History

Founder James L. Manzolillo’s lifelong association with the ocean uniquely prepared him to found this extraordinary gem of a museum.

A naval architect by trade, Manzolillo came to believe that the artifacts he acquired on his extensive travels were meant to be shared with the public. Houston, one of the largest ports in the world, was a logical place to establish a maritime museum. He channeled all of his resources into creating a comprehensive maritime museum that engages both young and old in the history of ships and the exploration of the sea.

Manzolillo studied Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology, served with the Merchant Marine in WW-II, and earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Colorado State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. From 1950 to 1959, he travelled the world developing engine sales in marine application for Caterpillar Tractor Company.

In 1959, Manzolillo founded Astilleros Imesa, a company that built shrimp trawlers in downtown Mexico City—7,400 feet above sea level and 200 miles from the ocean. This innovative approach raised eyebrows, but the company successfully shipped its weld-cut pieces by rail to southern ports like Salina Cruz. He also created the world’s first commercial vessel with a quarter inch copper-nickel plate on its hull, which retarded the growth of barnacles, thereby reducing friction and fuel consumption.

In 1979 Jim moved to Houston and started a career as an onboard cruise lecturer with the Cunard Line. There are few ports he didn’t visit (he lamented that he never got to see Estonia).

The creation of the Houston Maritime Museum in 2000 was a logical extension of Manzolillo’s unique experiences and personality.

James Manzolillo passed away in January 2007 and is survived by his daughter, Dr. Deborah Nightingale, an environmental anthropologist in Kenya, his granddaughter Norah, and his brother Bert, who lives in Reading, Pennsylvania.