The Models

RMS Orion

Maritime Innovation In Miniature

RMS Orion: A Ship of the Future


RMS Orion was built by Vickers Armstrong in Barrow-in-Furness for the Orient Steam Navigation Co. Launched in 1934 she was one of the most innovative passenger ships of her age, a landmark in the evolution of the modern liner. In 1934 Orion was a ship of the future.

Orion mainly ran on the route between the UK and Australia, but also cruised to destinations like the Scandinavian fjords and the Mediterranean Sea. She was visually remarkable because of her single funnel and single mast, both set at a distinctive raked angle, simply to give the impression of speed.

At the time this was extremely unusual and earned her the nickname 'the Big Tug' as her silhouette looked like a giant tug boat. Having a single funnel saved a huge amount of money per year in maintenance and created much more space for the passengers on deck, but it was incredibly difficult to achieve and was only done so by overcoming major engineering challenges.

She was painted in the distinctive corn color of the Orient Line’s livery with a green waterline stripe, white superstructure and buff funnel.  This color scheme was entirely new and broke away from the traditional black hull and red stripe. Her external appearance was designed to give the impression of simplicity, power and speed.

Inside, the design of her public rooms moved away from the wood-panelled lounges and grand staircases of traditional passenger liners which had been modelled on grand country houses and introduced a completely new image in the distinctive art-deco style of the 1930s suited to the tropics and an oceangoing life. Everything was light, uncluttered and stylish.

She was also built of new shipbuilding materials – in particular, she was the first liner to use chromium and bakelite extensively throughout the ship to make surfaces more resistant to the effects of sea air. 

She marked an important step forward in passenger comfort and safety. She was one of the first British liners to have air-conditioning, a radical and important improvement for vessels travelling in the tropics. This is notable in the innovative design of her ventilation funnels. Traditionally these would have been tuba-shaped, pointing towards the bow, thus exposed to the onrushing airstream which forced the air below decks. Orion had some of these but most intakes had a horizontal rather than vertical intake aperture, fitted with an impeller.

In the interior, removable and folding walls and sliding glass doors were used to maximise ventilation. Her staircases and walkways allowed the passengers easy and safe movement around the ship and good ventilation. Enormous promenade decks kept cooling breezes flowing through spaces in which passengers could relax.

Her boat decks, now unencumbered as there was only one funnel, gave her passengers uninterrupted views of the sea. This was made possible by raising her boats above eye level. A huge area known as A deck which measured a staggering 200ft by 82 ft was thus left clear for sports and games

Even the passengers’ comfort on deck was considered: she was fitted with aerodynamic deflectors designed to divert the oncoming breeze over the heads of those standing on the bridge deck and deck below.

She was also one of the first to have an open-air swimming pool but even that was not enough: she had two - and her main mast was removed in the design process to make this possible. The pool was tiled in blue and filled with constantly running sea water.

Orion was the first passenger liner that made extensive use of fire-resistant paint and the new ‘Grinell’ sprinkler system. The firefighting system had an alarm and indicator panel on the bridge. A tank in the engine room supplied the water that was refilled with seawater by automatically operated pumps.

The model clearly shows the clever design of her cargo elevators, a novelty that would become a crucial requirement for a passenger vessel of this size. There was plenty of space for cargo built into her hull and special areas for chilled cargo. The ship was fitted with numerous derricks to winch aboard heavy loads. Her wooden gangway ladders are of a distinctive 1930s design and are clearly shown on the model, and with some pride.

All of the cabins had running water, long mirrors and plugs for electric hair curlers. The first-class cabins were fitted with new spring-balanced pressure-tight windows with hinged ventilators fitted instead of ordinary portholes.

The crest on the bow shows the club, knife, and belt of Orion, the hunter from Greek mythology.

Even her launch was unique. it was performed remotely by the Duke of Gloucester over the radio from Brisbane in Australia to Barrow-in Furness 12,000 miles away. In our modern world of Facetime and remote meetings this may seem simple but no such launch had ever been attempted before. It was not just his voice that was transmitted – he pressed a button that created an electric charge that was beamed directly to Australia to Barrow, and which triggered the smashing of a bottle onto her hull and the launching triggers releasing her down the slipway. At the time this was described as an ‘act of magic’ and ‘epoch making’

Her steam was created by six boilers which powered six steam turbines producing a speed 20.5 knots, she was propelled by twin screws.

After a peaceful start to her career she served as a troopship in WWII, carrying up to 5000 troops at a time, and taking part in the North African landings of 1942. By the end of the war she had carried over 175,000 personnel and had steamed over 380,000 miles. She swiftly went back to her role as a passenger liner when the war ended. From May to September 1963 she served as a floating hotel in Hamburg, and was sold in September 1963 for scrap at Antwerp in Belgium in 1963.

By then the excitement of her new design had passed, but at her launch it must always be remembered that one writer was moved to comment.

Such a departure from common practice. Such a refusal to accept precedent for convention's sake shows great confidence and courage. The managers of the Orient Line are looking far ahead, and it is possible that the Orion will prove to be the model on which liners of the future will be built.