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John EricssonJohn Ericsson

inventor of the screw propellor and warship designer

John Ericsson was born in Langban, Sweden, on July 31, 1803. His family moved to Västergötland, where his father was employed as an engineer on construction of the Göta Canal, about 1810. John entered a technical school on the construction site in 1815, began working in the drafting office at age 12, and was directing the staking out of the eastern canal line by age 15. He joined the Swedish army in 1820, and spent most of his army career working as an engineer and cartographer. He passed his surveyor's examination on March 27, 1822.

Ericsson began working on caloric (heat) engines while still in the army. He believed that using the heat from the boiler rather than the steam was more efficient, and he applied for his first patent in 1826. That same year, he was granted a leave of absence from the army and emigrated to England, where he formed a partnership with John Braithwaite. He was commissioned Captain in the Swedish army on October 3, 1827, while still in England, but resigned at the same time.

the NoveltyIn 1829, Ericsson invented a depth finder that was accurate to a depth of 600 feet. That same year he and Braithwaite built the engines for the Victory, the ship used by John Ross in his attempt to locate the Northwest Passage (1829-1833). In October of that year, the two men entered the Novelty (shown at left) in the Rainhill locomotive trials, arranged by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Based on road steam carriages of the time, the Novelty was much smaller than the other entrants (about two tons), but was also the quickest, reaching speeds of 28 mph consistently. The Novelty's boiler kept breaking down, however, and it was withdrawn from the competition on the last day; the Rocket, built by George and Robert Stephenson, ultimately won the contest. Ericsson and Braithwaite built two more locomotives, the William IVWilliam IV (shown at right) and Queen Adelaide, that were larger and more robust than the Novelty, but the railway had already decided to go with the Stephenson engine and declined to purchase the new designs. A steam-powered fire engine built by Ericsson and Braithwaite successfully helped extinguish the Argyll Rooms fire on February 5, 1830, but London authorities were not impressed enough to purchase the engine. About this same time, a ship engine Ericsson designed and built for Sir John Franklin failed because Franklin had not told Ericsson that he would be using the ship in Antarctic waters. Ericsson's only true success during this period was the steam condensor, which allowed a steamer to produce fresh water for its boilers while at sea.

The repeated commercial failures suffered by Ericsson and Braithwaite led to Ericsson being imprisoned for debts on May 2, 1832. He was released near the end of that same year, but only after selling all of his patent rights in order to pay his debts.

Ericsson first enjoyed real success after he patented the marine screw propellor in 1836. In 1837, he successfully demonstrated the Francis B. Ogden, the first ship built with a screw propellor. He then improved his design by using two screw propellors moving in opposite directions, but the British Navy disapproved of his design and refused to back him financially. Fortunately for Ericsson, however, his design caught the attention of American captain Robert Stockton, who encouraged Ericsson to emigrate to America to oversee development of a new class of frigate. Ericsson designed and built the Robert F. Stockton, which became the first marine screw propellor-driven iron steamship to cross the Atlantic. Ericsson was the principal passenger aboard the ship, and upon its landing at New York on November 23, 1839, he chose to stay and take Stockton up on his offer. Stockton thought he had enough political influence to get his plan funded, but Congress ultimately only approved funding for a single sloop. The ship took about three years to complete, but when the USS Princeton was launched it was the most advanced warship of its time. In addition to twin screw propellors, the ship had a collapsible funnel and an improved recoil system. Ericsson's design also included a 12-inch muzzle-loading gun on a revolving pedestal, but Stockton added a second 12-inch gun, which he designed, to the original plan. On October 20, 1843, the Princeton won a speed competition against the paddle-wheeler SS Great Western, which had until then held the title of fastest steamer afloat. Unfortunately, during a firing demonstration of Stockton's gun the breech exploded, killing Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, and six others. Although it was Stockton's gun that had failed, he attempted to place the blame on Ericsson and refused to pay him for his work; Stockton also used his political connections to block the Navy from paying him.

Stockton may have been able to blame Ericsson for the gun failure, but even he could not diminish the success of Ericsson's ship design. Although he and Ericsson parted ways after the Princeton, Ericsson chose to stay in the United States; he became a U.S. citizen in 1848. In 1851, Ericsson patented a new design for a caloric engine. The Ericsson, the first ship built with his new design, was demonstrated in 1853. It was unable to match the speed of existing vessels, however, and was subsequently converted to conventional steam power. Despite this failure, Ericsson continued working on the design, and the caloric engine ultimately replaced the conventional steam engine.

model of the MonitorUpon outbreak of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the Navy to build a ship capable of defeating the Confederate Navy's new ironclad ship, the Virginia (Merrimack). Despite having been "stiffed" by the U.S. Navy previously, Ericsson was convinced to submit a design for an armored ship which included a rotating turret housing two large cannons. Ericsson's design was initially rejected by the Navy, but he was able to get a special meeting with President Lincoln, who liked it and used his executive authority to approve a contract. The Monitor (a model of which is shown at left) was launched on January 30, 1862, barely 100 days after Ericsson was awarded the contract. The unique ship proved its value when it fought the Virginia to a draw on March 9, 1862. Several more "monitors" were built during the course of the war, including twin-turret versions, and they contributed greatly to the Union's naval superiority over the Confederacy. Although the low draft proved unsuitable for navigation in high seas, many of the ship's other design elements --especially the rotating turret and the placement of the engines below the water line -- were copied in future warships by other designers and navies.

Ericsson went on to design other naval vessels and weapons. In 1878, he demonstrated the Destroyer, a ship capable of firing submarine torpedoes, which he had also designed. He also provided some technical support for John Philip Holland in his early submarine experiments, and even explored the possibility of using solar energy, gravitation, and tidal forces as sources of power.

John Ericsson died in New York on March 8, 1889. He is buried at Filipstad, Värmland, Sweden.

Northwest Passage
George Stephenson
Civil War
President Abraham Lincoln
John Philip Holland

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This page was last updated on 07/30/2017.