Word Wednesday: ‘Crossing on Time’


Reading Time: 3 minutes

Crossing on Time

This Week’s Word Is “Steamship.”

For Word Wednesday this week, it’s something of an honor to review a book by an author who created one of my favorite books of all time. David Macaulay was also instrumental in my discovering the wonders of DK books, (called Dorling Kindersley in those days, and regular frequenters of this column) thanks to his fabulous The Way Things Work. His latest book, Crossing on Time is published by Roaring Book Press and is all about steamships and traveling to the New World.

What is ‘Crossing on Time?’

Crossing on Time is part history, part engineering guide, part biography, and part autobiography. It tells of the author’s journey, as a ten-year-old boy, on the SS United States. His family emigrated from the United Kingdom, traveling across the Atlantic by steamship.

As Macaulay says in his introduction, this journey started long before his ten-year-old self boarded ship in Southampton. Crossing on Time opens pre 1800s with wooden sailing ships and the invention of the technologies that would eventually lead to huge metal ships crossing the oceans. Using a similar style of diagram to The Way Things Work, Macaulay explains how the technology that underpins steam travel was discovered and how it then evolved.

Crossing on Time

Starting with the invention of the steam pump, each innovation, such as the double hull or fire tubes, is explained in detail, with the help of Macaulay’s characteristic cartoon-style explanations. It charts the rise of massive steamships, the inclusions of electric lights, and the race for the coveted Blue Riband.

Crossing on Time brings in the greats of steam travel, such as Brunel, but it focuses particularly on William Francis Gibbs, who would go on to bring the SS United States into the world. From this point, the book explains the evolution of Gibbs’ ideas and the creation of his pride and joy.

Macaulay explains all the innovations that were used in the building of the United States. Not only from a technical standpoint, such as how the hull was made or which engine innovations were used, but also how passenger comfort and safety were addressed. The center of the book has a fabulous annotated deck plan diagram of the entire boat, labeled with all the important features.

The final section of the book follows ten-year-old Macalauy as he boards the ship, destined to start a new life. He talks of his desire to see the Empire State Building and his experiences on board the United States.

Crossing on Time
The centerpiece of the book is this 6-leaf fold-out deck plan of the SS United.

Why Read ‘Crossing on Time?’

With Crossing on Time, David Macaulay as melded art, science, and history to make a beautiful informative book. If you have any interest in the Age of Steam, you’ll love Crossing on Time. It’s pitched at children around 10 upwards, though younger steam fans will love it too. The pictures are great, perfect for inspiring inquisitive young minds. With a bit of parental explanation, children as young as six will find much to enjoy in Crossing on Time too.

One of the things I like most about the book is how it adds a human context to the building of the ship. The details of the Gibbs family’s love of ships and how they considered their passengers in the United States’ design, reminds readers that not only were steam engines remarkable engineering feats, the vessels they powered had a human form and function too.

Crossing on Time

The inclusion of Macaulay’s connection to the SS United States gives the book even greater resonance, particularly thanks to the photo of the young author boarding the boat in 1957. His personal testimony and inclusion of his own experiences make the SS United States more than just an abstract engineering wonder. It shows how ships and transatlantic transport impacted lives. The United States was a vessel that heralded new beginnings that would shape a generation of lives.

The science/engineering parts are clearly explained. Macaulay has taken all the principles from The Way Things Works and focused them expertly into the science and technology of steam engines and ship construction. If anybody in your family is doing a project on steam engines or transatlantic crossings, this book is an absolute must-read.

Crossing in Time has been born out of a pivotal moment in the author’s life. Macaulay’s fondness for the ship shines through the book’s pages, where he brilliantly brings it the SS United States to life. There is a conservation project underway, and hopefully, the ship can be preserved for future generations of visitors.

You can find out more about the SS United States, including the conservation effort, here.

If you’d like to pick up a copy of Crossing on Time, you can do so here, in the US, and here, in the UK.

If you enjoyed this post, do check out my other Word Wednesday posts. How to be an Engineer, might be a good alternative.Crossing on Time


Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review. 

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