- Michael A. Cavanaugh
Ericsson, John (31 July 1803–08 March 1889), inventor and engineer, was born in Langbanshyttan, province of Wermland, Sweden, the son of Olof Ericsson, a mine proprietor and inspector, and Brita Sophia Yngstrom. His earliest education was instruction by his parents and private tutors. John often spent his days drawing and building models of the machinery in his father’s mine. His father was well educated, but John’s strong character traits were attributed to the influence of his mother. Sweden’s war with Russia ruined John’s father financially, but he was able to secure a position as an inspector on a canal project and to obtain appointments for his two sons as cadets in the Corps of Mechanical Engineers. Thus at age thirteen John began his first formal education, and his natural aptitudes for mechanical drawing and solving engineering problems were encouraged and developed.
At the age of seventeen Ericsson entered the Swedish army as an ensign. His drawing and engineering talents were soon recognized, and he was assigned to topographical surveying duties. By 1826 he was interested in the development of a more efficient engine than steam, and at age twenty-three he left the military and migrated to London, where he believed his work would be more productive. He concentrated on his engine project, but the necessity of earning a living led him to a variety of other endeavors. Among them was the transmission of forced-air steam boilers, which would permit a ship’s engines to be placed under the water level to protect them from enemy fire.
Another of Ericsson’s projects was the screw propeller as a means of marine propulsion. Although he did not invent the screw propeller, he recognized that a warship with engines under the water line could not be propelled by the typical paddle wheel and improved on the idea. In 1837 the Francis B. Ogden tested Ericsson’s screw propeller, showing significant promise. Consequently, Americans approached Ericsson to design vessels for the U.S. Navy. In the meantime, in 1836, Ericsson married Amelia Byam. Although they remained close, she never joined him permanently in the United States. They had no children, and she died during the Civil War.
Ericsson arrived in New York City on 23 November 1839 with two primary goals. One was the installation of his propeller design on vessels operating in the canals and inland waters of the fast-growing country, and the second was the development of a “big frigate” for the U.S. Navy. He quickly impressed his new hosts. In 1840 he easily won a prize offered by the Mechanic’s Institute of New York for the best design of a steam fire engine. By 1844 he had made great progress on the screw propeller, and twenty-five boats operating on the Great Lakes were equipped with Ericsson’s designs. Also in 1844 the first screw-propelled vessel of war, the USS Princeton, was commissioned. However, while the Princeton was going through trials, a gun exploded, killing many people, including the secretary of state and the secretary of the navy, and wounding many others. Although Ericsson could not be faulted, a stigma was cast over the Princeton, and Ericsson’s long list of successes was dealt a serious blow. Nevertheless, this tragic incident did not deter Ericsson’s enthusiasm for his work.
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Ericsson was again in demand by the U.S. government. Other countries had begun developing armored ships, but the idea was just budding in the United States. The secretary of the Confederate States Navy had the sunken USS Merrimac at the Norfolk Navy Yard raised and converted into an ironclad vessel, renamed the CSS Virginia. The resulting concern in the Lincoln cabinet generated interest in Ericsson’s plan for an armored vessel, which he had sent to the president at the beginning of the war. The U.S. contracted for three armored warships, one of which was Ericsson’s “floating battery” that became the USS Monitor. Building the Monitor, from keel to launch, took just one hundred working days, a remarkable feat attesting the superb organizational skills of Ericsson and the people he chose to work with him. The ship was launched on 30 January 1862.
The battle between the Monitor and the Virginia at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 9 March 1862 yielded no victor, but it is recognized by historians as the battle that changed the face of naval warfare. The revolving gun turrets, construction of iron plates over a wooden frame, complete steam power, and screw propeller made the USS Monitor the mother of the great battle wagons of the future. Ericsson was hailed nationwide, and the U.S. government placed him in charge of the design and construction of a large fleet of bigger and better monitor vessels.
After the war Ericsson spent most of his time designing and supervising the construction of small gunboats for Spain and other foreign countries. In the 1870s his attention turned to submarines and torpedo ordnance. During the Civil War a crude type of submarine had appeared, and the idea had intrigued Ericsson as early as 1826. In 1878 he was ready to test a torpedo that could be fired under the water line of a ship. He also worked on heavy guns and the problem of recoil, especially on-board ship. He continued to work until the day of his death in New York City.
Ericsson was one of the most important inventors and naval engineers of the nineteenth century. He is remembered for building the first ironclad warship, but his major contributions were to maritime science and engineering. A man of little patience, he did not get along well with those who worked with him, likely because of the pace set by his active mind.
A major collection of Ericsson’s papers and drawings is at the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia, Pa. A guide to this collection is Esther C. Meixner, Guide to the Microfilm Edition of the John Ericsson Papers (1970). Records of Ericsson’s work with the Federal government during the Civil War are at the National Archives. See also the Library of Congress collection, which contains 1,500 items, including drawings. Ericsson wrote “The Building of the Monitor,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, ed. Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel, vol. 1 (1884–1887). A biography is William Conant Church, The Life of John Ericsson (2 vols., 1890). See also Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary (1959). The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (30 vols., 1894–1922) includes many entries concerning Ericsson. Much information on Ericsson and the sea battle between the Monitor and the Virginia is in William C. Davis, Duel between the First Ironclads (1975). Extensive details on Ericsson’s death and funeral are in the New York Times, 9 and 12 Mar. 1889.