Today, we watch an amateur build 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 created them.
Author James Chiles notes
that the United States built only two freighters
between 1922 and 1937. Our merchant shipbuilding
was nearly dead on the eve of WW-II, and the Axis
nations were torpedoing allied ships off the
surface of the ocean. England in particular needed
ships, and they needed them right away.
To make matters worse, allied shipbuilders were
hopelessly preoccupied with warships. Somebody
would have to start making freighters from scratch.
In 1940 the English were desperate enough to turn
to an American group of heavy-construction
companies led by Henry Kaiser, who'd never built
any sort of ship.
The English carried with them the plans for a kind
of generic freighter -- functional, not fancy.
Kaiser had neither workers nor shipyards with which
to make these ships. But 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 components and prefabrication so that each
worker had to learn only a small piece of the job.
Did he need heavy equipment to cut metal plate? No
matter. He simply used oxyacetylene torches. In one
case, he cut the time it took to train novices to
tightrope across steel structures by hiring ballet
dancers as fitters.
Kaiser redefined shipbuilding to match his
resources. For the first time, he did it with
assembly-line techniques -- interchangeable parts
on a gigantic scale. His product, the Liberty Ship,
was 440 feet long, and it carried 9,000 tons of
cargo. The first one came off the ways just after
Pearl Harbor. During 1942 ships were launched
within less than a month -- then in just ten days
-- and finally one was launched after just four
days' time. Kaiser ate steel so rapidly that he had
to set up his own mill.
Behind all the schoolboy excitement lay a darker
side. We produced 11 million tons of shipping in
1942, but submarines sank 12 million tons. In 1943
we raised that to 20 million tons of shipping, and
we prevailed. The Liberty ship saved us.
Kaiser's genius lay in his freedom of mind. By
holding shipbuilding up to the clear light of
amateur scrutiny, he brought it into the twentieth
century. But what he did was rooted in a powerful
common purpose, and that purpose ended with the
war. First Japan, and now Korea, have claimed
Kaiser's legacy and built on his methods. And now
they dominate world shipbuilding.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds