Who Was William Webb?

Speech given by Joseph J. Cuneo, Webb Trustee, Class of 1957
Founder's Day, April 7, 2006


Today marks the 111th celebration of a grand tradition, Founder’s Day at Webb Institute, first celebrated on June 19, 1896, some three years prior to Mr. Webb’s death. Founder’s Day was first declared as a holiday by Webb Academy’s then Resident Manager and Trustee, Andrew Reed, a former shipbuilder and close friend of William Henry Webb. We are indebted to Professor John Hennings for his untiring efforts to re-define and reinvigorate the celebration of this important Day. I appreciate the opportunity and the honor to be asked to participate in this ceremony in remembrance of our founder, and to be able to share some of my thoughts about a man who has served as a model individual to emulate and admire for me and for so many of the Webb family.

First I must acknowledge that many of the facts I will refer to are taken from the book, "William H. Webb - Shipbuilder" written by Webb’s Professor Edwin L. Dunbaugh and William duBarry Thomas, class of 1951, and published in 1989. I am indebted to them for their research and for their excellent book, a book that should, in my opinion, be a part of the Webb curriculum. It provides an intriguing insight into the man we remember today.

William H. Webb was a truly extraordinary man. He was described in one contemporary tribute in the New York Herald as "The very first naval architect in this country." For those of us who weren’t around in those times (and as I look around at the many young faces in this room, that includes most of us) it is important to remember that Mr. Webb was born at about the same time as was the industrial revolution. In many ways he grew up with that revolution. Steam engines were a novelty and ships were built of wood. We all know that he was one of the finest shipbuilders of the nineteenth century, but he was far more than "shipbuilder extraordinaire." As a ship designer he was both an artist and an engineer. As a shipbuilder he was a leader of men and a very successful business man. He was an early personification of theoretician and mechanic, the latter a term he relished when describing himself. He was one of, if not the first master shipbuilder, to combine the art of design with the discipline of careful calculation, both clearly evident in the many ships he built. The success of his ships brought him wide recognition and further added to his reputation. He was well known and respected in the New York community, in our young nation, and in the major power centers in Europe. He was a patriotic American with a clear understanding of international business challenges. He was a realist and a visionary. He was tough-minded and compassionate. He was a man of recognized integrity both in his personal dealings and in the many fine ships that he built. He was a hard worker and he accumulated considerable wealth. He lived well and he established an enduring legacy of giving back to those whose lives he touched, a legacy that continues to this day.

Early in my career I was very fortunate to work for two outstanding men, W. Carleton "Pat" Ryan, Class of 1928 and John McCone, former head of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Central Intelligence Agency during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. One of the lessons I learned from both of these men was to consider the concept of consciously planning one’s professional life. They spoke of the idea that one’s life could be divided into three phases, each of roughly one-third duration. The model they proposed was that the first phase should be devoted to acquiring one’s education, the second phase to making one’s professional mark, building one’s own personal base, and the last phase devoted to giving back to those who helped make the first two phases productive. At the time I found this concept to be so unique that I never forgot it. I have since grown a bit more worldly and realize that the concept had not originated with them, but they were the first people to introduce it to me in such simple terms – and for that I will be forever grateful.

William H. Webb epitomized that very model of life with flying colors! Born in 1816, he built his first boat at the young age of twelve and soon thereafter, through considerable perseverance and determination and notwithstanding his parents’ desire that he further pursue his formal education, he became apprenticed to his father Isaac Webb, an accomplished shipbuilder in his own right. After completing his apprenticeship and as a part of continuing his education phase William ventured off to Europe to learn more of European shipbuilding practices, particularly those of the shipyards in Scotland along the Clyde. This aspect of his educational phase was, however, cut short by the untimely death of his father in 1840 at forty-six years of age. William, at the even younger age of twenty-three made immediate arrangements to return home to assume the helm of his father’s shipbuilding business, Webb and Allen. Considering his extraordinary youth and limited experience, the initiation of his business career was, by any measure, a baptism of fire. After assuming the responsibility for managing his father’s affairs he soon found that his father’s business was in essence, bankrupt.

After settling his father’s affairs and satisfying creditors William H. Webb set out to establish himself as one of the finest shipbuilders of the 19th century. From his first vessel, the 114 ton MALEK ADHEL to his last, the CHARLES H. MARSHALL, Mr. Webb built a wide variety of outstanding sailing ships and steamships, all of wood, a few of them iron-clad for naval service. His twenty-nine year career was marked by a series of successful ships, and though some suffered early demises due to factors too numerous to detail in this brief synopsis he enjoyed a reputation second to none throughout the world. His ships were characterized by their integrity and grace of design. Sufficed to say he proved himself a versatile designer and builder of truly outstanding ships.

Notwithstanding his success, Mr. Webb was quick to recognize that the transition from wood to iron and steel ships portended a new era in shipbuilding, requiring entirely different design parameters, shipbuilding techniques and facilities. He had the wisdom and foresight make the difficult decision to close his wood-oriented shipyard in 1869. He remained active for a brief period in somewhat less successful ship owning businesses but had the good fortune to benefit from a number of other far more successful investments he had made during his prosperous years as a shipbuilder.

As this second phase of William H. Webb’s his life drew to a close, the third phase began in earnest. He devoted an increasingly greater amount of his time and energy civic affairs. He was repeatedly urged to run for Mayor of New York, but he had the wisdom to refuse and went on to an even higher calling. He was selected as Chairman of the New York City Council on Political Reform. He served in this capacity for fourteen years during a time when local politics was mired in practices of corruption, mismanagement and avarice. Some things never change! He personally took on the Aqueduct Commission and tirelessly fought to eliminate graft and poor design and to create a reliable and safe water system still enjoyed by the city of New York to this very day. His efforts avoided considerable unnecessary potential expense for the taxpayers of New York.

Mr. Webb became a member of the Chamber of Commerce in 1851 and remained an active participant until his death in 1899. He and several other industry leaders joined together to found the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers in 1893. His was the first signature on its charter and he served as Vice President from that year until his death. His most enduring legacy, however, was the founding of the Webb Academy and Home for Shipbuilders, now Webb Institute. He gave not only his energy and time, but the overwhelming bulk of his fortune to provide sanctuary to old and infirmed shipbuilders and to afford an opportunity for young gifted people of good moral character to learn the art and science of ship design at no cost to either contingent.

In essence, William H. Webb gave all of what he had, one way or another, to his clients, to his fellow shipbuilders and workers, to the betterment of his fellow citizens and to the young people of his country whose lives he hoped to enrich in sustaining perpetuity. We are here today, some 108 years after his death, bearing witness to his wisdom, his hard work, his integrity and his vision and hope for the future.

William H. Webb’s legacy as an outstanding shipbuilder is recognized by all who know the history of his many outstanding ships. Perhaps his greatest gift, however, is his personification of the spirit of giving back. Our campus is replete with an abundant testimony to that spirit. The names of many who followed Mr. Webb’s example are evident, Stevenson Taylor Hall, the Robinson Model Basin, the Luckenbach Building, the Haeberle Laboratory Building, the Motley Dormitory, the Alumni Gymnasium, the Goldbach Boathouse, the Livingston Library, the Henry Auditorium, the Curran Faculty Wing, the Lenfest Gallery, the Visconti Reception Room, the Nevitt Outlook, Thorpe Field, and yes, even the Cuneo Courtyard are just some of the acknowledgements of so many who have given back, emulating Mr. Webb’s example. Our alumni have been regular and vital supporters of this spirit of giving. Their participation in the Annual Alumni Fund has regularly grown and given Webb the rank of first in the nation in terms of the percentage of alumni support. First is a fitting place for Webb to be, entirely consistent with William H. Webb’s pace-setting example.

In retrospect, I believe that I was very fortunate to have the value of my Webb education bought into focus so early in my life. My two years attending graduate school immediately after graduating from Webb were the first experience that gave me a sense of appreciation of the true value of what I had learned at Webb. When I met other graduate students at the Harvard Business School, many considerably older than I, I soon learned how well Webb had done its job. I began to realize how much I had learned in the prior four years. Subsequent years served to reinforce and expand my appreciation.

When I speak of what I learned, I am not referring only to the mathematics and engineering skills. Certainly these were important, but the total Webb education encompasses so much more. These include the process of integrating many design elements and systems into one cohesive design, referred to in today’s parlance as systems engineering; the exposure to the humanities, in my time under the stimulating guidance of Professor Woodrow H. "Woody" Lawn, a man who tried to convince all who would listen that electricity was nothing more than "black magic"; the sobering experience of completing a thesis as an undergraduate prerequisite; the sometimes almost overwhelming work load and the resulting necessity to learn to prudently balance time and effort versus results; the winter work terms, integrating the practical with the theoretical; the Beaver Program, and the present day commemoration of Founder’s Day, a "hands on" introduction to the very concept of giving back; the Student Organization and Honor Council, lessons in self government, accountability and integrity; the annual social events, in my time the Alumni Smokers, the Ring Dances and the intramural and intercollegiate sports activities, and yes, even the periodic excursions to Morgan Beach Terrace, our closest "watering hole" all were part of the total Webb educational "experience." Five members of my Class of ’57 graduated from HBS and discussions with more recent Webb/HBS graduates only re-affirm what I had learned. After surviving four years at Webb almost any other challenge is relatively easy!

Personally, I know that I have been privileged to have received a Webb education, entirely free in my time, and beyond monetary quantification in my experience. I have been further privileged to have served as a Trustee of this wonderful school for over twenty years. I choose the word "privileged" with care. My years as a Trustee have given me the opportunity to remain associated with some of the finest and smartest people I have ever known. These years have also afforded me an opportunity to give back in some small measure to the memory of the man we honor today, William H. Webb, shipbuilder, civic minded citizen, humanitarian, philanthropist, and gentleman. I am confident that his example will continue to guide us all in the years to come.