William Francis Gibbs (August 24, 1886 – September 6, 1967) was the man responsible for bringing the SS United States to life. A dogged proponent of the need for the United States of America to have a ship that would serve as an international flagship, the construction of the SS United States was the culmination of a brilliant career as a naval architect and designer.
Originally trained as a lawyer, Gibbs quickly left the field to follow his true passion, ship building, in 1915. Forming the company “Gibbs Brothers” (and later Gibbs and Cox in 1929) with his brother Frederic Gibbs serving as the business manager, the company began to quickly gain a reputation as a master in shipbuilding and design.
During the period between the world wars, Gibbs designed smaller liners and ships all the while improving on his ideas of design, propulsion and fireproofing. During World War II, 74 percent of all Navy vessels as well as over 60 percent of all Unites States mercantile ships were based on Gibbs & Cox’s designs.
After overcoming resistance in the Truman administration, Cox and Gibbs were awarded the contract to design and supervise the construction of the SS United States. This ship was the culmination of Gibbs career, and Gibbs relentlessly pursued the ideal of safety, speed and design.
Gibbs would often rise at dawn and have his chauffeur drive him out to Brooklyn so he could watch the ship as it returned from England, steaming through the Narrow and then drive over to Pier 82 in Manhattan to watch as she docked. To Gibbs this was more than a ship. It was an extension of himself and he took particular satisfaction in watching the ship in motion.
Gibbs passed away in 1967 as one of the ionic figures in American shipbuilding. The day after Gibbs died in 1967, the SS United States whistled a salute as she passed his Lower Manhattan office at Gibbs & Cox. The ship sailed for another two years before being taken out of service, a casualty of the ascendance of commercial jet aircraft.