Today, an amateur builds ships. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The United States built only
two ocean-going, dry-cargo freighters between 1922
and 1937. Historian James Chiles tells how our
merchant shipbuilding was nearly dead in the water
on the eve of WW-II. All the Allied shipbuilders
were hopelessly committed to warships, and Axis
nations were torpedoing merchant vessels off the
surface of the sea. Great Britain in particular was
in desperate straits. Without cargo ships, she
couldn't hold out. Someone clearly had to start
making freighters from scratch.
In 1940 the British turned to a group of American
construction companies out of whom Henry Kaiser
emerged as a leader. He'd worked on Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams, but
never any sort of ship. The British carried plans
for a lowest-common-denominator freighter -- the
sort of simple steam-powered merchant ship you'd
expect to see in a 1930s movie, set on a foggy
Kaiser had neither workers nor shipyards. But more
than any of the builders, he turned his lack of
preparation to remarkable advantage. Did it take
years to train a well-rounded shipbuilder? Fine. He
rearranged work so he didn't need well-rounded
people. He broke shipbuilding into prefabricated
components so each worker had to learn only a piece
of the job. Did he need heavy equipment to cut
metal plate? No matter. He used oxyacetylene
torches. He replaced rivets with welding. He even
cut the time it took to train novices to tightrope
across steel structures by hiring ballet dancers as
Kaiser redefined shipbuilding to match his
resources. He introduced assembly-line techniques
-- interchangeable parts on a gigantic scale. Ford
had tried that in WW-I and failed. But Ford had
tried to build an avant-garde torpedo boat.
There was nothing remotely new about Kaiser's
product, the famed Liberty Ship. It was only
440 feet long, and it carried 8,500 tons of cargo.
The first one was launched just after Pearl Harbor.
Soon the Kaiser yards were building Liberty Ships
in a month -- then in ten days. Finally they
finished one in just four-and-a-half days.
Kaiser ate steel so fast he had to set up his own
Behind the schoolboy excitement lay a dark side. We
produced eleven million tons of shipping in
1942, but submarines sank twelve million
tons. The next year we raised that to twenty
million tons of shipping, and we prevailed. The
Liberty Ship saved us.
The Liberty Ship shows what happens when war drives
technology. When Kaiser held shipbuilding up to the
clear light of his amateur scrutiny, it wasn't ship
design that profited. His work, rooted in a
powerful common purpose, redefined
But, toward the end of the twentieth century, it
was Asia that went on to claim Kaiser's
shipbuilding legacy. America's shipyards no longer
dominate the world. And, today, only two Liberty
Ships survive. They've become floating memorials to
that time when first-rate people built and sailed
in second-rate ships -- and saved the world.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Chiles, J. R., The Ships That Broke Hitler's
Blockade. American Heritage of Invention &
Technology, Vol. 3, No. 3, Winter 1988 pp. 26-32,
Empires of Industry: Victory at Sea, Mass
Producing Liberty, (The History Channel, Video)
New York: A&E Television Networks, 1996.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 91.
In March, 2009, Charles Moore, grandson of a major builder of Liberty Ship
engines, sent the following You-Tube recreation of a speech by his grandfather.
It really captures the mood and intensity of the Liberty Ship builders
of that time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IMoDsnoSWc
The two remaining liberty ships are the Jeremiah
O'Brien and the John. W. Brown. Neither of these
were built by Kaiser, although they are of the same
basic design. To visit the John W. Brown site,
click on the image below:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.