John Ericsson


Moniter and Merrimac
John Ericsson was born in Värmland, Sweden, and at the age of seventeen he joined the Swedish Army, serving as a Second Lieutenant for a short time before being promoted to Lieutenant. While in northern Sweden, he became interested in mechanics, even constructing a small heat engine, and he soon resigned from the army and moved to England to continue his work. Unfortunately, his engine, which used birch wood as fuel instead of the more abundant coal, was not successful. Rather than give up, Ericsson created several other mechanisms that instead used steam power, and one of these, the steam fire engine, proved an outstanding success, though it was met with resistance fro London authorities. His most widely appreciated invention at the time was the steam condenser, which allowed a ship to produce fresh water for its boilers while at sea. The costs of his failed inventions, however, were more than his profits from his successes, and he was on several occasions thrown into debtor’s prison. He also at this time married the young Amelia Byam, but the marriage was a disaster and ended quickly in separation.

While working on ship propeller designs, Ericsson made contact with the American captain Robert Stockton, who assured the inventor that his work would be better appreciated in the United States. Limited funds were allocated for Ericsson’s work, and his completed project—featuring a loading gun on a revolving pedestal—was perhaps the most advanced warship of its time. Toward the ship’s completion, Stockton and Ericsson’s relationship began to fail, and Stockton attempted to take undue credit for his partner’s innovations. Stockton even made another gun similar to Ericsson’s, but he had little mechanical knowledge and during the ship’s unveiling, the second gun broke, killing the U.S. Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Navy, and six others. The blame was placed unfairly upon Ericsson, and Stockton later blocked the Navy from paying him for his work, leading to the latter’s resentment for the U.S. Navy.

Ericsson went on to invent the world’s first monitor, used during the Civil War, as well as to advance torpedo technology and hoop gun construction. He also created both the hot air engine and the solar engine. Although none of his inventions were highly financially successful, he is regarded as one of the most influential mechanical engineers in history. He passed away in 1889, and his body returned to his native Sweden.

Key events during the life of John Ericsson:

Joined the Swedish Army.
Raced a steam engine in a competition arranged by the Liverpool and Manchester railway.
Married Amelia Byam, who soon separated from him.
Moved to New York.
Invented the first monitor, the USS Monitor, for the Civil War.
Invented the hot air engine.
Death of close friend and advocate Cornelius H. DeLamater.
  Died one month after DeLamater.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
John Ericsson  in  Heroes of Progress in America  by  Charles Morris

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