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July 12, 2009

Form Following (Commercial) Function

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I sometimes wonder if architect Louis Sullivan, perhaps busily spinning in his grave, regrets coining the modernist credo "form follows function."

Taken literally, form would seem to be nothing more than a matter of good engineering. That interpretation won't do, of course, because aesthetic efforts by architects, industrial designers and their ilk would be ruled out. Even if a whiff of eye-pleasing by designers is added to the business of materials and engineering, the phrase still connotes form reacting to some dynamic requirement or another. Well, that's they way I always interpreted it when I was a student and for a number of years thereafter.

More recently, I've become convinced that an important -- make that crucial -- function of a object is to be purchased. If not enough objects are sold to at least break even on the product's investment, then that product should be considered at least a partial failure regardless of its other qualities.

This last point views things after the fact, and designers are ignorant of outcomes while they are in the design process. This means that, in addition to materials and engineering considerations, they need to think about an object's or product's commercial function and hope they get the details right.

Take the passenger liner, for example.

There have been all sorts of passenger-carrying boats and ships created over the past several thousand years. To keep this posting under control, I'll focus on some of the largest passenger ships created over the last 120 years, beginning with some winners of the Blue Riband for fastest trans-Atlantic speed. My Blue Riband information comes from this book.

Here are a few requirements faced by naval architects charged with designing a Blue Riband contender. An important item was the operating environment of the ship. The run (as of 1935) between Bishop Rock lighthouse at the English Channel entrance and Ambrose lightship off New York harbor can get nasty. The waters aren't the world's nastiest, but they are both nasty enough and, most important, unavoidable. This means that a ship needs plenty of freeboard while not being top-heavy.

More requirements were (1) enough power to generate high speed; (2) enough room for fuel storage to feed the powerful engines; (3) room for housing enough passengers, mail and other cargo to operate profitably; and (4) inclusion of attractive passenger amenities such as dining rooms and recreational spaces that would help entice travelers.

A Blue Riband contender's commercial appeal would be its speed and perceived safety and luxury. Not all trans-Atlantic liners stressed speed, of course. A number of liners were successful due to their luxury or ambiance despite being a day or so slower than the speedsters.

That said (and lots more can be said, for this is a fascinating topic), let's look at some examples.


Dates in photo captions are those of maiden voyage.

RMS Teutonic - 1889
The White Star liner Teutonic won the Riband in 1891, averaging 20.5 knots over the westbound run from Queenstown, Ireland to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Its overall length was 582 feet and its design weight was 9,984 grt (gross register tonnage). Passenger capacity was 1,490, two-thirds in third class and 300 in first class. The above-deck cabin space is low and the masts are suggestive of the time of the ship's origin: at the transition point between steam-plus-sail-backup and pure steam.

RMS Mauretania - 1907
Cunard's Mauretania was a well-loved vessel that captured the Blue Riband, making a 1909 run between Queenstown and Ambrose at 26.06 knots. Specifications are 790 feet overall length, 31,938 grt and carrying 2,165 passenger including 563 in first class cabins. More first class passengers seems to equal more topside cabin decks even though the Mautentania was much larger then the Teutonic of 20 years earlier.

ETS Normandie - 1935
Many, myself included, consider the CGT (Compagnie Générale Transatlantique or French Line) liner Normandie the glamour queen of all Blue Riband liners. The photo above seems to be scanned from a clipping, but I couldn't resist that classic Lower Manhattan background. The rear funnel was a dummy, placed there for aesthetic reasons -- hence, no smoke. Normandie won the Riband twice, sailing from Bishop Rock to Ambrose at 29.98 knots in 1935 and 30.58 knots in 1937. Stats are 1,029 feet overall length (comparable to a current U.S. fleet aircraft carrier), 79,280 grt and 1,972 passengers of whom 848 in first class and only 454 in third. The lower third-class count reflects the effect of U.S. immigration restrictions imposed in 1924.

SS United States - 1952
The ultimate Blue Riband winner was the United States, whose record speed was 34.51 knots in 1952. Overall length was 990 feet, grt weighting was 53,329 and it could carry 1,928 passengers, 871 in first class. Construction of the ship was subsidized by the government because it was intended to be used as a troop ship in time of war. As a troop ship it could hold about 14,000 men, approximately the strength of one division. Its high speed made it very difficult to be torpedoed by a submarine, though of course it was vulnerable to air attack. During World War 2, the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were successful high speed, high capacity troop ships, indicating the viability of the concept to American military planners.

MS Queen Victoria - 2007
The advent of trans-Atlantic jet passenger plane service at the end of the 1950s led to the eventual demise of ocean liner service on that route. Since 1970, large passenger liners have been designed as cruise ships. A recent example is the MS Queen Victoria which I noticed in September 2007, all but completed in a shipyard near Venice. Cruise ships feature topside cabins, and so have many decks for them. The result is a higher center of gravity than the liners shown above. Cruise lines and their naval architects accept this design feature because (1) it enhances passenger appeal and (2) cruise routes operate when and where weather is comparatively calm. For example, at least half a dozen cruise ships sail from Seattle to Alaska weekly during late spring and the summer months, then are redeployed to California for fall-winter cruising to the Mexican coast. Cruise liners are not nearly as fast as the Blue Riband-seeking greyhounds of the past because speed is not that important a marketing factor. Queen Victoria's cruising speed is 23.7 knots with a top speed of 27.3. Its weight is 90,000 gross tons with a length of 964 feet. It can carry 2,014 passengers.

RMS Queen Mary 2 - 2004
The Queen Mary 2 is a different proposition, making North Atlantic runs part of the year, even though it is a cruise ship. Note that while it has about the same number of topside cabin decks as the Queen Victoria, they are on a larger hull which reduces the relative topweight and lowers the center of gravity. At 29.62 knots top speed, it's faster than typical cruise ships whose service speeds are in the low 20s. Length is 1,132 feet, gross tonnage 151,400 with a displacement of 76,000 tons. In many respects, the QM2 is a cross between the old breed of Blue Riband-type steamships and modern cruise ships. And the reasons largely have to do with its commercial function.



posted by Donald at July 12, 2009


Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated with trans-Atlantic ocean liners. So I found your post especially interesting and enjoyable.

Here are some additional tidbits of information along the lines of "form follows function" regarding trans-Atlantic ocean liners and cruise ships. (I gave away my small collection of books on the subject a number of years ago, so I may be a bit off base with some of the info.)

1) One reason for the need for speed was the desireability of having reliable (in all kinds of weather) weekly service between New York and Europe. So consciously designing ships for high speeds, also increased reliability, lowered the need for fuel and reduced the number of ships needed for such service. I think in the "early days" (early 20th century), for instance, you needed three ships for weekly service but, by the time of the Normandie and Queen Mary, ships were speedy enough (and large enough) so that you only needed (or even wanted) two.

2) Aside from low profile vs. top-heaviness, the hulls of trans-Atlantic super liners were also designed to reduce resistance (e.g.,long and narrow, etc.), increase speed and reduce demand for power.

I think sometime in the 1920s or 1930s they began photographing the faster ships from the air to study their wakes, and I believe the designers of the Normandie were especially proud of the small wake that their hull created vs. that of the Queen Mary (which needed to use more power for the same speed).

Today's cruise ships can be wider and longer, unless the company wants them to go through the Panama Canal.

3) The U.S.S. United States was also designed to be built with very light weight materials (e.g., an aluminum superstructure) to increase its speed. (It also used special materials to make it virtually fireproof. I think the ship had fiberglass curtains, etc., and the only wood on the ship was in the grand pianos and in the kitchen's chopping blocks.)

4) As you pointed out, some ships like the Normandie had dummy smokestacks -- partly for aesthetic appeal (e.g. balance, etc.) and partly because the buying public seemed to equate the number of smoke stacks with grandeur, power and speed. Even some of the slower ships (not designed to set records) had dummy smokestacks -- e.g., the Titanic.

5) Although the smoke stacks probably created drag, those that were functional were indeed much needed and had to be high enough to keep soot away from the passengers (especially in the days of coal).

I believe the second and third smoke stack on the Normandie were slightly shorter than the ones in front of them in order to give the ship a speedier (and therefore more impressive and marketable) look. (I'm not sure about this, but I think the Normandie's dummy third stack housed a children's carousel at its base.)

These days, on cruise ships, I think some ships have cocktail lounges in their much less needed smoke stacks.

6) Plus, sometimes the smokestacks of ocean liners with four smoke stacks were grouped into pairs (especially on the German liners, I believe) because it gave the ships a speedier more powerful look (and thus made the ship more marketable --especially among green horn emigrants).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on July 12, 2009 5:05 PM

One critical area of change was in propulsion.

Teutonic, like all ships of the era, had reciprocating steam engines. Reciprocating engines slammed themselves to pieces, especially if run flat out. It was said that Britain's pre-dreadnought battleships could run at 20 knots for about 12 hours - and then would have to go into dockyard for months. Even steady moderate cruising required months of refitting for every year of operation.

By the time of Mauretania, steam turbine propulsion had come in. Turbines could generate far more power, and more importantly could run steadily at high power without self-destructing.

Large modern ships such as QM 2 rely on diesel power and gas turbines, routed through electric motors. This has the advantage of allowing the power plant to be built up of smaller modular units.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on July 14, 2009 2:20 AM

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