Never was there such a ship. From the marshes, where it rests parallel to the river, the hull rises above the advancing crowd like a black, iron cliff. It forms an escarpment that blocks the people’s view of the Thames for what appears to be miles. The masts have yet to be constructed, and this only seems to extend the vessel’s length farther for all who have come to behold it on this grim, wet day.

Once launched, the ship will be triple the length of anything afloat. But there has been much talk that this nautical folly never will float, that it will founder in its first go with heavy weather in the Atlantic, or perhaps, more thrilling for the multitude making its way toward the shipyard, the monster will fall apart this very day at its own launch.

A slanting rain descends upon the Thames. The rain may soon turn to sleet; it’s cold enough. The American engineer, Chester Ludlow, trapped in a brougham, resigns himself to his driver’s insistence that they can …