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The Thrall Of The Blue Riband

Winter 1996 | Volume 11 |  Issue 3

THE ICONOGRAPHY OF AMERICAN SHIPPING HISTORY IS dominated by three images: the Western riverboat, all gingerbread and flying sparks, churning down the Mississippi; the classic square-rigger, taut canvas everywhere, on a reach somewhere beyond Cape Horn; and the rakish luxury liner, with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, surrounded by fire-boats saluting the capture of the Blue Riband of the Atlantic—the mythic reward for the fastest crossing, usually between the Scilly Isles or Cherbourg and Ambrose Lightship off the coast of New Jersey. The power of these images has evoked countless episodes of historical romance.

There is an essential difference, however, between the first two and the third. We assume the riverboat and the square-rigger to have been made in the United States and to be flying the Stars and Stripes. This is less likely for the transatlantic liner, which was usually launched abroad and most often flew the Union Jack, or perhaps a German, French, or Italian flag. While a New York berth seems necessary to their proper context, such storied liners as the Mauretania , the Normandie , and the Queen Mary were foreign to these shores.

A few glamorous pacesetters, it’s true, were exceptions to this rule: The United States in the 1950s and, a century before it, the American-built Atlantic , Pacific , and Baltic were famous for luxury as well as record-breaking speed. But not for profitability. As with almost any great Atlantic liner, be it the 1850s or the 1950s, overt or hidden subsidies were necessary to make them pay. The multinational quest for the Blue Riband illustrates how our technological world is populated by romantic sorts who love designing, building, and controlling (or at least bragging about) the biggest, the most powerful, and the fastest—people who are fascinated by the very idea of breaking records. In certain technological realms things tend to get expensive, and there are always enthusiasts who seek to minimize private risk, armed with a rationale hinging on military preparedness or national pride.

NECESSITY AND THE PROFIT MOTIVE cannot nearly explain why men and nations spent more than a century building ever larger, faster, and more elaborate ocean liners
NOTHING SMALLER for sleeping in was ever made except coffins,” wrote Charles Dickens about his Britannia cabin.”

WHEN GOV. RONALD Reagan of California argued in 1971 that the Mach 3 supersonic transport (SST) was “essential to America’s continued leadership,” when Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York speaks in similar terms today on behalf of magnetic lévitation, they perpetuate a tradition that seeks to divorce exciting transportation technologies from the mundane constraints of market forces. It’s entirely possible for private interests to set records in ballooning, say, or auto racing; indeed, government intervention would probably stifle the spirit of individualism that causes such sports to flourish. For large-scale projects, by contrast, the investment needed to stay on top can greatly outweigh the potential financial reward. That was as true a century and a half ago as it is today.

Of course, there was a time when every sort of maritime enterprise attracted risk capital, including the halcyon days when clippers sped Argonauts to California and Australia via the Strait of Magellan. Before that, mariners had sailed into the South China Sea in quest of exotic trade goods, and later, masters of stout whaleships had explored the Pacific to its highest latitudes, while schooners plied coastwise trades. Even after the First World War, shipyards Down East were still christening wooden schooners, and New Bedford, Massachusetts, was still sending forth whalers. But whaling and coasting were pursuits analogous to those that now sustain the railroads. Besides capacity for sheer bulk, not much else was important—not a finely honed schedule, and certainly not speed.

It was quite different when Americans first began to compete in global commerce. Then prosperity was intimately linked to success in overseas trade, with success and speedy passage usually synonymous. In the first years after independence, speed was perforce the main line of defense for a merchant marine that had no fighting navy for protection and was always getting caught up in one foreign war or another. Shipyards on Chesapeake Bay turned out a distinctive topsail schooner that was fast and agile. This design was dubbed the Baltimore clipper, and it proved ideal for running blockades, privateering, and smuggling. Its heyday came early in the nineteenth century, during the Napoleonic Wars and our own War of 1812.

At the same time, fleets of full-rigged ships were coming down the ways in major port cities along the Atlantic coast. Most important were the packets, so called because their cargo included packets of mail. After a stable peace was finally established among the United States, Britain, and France, American packets launched a revolution in the transatlantic carrying trade with the establishment of regularly scheduled service. We can be quite exact about the beginning: It was at 10:00 A.M. on January 5, 1818, when the James Monroe , operated by a New York firm called the Black Ball Line, set sail for Liverpool precisely as had been announced more than two months before. In the past, passengers for transatlantic destinations had stood in wait for cargo vessels that would depart only when fully laden. Black Ball packets sailed “on their Appointed Days, full or not full.”

This proved to be a feature for which people would pay handsomely (the fare, wine with meals included, could be as much as two hundred dollars), and the Black Ball Line prospered even as the inevitable competitors appeared. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s American packet companies scheduled comfortable, punctual service, in every way the best there was. By the mid-1840s more than fifty transatlantic packets were sailing out of New York alone.

The concept of a definite schedule applied only to departures, not arrivals. Even though a packet line could guarantee regularity of time of sailing, it was impossible to tell passengers exactly when they would complete their voyage. There was seldom much delay on the eastbound passage, one of the great “downhill” runs on any ocean. Beating westward was another story; making port in the face of adverse winds sometimes stretched the duration of a voyage to eight weeks.

SO IT WAS THAT AMERICAN MARitime entrepreneurs flirted with another innovation. Perhaps the best of all vessels, it was thought, would be a packet with a full complement of sails for use in good breezes, plus an auxiliary steam engine to keep on schedule when nature proved contrary. The idea was put to the test with the Savannah in 1819, just a year after the James Monroe first set sail on schedule. Unfortunately, the Savannah ’s engine, boiler, and coal bunkers usurped too much of the cargo capacity, and the advantage of staying on schedule could not offset the attendant losses in revenue.

For two decades after 1818, American sailing packets were the unchallenged aristocrats of the ocean lanes. Nothing lasts forever, though, and the first intimation that they were headed for their long account came on April 23, 1838, when a British sidewheel steamship named Sirius arrived in New York. It was the first ship to cross the Atlantic entirely by steam power. (See “The Annihilation of Time and Space,” Invention & Technology , Spring/Summer 1991.) More such “teakettles” followed, larger than the American packets and considerably faster. Stiff competition began to materialize after 1840, when a Nova Scotian named Samuel Cunard put four British-registered sidewheelers on the Liverpool-Halifax-Boston run.

The Scottish engineer Robert Napier designed Cunard’s ships, which were named Britannia , Acadia , Caledonia , and Columbia . Each was 207 feet long and could accommodate 115 passengers along with 225 tons of cargo. However austere the accommodations may have been—“nothing smaller for sleeping in was ever made except coffins,” wrote Charles Dickens about his cabin on the Britannia —before the decade was out Cunard’s British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company was scheduling forty-four transatlantic voyages annually. Schedules specified both time of departure and time of arrival. At the end of 1847 Cunard liners began calling at New York, home port for nearly all the American sailing packet companies. The gauntlet was down.

In addition to their advanced engineering, Cunard’s steamers pointed toward the future with the economics of their operation. For the first time in the history of transatlantic shipping, a line was not tied to the tariffs it collected for transporting passengers and cargo to cover its operating expenses. Crucial to Cunard’s profits were the rent-free terminal facilities provided by port cities eager for the business his ships would bring—and, more important, Cunard’s mail subsidy (60,000 a year at first) from the British government, a subsidy he obtained despite objections in Parliament to his Canadian citizenship. Naturally Americans pressed for a similar privilege from Washington, and soon enough Congress passed a measure authorizing the Postmaster General to contract for carrying mail abroad at premium rates. Speed and reliability were essential, so steam power was the only choice.

The first American company to inaugurate transatlantic steam service was the Ocean Steam Navigation Company, connecting New York and Bremen, Germany, by way of Cowes, England. The company received a subsidy of $200,000 a year (which was often reduced when the line could not fulfill its quota of twelve roundtrips) to carry the mails to Europe. June 1, 1847, marked the maiden voyage of the Bremen line’s Washington ; a sister ship, Hermann , made her maiden voyage the following March. Both ships were huge, ugly, and poorly designed for transatlantic service. Another line got a $150,000 annual government grant for service between New York and Le Havre, but everyone knew where the real challenge lay: New York to Liverpool, by far the busiest of all transoceanic routes. To take that on would be to confront Cunard directly.

THE CHALLENGE WAS FIRST accepted by none other than the venerable Black Ball Line, which sent a Liverpoolbound steamship out of New York on April 8, 1848, almost exactly a decade after the Sirius had steamed in. A rude reception awaited it in England: Parliament’s largess had permitted Cunard to cut his rates by half. Black Ball could not face up and soon left the business.

Better prepared to fight it out was Edward Knight Collins, who had started out operating sailing packets between New York and Veracruz in the 1820s. In 1836 he organized one of the great transatlantic sailing-packet companies, the Dramatic Line (so called because its ships were named after playwrights and actors). Quick to perceive what competition from Cunard would mean, Collins began lobbying Congress to subsidize steamships to Liverpool as early as 1841, twisting the lion’s tail effectively by decrying the British monopoly on a mail service that amounted to some three million letters annually. Six years later Congress awarded Collins’s New York and Liverpool United States Mail Steamship Company a $385,000 subsidy to make twenty roundtrips a year with a fleet of five ships.

Collins spent the first installment of the subsidy to begin construction of four large wooden side-wheelers, with a fifth to follow eventually. In April 1850 the 284-foot Atlantic commenced service, to be followed quickly by the Pacific , Arctic , and Baltic . These ships reflected an extravagant spirit that was absent in Cunard’s utilitarian fleet. Gross tonnage was well over twice as great, and with steam heat, stainedglass skylights, and even barbershops, they were the most finely appointed ocean liners in the world. With huge 96-by-112-inch cylinders working at seventeen pounds of steam pressure (Cunarders worked at thirteen), they were capable of more than thirteen knots, making them definitely the fastest as well.

THE ADRIATIC ’S FIRST voyage took place in a financial panic. Crewmen outnumbered passengers four to one.

MINOR MISHAPS SLOWED the Atlantic ’s maiden crossing to thirteen days, but a few months later she crossed in ten days, eleven hours, eclipsing Cunard’s record and surpassing the typical times of the sailing packets by more than a week. In the Mersey the crews of British sailing vessels canted the yards in mourning. Not long afterward the Pacific became the first ship to cross the Atlantic in less than ten days. The best ever for a Collins liner was the Baltic ’s nine days, seventeen hours.

Nine days, ten, or thirteen, it didn’t make much difference in rational terms. But rationality was irrelevant. Americans, New Yorkers especially, loved the competition with Cunard, treating it as a delicious sporting rivalry and gloating understandably when a British naval captain who had arrived aboard the Baltic raved about her “poetry of motion.”

While this sort of thing was ideal for inflating national pride, in truth the Collins Line was shaky from the start, even with its lavish government stipend. Its liners could carry two hundred passengers, nearly twice as many as a Cunarder, but had less cargo capacity and were much more costly to operate. To sustain his operation, Collins needed an even more generous handout. With economic arguments for an increased subsidy looking weaker all the time, he decided to wrap himself in the flag. In petitioning Congress, Collins and his associates emphasized “the national character of the enterprise.” They had “not been content to regard it as a commercial speculation,” they said, “but have considered ourselves embarked in a contest of maritime skill and superiority.”

Such rhetoric was effective, and a Senate committee reported out a bill to pay Collins $33,000 per roundtrip for eight years at twenty-six trips per year. A prolonged uproar ensued, with congressional opponents calling the scheme a swindle and contending that Collins had squandered his initial sum by chasing meaningless speed records. In the end the bill passed, more than doubling Collins’s annual subsidy, to $858,000. Still, a shadow hung over the enterprise: The legislation provided that the subsidy could be cut back on short notice, and there was no certainty of continued political support.

Much worse was in store. The Arctic sank after a collision in 1854 (taking Collins’s wife and a son and daughter with her), and in the enigmatic expression of mariners, the Pacific “went missing” in 1856. The combined death toll was more than five hundred, and rumors spread about the ruinous combination of powerful engines, high speeds, and wooden hulls. Since the best guess about the Pacific was that she had struck an iceberg, public confidence proved hard to recoup when passengers continued to report close calls with ice even in the summertime. As a replacement for his lost ships Collins bought the Ericsson (see page 34), whose hot-air engines had been converted to steam, but it was too small and slow to meet the terms of his contract with the government, and he sold it to the Bremen line after a year and a half.

For those who relished the notion of the North Atlantic as a great colossal raceway, the Collins Line’s status plunged even further in 1856, when Cunard’s new iron-hulled Persia cut more than sixteen hours off the record. (That the Persia survived a collision with an iceberg on her maiden voyage, at almost the exact time the Pacific disappeared, also spoke to the comparative virtues of wooden and iron hulls.)

Collins rose to meet Cunard’s challenge. Toward the end of 1857, at a cost of more than a million dollars, he completed his long-awaited fifth liner, the Adriatic. She was much larger than the others, 344 feet long with 376 passenger spaces. With engines from Stillman, Alien & Co.'s Novelty Iron Works and a wooden hull designed by George Steers, who had also designed the schooner-yacht America (with which the United States had first established pre-eminence in international yacht racing), she had spectacular speed. In trials the Adriatic made as much as eighteen knots, nearly 50 percent faster than the first Collins liners, and Collins counted on buoying his prestige by recapturing the record from Cunard.

The Adriatic was capable, but she was terribly expensive to operate, and a crying need to economize on fuel precluded her from challenging for the Blue Riband. Her maiden voyage took place amidst a financial panic. There were thirty-eight passengers aboard, less than one-quarter the number of crewmen. With the nation’s economy foundering, congressional enthusiasm for a “transatlantic postage tax” had evaporated.

In Washington the government was claiming that Collins owed penalties for breach of contract: Instead of the agreed-upon five ships, he had only three. Collins disagreed, but whatever the truth, he had virtually no sympathizers. In the wake of the Panic of 1857 and a deepening sectional crisis, Congress cut off all its shipping subsidies. That spelled doom for the Collins Line. The Adriatic completed a second voyage in early 1858; then, after the Baltic made port in New York in mid-February, the Collins Line expired. At an auction on behalf of creditors, who presented debts totaling more than $750,000, the Atlantic , Baltic , and Adriatic brought a total of $50,000. The Atlantic and Baltic went on to serve as troopships in the Civil War; the Adriatic worked sporadically for two foreign transatlantic lines, then was gutted of her machinery and made several voyages to San Francisco under sail before ultimately rotting away at Bonny, in what is now Nigeria.

WITHOUT THE SUPPORT OF Congress, American capitalists were quite reluctant to join in the drama of the ocean liner.

WHEN COLLINS DECLARED bankruptcy, some recalled the prediction of a British writer named Dionysius Lardner, back in 1835, that the operation of transatlantic steamships would never be profitable. He was probably right, if the main idea was to pursue speed records. Since mid-century, however, a firm called the Liverpool, New York, and Philadelphia Steamship Company had been run successfully by a British entrepreneur, one William Inman, with no subsidy at all. Inman’s ships were neither luxurious nor fast, but they were usually filled—with immigrants in steerage, a trade that Collins had simply defaulted to the sailing-packet companies.

Seeing how profitable the immigrant trade could be, Cunard began carrying third-class passengers in the 1860s. In 1873 it was joined by the American Line, a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad that was also sometimes known as the Keystone Line. It sailed between Liverpool and Philadelphia with a stop at Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland. With that one exception, however, outside of a few brief and unsuccessful ventures in the late 1860s, American capitalists remained wary. The nation’s once-proud transatlantic shipping industry, so recently famed worldwide for the speed and elegance of its vessels, was reduced to a single minor line ferrying Europe’s huddled masses across the sea in lumbering tubs of dreadful squalor.

Not until the 1890s, three and a half decades after the Collins Line went bankrupt, did the winds of American politics again blow favorably for transatlantic steamships, with the reinstitution of a congressional mail subsidy. It was awarded to a new firm called the American Line (a reorganized successor to the old line of that name), which owned two elegant Brit- ish-built ships named City of Paris and City of New York . Soon after the turn of the century, with the industry seemingly on the rebound, J. P. Morgan took an interest. After a memorable decade in which he had put together General Electric and U.S. Steel, Morgan organized another trust called the International Mercantile Marine (IMM) Company, capitalized at $120 million.

The IMM either controlled or had working agreements with most of the North Atlantic carriers, the only major exceptions being Cunard and the French Line. Its passenger service included the American Line and the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, founded in Liverpool in 1869 by Thomas Ismay and popularly known as the White Star Line. Even though White Star vessels remained in British registry, they sailed for the IMM for nearly a quarter of a century, with the Teutonic and Majestic being perennial contenders for the Blue Riband.

SINCE THE DEMISE OF THE COL lins Line, the Blue Riband had mostly been traded back and forth by a small group of British lines. In 1897, however, even as America was making its hesitant return, another country entered the fray when the British rivals were trumped by Germany’s Norddeutscher Lloyd Line with its Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse . Britain’s response was in the true spirit of the competition: It authorized a direct payment to Cunard to build two turbine-propelled quadruple-screw liners capable of twenty-five knots: the Lusitania and the Mauretania , both completed in 1907.

With huge ships like the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse , the size of reciprocating marine engines had been pushed to the practical limit. The new Cunarders were powered by steam turbines, an invention of the British engineer Charles Parsons, which had a more favorable power-to-weight ratio, were nearly free of vibration, and cost much less to maintain.

The Lusitania , Mauretania , and other liners launched during the decade before the First World War—among them the ill-fated Titanic —were far larger, faster, and more luxurious than any built previously. Several dozen ships had held the Blue Riband in the nearly seventy years since the Britannia ’s first crossing, but after the Mauretania won the title in 1907, it would not be bested for twenty-two years.

Despite growing patronage from a monied clientele, the profitability of the business was still chancy. Without the enthusiastic support of Congress, American capitalists were reluctant to join in the drama of the luxury liner. The two American Line vessels, plus a pair of similar ships launched in 1895 for the same company, the St. Louis and the St. Paul , remained the only large passenger vessels under the Stars and Stripes as the world went to war.

AFTER COLLINS, NO SHIP sailing under the Stars and Stripes challenged for the Blue Riband until after World War II.

After the armistice, however, the U.S. government suddenly found itself with one of the largest fleets of passenger vessels anywhere—two dozen newly completed but superfluous troopships, as well as some thirty liners of assorted sizes that had formerly sailed under the colors of Imperial Germany. Most notable was the Vaterland , launched in 1914 as the flagship of Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt A.G., the world’s largest shipping company. The Vaterland was the world’s largest liner as well, with an overall length of 950 feet and a gross tonnage of 54,282. (By comparison, tonnage of the Collins Line’s Adriatic was 3,670, and the Black Ball Line’s James Monroe was 424.) There would be no substantially larger liners afloat until the Normandie and the Queen Mary took to the Atlantic sea-lanes in the mid-1950s with gross tonnages over 80,000.

ON AUGUST 1, 1914, THE VATER land was at New York on her third voyage when news arrived of the outbreak of hostilities in Europe. Far too valuable to risk a return trip, she remained berthed at Hoboken, New Jersey, for thirty-two months. On the day Congress declared war in April 1917, she was seized. Recommissioned as the Leviathan , she became the premier American troop transport, carrying some 200,000 soldiers to or from Europe.

At Versailles the Leviathan was declared a prize to the victors. After a great deal of anxious debate over her future, and the failure of a private enterprise called the United States Mail Steamship Company, Congress voted to put the government into the passenger-liner business—directly this time, rather than indirectly, as had been the case in the 1850s.

With the enormous task of reconditioning finally completed, the Leviathan sailed for England on July 4, 1923, as the flagship of the United States Lines. She was capable of twenty-three knots, not quite Blue Riband speed: Cunard’s Mauretania could make twenty-five, and its Aquitania , the French Line’s France, and White Star’s second Majestic (which had been launched as the Bismarck , a sister ship to the Vaterland ] all could make twenty-four. As overseas tourism boomed during the 1920s, the Leviathan provided outstanding accommodations, entertainment, and cuisine—but not liquor, because the strictures of Prohibition extended to American ships at sea.

JUST BEFORE AIRLINES ECLIPSED the luxury liner, a last act was played out with America’s largest passenger ship ever.

Partly for this reason, the Leviathan never did cover her costs, and fiscal conservatives made persistent efforts to consign her to private ownership. Finally, in 1930, she was sold to the IMM, along with two other vessels begun as troopships but finished as liners in the early 1920s, the President Harding and the President Roosevelt .

THE IMM, NO LONGER A multinational octopus, then changed its name to the United States Lines Company. In 1932 and 1933 it launched two new 705-foot liners, the Manhattan and the Washington . Along with the two Presidents, they maintained weekly sailings to Hamburg. They put in at Southampton on the return trip, but after the Leviathan was taken out of service in 1934, the United States Lines dropped out of direct competition with Cunard White Star (formed earlier that year from a merger of the two old rivals) for service to England. Nothing under the Stars and Stripes was capable of challenging for the Blue Riband, which in the decade after 1929 changed hands among the Norddeutscher Lloyd Line ( Bremen and Europa ], the Italian Line ( Rex ), the French Line ( Normandie ), and Cunard’s Queen Mary .

In 1940 the United States Lines began making cruises with the America , intended for the run to Southampton, which had replaced Liverpool as England’s premier transatlantic port. She was a fast ship, though no match for the Queen Mary or Cunard’s newer Queen Elizabeth (which was finished in 1940 but spent the war as a troopship, entering passenger service in 1946). The fall of France in June of that year put a halt to the races, and the America was recommissioned as a troopship, the USS West Point . She carried more than 400,000 soldiers to and from the European theater, doubling the Leviathan ’s tally of World War I.

Generously subsidized, like all the British and European liners, the America ultimately did go on the New York-Southampton run after the war, competing against Cunard’s Queens until the mid-1960s. Her sale to a Greek operator of cruise ships presaged the fate of many luxury liners, as airlines made transatlantic passenger ships an anachronism.

The inevitability of this development did not become obvious right away; it took a while for jet travel across oceans to become inexpensive enough, and generally accepted as safe enough, to be thought of as routine. When the shift did happen, it was all the more difficult for transatlantic passenger carriers to accept, since the 1950s and early 1960s had been especially prosperous. Just before the airlines eclipsed the luxury liner once and for all, a last act was played that involved the largest passenger ship ever built in the United States (53,330 tons, 990 feet), the most expensive, and definitely the fastest.

In 1946 William Francis Gibbs, who had directed the reconversion of the Leviathan in the 1920s, was commissioned to design a superliner for the United States Lines. Six years later the United States made her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. (See “The Big Ship,” Invention & Technology , Spring/ Summer 1990.) She covered the 2,949 nautical miles between Ambrose Light and Bishop Rock in the Scilly Isles in three days, ten hours, and forty minutes, cutting ten hours and two minutes off the record set by Cunard’s Queen Mary fourteen years earlier.

The Blue Riband had come back to the United States at last, and under circumstances that would ultimately prove ironic: The nation that had not held the prize in nearly a century might well hold it forever. Overseas flight, a curiosity just a generation earlier, would soon become the only way to cross.

NOBODY EVER DREAMED THAT the United States would amortize her $77 million price tag. Like the interstate highway system and so many similar projects of the latter half of the twentieth century, the initial cost was justified as a matter of Cold War strategy. As with the America and even the Collins liners, specifications for the United States stipulated that she be readily convertible to military tasks. But operating subsidies for a civilian enterprise stirred the same political rancor in the 1950s as they had a century before, and eventually opponents mustered the votes to have them withdrawn. There was no chance of her maintaining service while being held to the exigencies of the balance sheet, so in November 1969 the United States was laid up in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Priorities change; a few months before, the United States had landed a man on the moon.

The United States still sits idle more than a quarter-century later, having outlasted the America , which was scrapped in 1990. Various schemes for reusing her have been floated, but it’s certain that she will never again take to sea with paying customers. Conceivably the day may come when regular passenger service returns to the North Atlantic, but never with anything like the United States , whose 240,000 horsepower made her the most powerful conveyance ever built, excepting only rockets.

Superlatives like this remind us that historians are often tempted to cast narratives involving technology in terms of a set of comparisons over time that bespeak progress, as with the many contrasts drawn here regarding size and speed and power. Talk of 240,000 horsepower is likely to evoke a breathless “Gee whiz!” Yet the history of technology is ever so much richer than mere progress talk can reveal.

In our own time, as we have watched America’s steel industry slip into decrepitude and its automobile industry struggle as much as the railroads have struggled for most of a century, we rarely even think about the nation’s maritime enterprise, which has been in decline since before the Civil War. At no time between the 1860s and the 1940s was even half the nation’s commercial tonnage moved by its own ships, and now the proportion is in the single digits. This flight from the flag was accompanied by perpetual doldrums in shipbuilding as, in the absence of subsidies, the industry could prosper only in wartime. While dozens of great transatlantic liners were launched in Glasgow, Belfast, Liverpool, Hamburg, and Bremen, only a handful were ever made in the United States.

Likewise, American firms made only sporadic forays into the business of transporting transoceanic passengers on fast schedules—in the 1850s, the 1920s and 1930s, and the 1950s and 1960s. The industry’s very existence depended on persuading Washington to help out in one way or another: by providing operating subsidies, by assuming operation, or by shouldering construction costs as an element of global strategy. Often the logic of such policies was vulnerable. But we must not underestimate the power of technological enthusiasm, or forget how romantic urges can be harnessed by those who are properly persuasive.

The realm of transportation provides a rich source of evidence. At about the same time Congress was voting to fund the Collins Line, it also passed a special appropriation on behalf of the inventor of a “galvanic” locomotive said to be capable of traversing the western part of the continent, where fuel and water were scarce. Or consider trolley cars, condemned as hopelessly outmoded and scrapped by the thousands in the 1950s, which have now returned as fashionable “light rail vehicles.” President Clinton has even floated a trial balloon about reviving the SST.

The trick is to inspire the imagination of politicians. In the 1850s governmental favor rendered it feasible to build an ocean liner capable of eighteen knots, the fastest in the world. But the momentum could not be sustained. Nearly a century later it was deemed worth almost any price to build a liner that could make thirty-five knots and cross the Atlantic in less than three and a half days, again the fastest in the world. So what if it cost $77 million in 1950s dollars? If one can imbue the keepers of the public purse with a sufficient degree of enthusiasm, scarcely any dream seems too grand.

FOR EVERY SUPERCONDUCTING supercollider that ultimately loses its governmental support, enthusiasts for the likes of a manned space station manage to keep the funds flowing by appealing to national pride or cosmic destiny. So the Collins liners, the Leviathan , and the United States were a dubious bargain, the Blue Riband essentially meaningless. That’s the whole point. Technological dreams are rarely explicable solely in economic terms, or even rational terms. If they were, the history of technology would not be nearly so instructive a discipline.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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