Last Sunday, I had the opportunity to spend a little time in the engine room of the Liberty ship, SS John W. Brown. The ship, normally based in Baltimore, was visiting New York and offered a full day “Living History Cruise.”
One of the most interesting aspects of this fascinating ship is the 2,500 horsepower triple expansion reciprocating steam engine. Liberty ships were one of the first mass-produced ships. Built during World II, the goal was to build cargo ships faster than German submarines could sink them. The US built 2,710 Liberty ships in 18 shipyards around the United States, by far the largest series of ships to be built of the same design in history. Each ship was built in an average of 44 days. The problem was that steam turbine power plants, particularly the reduction gears, could not be built fast enough to keep up with Liberty ship construction. The triple expansion steam engines installed in the ships were obsolete when the Liberty ships were built, but they could be built quickly, were reliable, and relatively easy to maintain. The engine on the John Brown is a beauty to behold, a blend of machinery and living sculpture.