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John Ericsson (July 31, 1803March 8, 1889) was an American Swedish-born inventor and mechanical engineer, as was his brother, Nils Ericson. He was born at Långbanshyttan in Värmlandmarker, Swedenmarker, but primarily came to be active in the United Statesmarker.

Early career

John's and Nils's father Olof Ericsson who worked as the supervisor for a mine in Värmland had lost money in speculations and had to move his family from Värmland to Forsvik in 1810. There he worked as a 'director of blastings' during the excavation of the Swedish Göta Canal. The extraordinary skills of the two brothers were discovered by Baltzar von Platen, the architect of the Göta Canal. The two brothers were dubbed cadets of mechanics of the Swedish Royal Navy and engaged as trainees at the canal enterprise. At the age of fourteen, John was already working independently as a surveyor. His assistant had to carry a footstool for him to reach the instruments during surveying work.

At the age of seventeen he joined the Swedish army in Jämtlandmarker, serving in the Jämtland Field Ranger Regiment, as a Second Lieutenant, but was soon promoted to Lieutenant. He was sent to northern Sweden to do surveying, and in his spare time he constructed a heat engine which used the fumes from the fire instead of steam as a propellant. His skill and interest in mechanics made him resign from the army and move to Englandmarker in 1826. However, his heat engine was not a success, as his prototype was designed to use birch wood as fuel, and would not work well with coal, which was the main fuel used in England.

Notwithstanding the disappointment, he invented several other mechanisms instead based on steam, improving the heating process by adding fans to increase oxygen supply to the fire bed. In 1829 the steam engine he built with John Braithwaite, "Novelty", joined the Rainhill Trials, a competition arranged by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Although it was the fastest in the competition, it suffered recurring boiler problems and the competition was won by the English engineer George and his son Robert Stephenson with Rocket.

By helping to quell the celebrated Astor House fire, Ericsson's steam fire engine proved an outstanding technical success, but met with resistance from London's established 'Fire Laddies' and municipal authorities. An engine Ericsson constructed for Sir John Franklin's use failed under the Antarctic conditions for which, out of Franklin's desire to conceal his destination, it had not been designed. At this stage of Ercisson's career the most successful and enduring of his inventions was the steam condenser, which allowed a steamer to produce fresh water for its boilers while at sea. His 'deep sea lead,' a pressure-activated fathometer was another minor, but enduring success.

The commercial failure and development costs of some of the machines devised and built by Ericsson during this period put him into debtors' prison for an interval and at this time he also married 19-year-old Amelia Byam, a marriage that was nothing but a huge disaster and ended in the couple's separation until Amelia's death.

Propeller design

Engraving of Ericsson
He then improved the ship design with two screw-propellers moving in different directions (as opposed to earlier tests with this technology, which used a single screw). However, the Admiralty disapproved of the invention, which led to the fortunate contact with the encouraging American captain Robert Stockton who had Ericsson design a propeller steamer for him and told him to bring his invention to the United States of America, as it would supposedly be more welcomed in that place. As a result, Ericsson moved to New Yorkmarker in 1839. Stockton's plan was for Ericsson to oversee the development of a new class of frigate with Stockton using his considerable political connections to grease the wheels. Finally, after the succession to the Presidency by John Tyler, funds were allocated for a new design. Unfortunately they only received funding for a 700-ton sloop instead of a frigate. The sloop eventually became the USS Princeton, named after Stockton's hometown.

The ship took about three years to complete and was perhaps the most advanced warship of its time. In addition to twin screw propellers, it was originally designed to mount a 12-inch muzzle loading gun on a revolving pedestal. The gun had also been designed by Ericsson and used the hoop construction method to pre-tension the breech, adding to its strength and safely allowing the use of a larger charge. Other innovations on the ship design included a collapsible funnel and an improved recoil system.

The relations between Ericsson and Stockton had grown tense over time and, nearing the completion of the ship, Stockton began working to force Ericsson out of the project. Stockton carefully avoided letting outsiders know that Ericsson was the primary inventor. Stockton attempted to claim as much credit for himself as possible, even designing a second 12-inch gun to be mounted on the Princeton. Unfortunately, not understanding the design of the first gun (originally name "The Orator", renamed by Stockton to "The Oregon"), the second gun was fatally flawed.

When the ship was initially launched it was a tremendous success. On October 20 1843 Princeton won a speed competition against the paddle-steamer SS Great Western, which had until then been regarded as the fastest steamer afloat. Unfortunately, during a demonstration firing of Stockton's gun the breech broke, killing the US Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur and the Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, as well as six others. Stockton attempted to deflect blame onto Ericsson with moderate success despite the fact that Ericsson's gun was sound and it was Stockton's gun that had failed. Stockton also refused to pay Ericsson and, using his political connections, Stockton managed to block the Navy from paying him. These actions led to Ericsson's deep resentment toward the US Navy.

Friendship with Cornelius H. DeLamater

When Ericsson arrived from England and settled in New York, he was persuaded by Samuel Risley of Greenwich Village to give his work to the Phoenix Foundry. There he met Cornelius H. DeLamater and soon a mutual attachment developed between the two, and rarely thereafter did Ericsson or DeLamater enter upon a business venture without first consulting the other." Personally, their friendship never faltered, though strained by the pressures of business and Ericsson's quick temper, DeLamater called Ericsson "John" and Ericsson called DeLamater by his middle nick-name "Harry", intimacies almost unknown in Ericsson's other relationships. In time, the DeLamater Iron Works became known as the Asylum where Capt Ericsson had free rein to experiment and attempt new feats. The Iron Witch was next constructed, the first iron steamboat. The first hot-air invention of Capt Ericsson was first introduced in the ship Ericsson, built entirely by DeLamater. The DeLamater Iron Works also launched the first submarine boat, first self propelled torpedo, and first torpedo boat. When DeLamater died on February 2, 1889, Ericsson could not be consoled. His death exactly one month to the day later was not surprising to his friends and acquaintances."

Hot air engine

Ericsson then proceeded to invent independently the caloric, or hot air engine in the 1820s which used hot air, caloric in the scientific parlance of the day, instead of steam as a propellant. A similar device had been patented in 1816 by the Reverend Robert Stirling, whose technical priority of invention provides the usual term 'Stirling Engine' for the device. Ericsson's engine was not initially successful due to the differences in combustion temperatures between Swedish wood and British coal. In spite of his setbacks, Ericsson was awarded the Rumford Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1862 for his invention. In his later years, the caloric engine would render Ericsson comfortably wealthy, as its boilerless design made it a much safer and more practical means of power for small industry than steam engines. Ericsson's incorporation of a 'regenerator' heat sink for his engine made it tremendously fuel-efficient.

Ship design

On September 26 1854 Ericsson presented Napoleon III of France with drawings of iron-clad armored battle ships with a dome-shaped gun tower, and even though the French emperor praised this invention, he did nothing to bring it to practical application.

USS Monitor

Shortly after the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the Confederacy quickly began developing an ironclad based on the hull of the USS Merrimack which had been burned by Federal troops before the naval base at Norfolk - Gosport Navy Yard - had been captured by the recently seceded Commonwealth of Virginiamarker. The United States Congress addressed this issue in August 1861 and recommend that armored ships be built for the Union Navy. Ericsson still had a dislike of the U.S. Navy but he was convinced by Cornelius Scranton Bushnell to work on an ironclad for them. Ericsson presented drawings of the USS Monitor, a totally unique and novel design of armoured ship, which after much controversy was eventually built and finished on March 6 1862. The ship went from plans to launch in approximately 100 days, an amazing achievement.

On March 8, the Southern ironclad CSS Virginia was wreaking havoc on the Union Blockading Squadron in Virginia. Then, with the appearance of the Monitor, a battle on March 9 1862 at Hampton Roadsmarker, Virginiamarker, ended in a stalemate between the two iron warships, and saved the Northern fleet from defeat. After this, numerous monitors were built, and are believed to have considerably influenced the victory of the Northern states. Although primitive by modern standards, many basic design elements of the Monitor were copied in future warships by other designers.

Later, Ericsson worked with torpedo inventions, in particular "The Destroyer", a torpedo boat that could fire a cannon from an underwater port. He also provided some technical support for John Philip Holland in his early submarine experiments. In the book Contributions to the Centennial Exhibition (1877, reprinted 1976) he presented his "sun engines", which collected solar heat for a hot air engine. One of these designs earned Ericsson additional sums after being converted to work as a methane gas engine.

Although none of his inventions created any large industries, he is regarded as one of the most influential mechanical engineers ever. After his death in 1889 his remains were brought from the United States to Stockholmmarker by USS Baltimore; his final resting place is at Filipstadmarker, in Värmlandmarker.



Monuments and memorials

John Ericsson in Battery Park, NYC
Statue of John Ericsson in Gothenburg, Sweden
Monuments in honor of John Ericsson have been erected at:

For ships named in his honor, see:



  • In Harry Harrison's Stars and Stripes trilogy, the Monitor is just the beginning of Ericsson's contributions to the US war effort. New ocean-going ironclads are built by the inventor, superior to their British counterparts. He also creates an armored self-propelled gun platform using his own internal combustion engine as well as a heavily-armored mortar carrier ship, capable of leveling any fortification in under an hour. All these inventions allow General Sherman to implement his new lightning warfare strategy.

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