Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

John Ericsson,
the Inventor of the "Monitor"

Our great men have not all been of American birth. Europe has sent us many men who became among the best of American citizens and the ablest and most useful dwellers upon our soil. One of these, a man of high distinction in the field of invention, was John Ericsson, born in Langbanshyttan, Sweden, July 31, 1803. He came to America in 1839, when thirty-six years of age, after having spent thirteen years in England, where he built in 1829 a locomotive that ran thirty miles an hour, and about 1833 exhibited a caloric engine. His most important work there was the application of the screw or propeller to steam navigation, an invention which in time fairly drove the paddle-wheel from the seas. When he reached the shores of America it was as a distinguished inventor. He was to spend here fifty years of his life, engaged in similar labors of many kinds.

It was the invention of the propeller, now almost universally used on steam vessels, that brought Ericsson to America. He offered this to England, but the British Admiralty, with the blindness which that body has often shown, would have nothing to do with the new-fangled notion, and the disgusted Swede crossed the ocean in search of a more wide-awake government.

Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac


He found the Americans far more open to new ideas, and was quickly set to work in building a warship, the steamer "Princeton," called by some one "a gimcrack of sundry inventions." It was the first steam vessel that had her engines and boilers entirely below the water line, and the first in which the screw-propeller took the place of Fulton's paddle-wheels. The "Princeton "had many other new contrivances, connected with her furnaces, her guns, her smoke-stack, etc., and proved a great success in her trial trip. The propeller in especial attracted the attention of engineers, and before many years made a revolution in steam-ship building.

Unfortunately, Ericsson's new ship, despite its good beginning, had a sad ending. The first display of its powers was hardly over when a terrible accident happened to a distinguished party that was visiting it. The "Peacemaker," one of its great guns, burst in firing and scattered its iron fragments among the guests. Two of the Secretaries of President Tyler's Cabinet, a commodore, and several other persons were killed by the explosion.

This accident proved for the time fatal to Ericsson's credit with the Government. The gun that burst was an experiment in large cannon with which he had nothing to do, but it put an end to his government work for many years. It was not until the Civil War began that his abilities were again called into service. The idea of protecting warships with iron bars or plates had now been devised, and the South was prompt to make use of this idea, raising the sunken "Merrimac "in Norfolk harbor with the purpose of covering it with iron.

Ericsson, ever fertile in new schemes, devised a plan of his own, of a vessel that not only should be iron-clad, but should be sunk so deeply in the water as to leave only its gun turrets as a mark for hostile shot. The Government badly needed a powerful type of war-vessel, but did not take kindly to Ericsson's scheme, and he had great difficulty in obtaining an order from the Navy Department. It came at length, however, and he began work on his afterward-famous "Monitor," the "cheese-box on a raft" as it was derisively termed.

When he fairly began work on it haste was needed, for it was known that the "Merrimac "was being rapidly changed into an iron-clad, and the fear was felt that it might do immense damage unless a vessel of equal strength was ready to meet it. Not only the fleet in Hampton Roads might be destroyed, but the Potomac might be entered and Washington bombarded by this dreaded monster. As a result, work was pressed on the "Monitor," it was begun and finished within one hundred days, and it steamed its way down to Hampton Roads, reaching there on the night of the 8th of March, 1862, shortly after the "Merrimac "had appeared and made havoc among the wooden vessels of the fleet.

All readers of American history know what followed, of the terrible battle between the iron monsters, and of the withdrawal of the "Merrimac," leaving the little "Monitor "master of the field. After that Ericsson was kept busy building monitors, as all vessels of this type have since been called, and the era of the iron-clad warship was fairly inaugurated. To him is due the credit of building the first successful vessel of this kind.

Ericsson had now reached a high standing as an inventor. His propeller and his iron-clad were both great conceptions. In addition he spent many years upon a caloric engine, in which hot air was to take the place of steam. His caloric ship, the "Ericsson," made a successful trip from New York to Washington in 1851. It cost him and others large sums of money, but it mainly served to prove that hot-air engines of large size were much less powerful than those worked by steam. Yet the caloric engine is very useful where a small amount of power is needed, and many of them are in use at the present day.

Captain Ericsson gave much of his time in later years to inventing torpedoes and other devices for submarine warfare. In 1881 the "Destroyer," a vessel which was to fire projectiles containing 300 pounds of gun cotton into an enemy's vessel below the armor line, was tried, but its success was not sufficient to satisfy the Navy Department. In his later years he gave much of his time and ingenuity to the building of a solar motor, for use on the great sandy plains of rainless regions, where the sun gives out vast stores of heat which might be made of service to man. He died before he had perfected this machine, but since his death solar motors of much usefulness have been made. They are in use in Southern California and other hot and dry regions.

As may be seen, Captain Ericsson was an inventor of great versatility and fine powers. We have spoken here only of his most important inventions, but he made many others. In the thirteen years he spent in England, before coming to the United States, his inventions were numerous, most of them having something to do with power engines. One of these, which was quite a novelty, was the first steam fire-engine ever tried. This was used, to the great surprise of the Londoners, on a fire at the Argyle Rooms in 1829. As was said at the time, it was "the first time that fire was ever put out by the mechanical power of fire."

The inventions and improvements made by Captain Ericsson were far too numerous to be mentioned here. His studies and experiments added largely to the world's knowledge of the proper use of steam and other power agents. The old house on Beech Street, New York, where he lived and worked for many years, was the home of many inventions and experiments, to which he gave most of his time every day. His work was honored and his fame spread all over the world, and many were the learned and honorary titles conferred upon him by the governments and the scientific bodies of Europe and America. He died in New York, March 8, 1889.