The Nuclear Ship Savannah -- newly digitized 1964 film

By Dr. Nick Touran, Ph.D., P.E., 2023-07-12 , Reading time: 13 minutes

We’re extraordinarily excited to announce the recent digitization of a 1964 film all about everyone’s favorite nuclear-powered cargo/passenger ship: The N.S. Savannah!

1964 US Atomic Energy Commission video entitled “The Nuclear Ship Savannah”, digitized by us from the National Archives (NAID 88199)

Catalog description: This nontechnical, documentary film, for junior-high-school through college-level audiences, covers the historical background, and the design, construction, sea trials, and initial port calls of the N.S. Savannah, the world's first nuclear-powered merchant ship. The film begins with a brief review of America's maritime growth, starting with May 22, 1819, and the story of the S.S. Savannah, the first ship to cross the ocean under steam power. The design of the N.S. Savannah and its atomic reactor and propulsion system are explained with animation and live action photography. After keel laying, various phases of the ship's construction are covered, and the assembling and testing of the reactor are explained. The ceremonies involving the launching of the ship are shown, followed by impressive scenes showing the loading of the reactor with its nuclear fuel under surgically clean conditions. The special training of the crew is reviewed. The film then shows the sea trials of the ship, during which time the reactor is slowly brought up to full power. After sea trials, the trip of the N.S. Savannah to her first port of call, Savannah, Georgia, is covered, followed by her voyage through the Panama Canal and visits to Hawaii and West Coast ports. As the ship leaves for foreign ports, the film ends with a statement by President Lyndon B. Johnson on the significance of the Nuclear Ship Savannah as a pioneer in the use of nuclear power for world trade to benefit all mankind.

Thanks to Ross Koningstein for his help in making this happen. And thanks to Sohail Khan for helping with getting the sound track as the first-ever donor to our film-scanning GoFundMe (linked below).

Read more about N.S. Savannah

The film was produced for the USAEC and the US Maritime Administration by Orleans Film Productions. It was originally sold for $85 per print, including shipping case.

Contents of the film by timestamp include:

  • 00:00 Intro Sea Trials
  • 01:52 Intro credits
  • 02:21 The S.S. Savannah steam ship
  • 03:57 Conventional Merchant Marine
  • 04:59 Nuclear-powered ships
  • 06:04 Proposal by Eisenhower
  • 07:01 Start of Construction
  • 08:02 Schematic power cycle
  • 09:05 Shielding
  • 10:04 Component manufacturing
  • 10:37 Training operators
  • 12:06 Full-size mockup
  • 13:07 Retractable stabilizers and launching
  • 14:15 Reactor test assembly
  • 17:05 Final assembly and Fueling
  • 18:19 Head installation and criticality
  • 19:14 Sea trials
  • 20:55 First port of call
  • 25:32 Panama Canal
  • 26:08 Seattle World’s Fair
  • 26:49 Service in Galveston
  • 27:26 Message from Lyndon B. Johnson

These are loaded into the youtube video as chapters for your convenience.

The N.S. Savannah at the Seattle World’s Fair 1962

My journey to digitizing this video actually started when I happened upon a quote in an old document that said:

"Considered by some marine engineers the most beautiful ship ever built, the sleek white SAVANNAH was shown off to the crowds at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair"

And so, I sought out a picture of N.S. Savannah in Seattle. By going through the newspaper archives around the time of her visit, I found a bad-quality scan of the Savannah with the Space Needle from the October 2 1962 Seattle PI newspaper. The more I looked, the more I decided I needed to get this film digitized, hoping it would have shots from Seattle. And sure enough, it did. But I also wanted to see if I could find the photo from the newspaper. I called local museums and libraries. The MOHAI in Seattle dug through their records and found negatives of Savannah. I ordered scans of two of them and get the rights to post them here. Behold!

The N.S. Savannah nuclear powered cargo ship in Elliot Bay by the Space Needle, Seattle, visiting the World's Fair in 1962
The N.S. Savannah in Elliot Bay by the Space Needle, Seattle, visiting the World's Fair in 1962. Fireboat Duwamish in the foreground. (Credit: MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.14092.1, photo by Harvey Davis)
The N.S. Savannah nuclear powered cargo ship in Seattle at the 1962 World's fair pulling into the pier with a band playing.
The N.S. Savannah nuclear powered cargo ship in Seattle at the 1962 World's fair pulling into the pier with a band playing. (Credit: MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.14093.1)

Photos from video production

Right after we digitized this, Alice Orleans Jordon, the daughter of the film’s producer, Sam Orleans, reached out and shared some photos from their personal collection. She’s in the film as a child at 22:07 with her mother. She recalls:

They served us fruit cocktail for these takes. I remember it was chilled. I was so impressed! There was a white baby grand piano in the lounge–I learned to play chopsticks on it. The lounge had white, plush carpet. I remember how good it felt on my bare feet!

Here are her photos:

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