbound in 1952 the Big U broke the Queen Mary’s crossing record and won the Blue Riband trophy in a time of 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes with an average speed of 35.6 kts (41 mph).  On her return trip westbound she also bested the Queen Mary’s record with a time of 3 days, 12 hours and 12 minutes averaging 34.5 kts (39.7 mph).  The ship holds the record to this day.  On that first voyage, a ticket cost $350 in first class and $165 in tourist

The Blue Riband Trophy 1935

Photos courtesy of the SS United States Conservancy, Wiki Commons

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