John Ericsson: Life Before the Monitor

John Ericsson, designer of the USS Monitor John Ericsson was born in the province of Vermland, Sweden, on July 31, 1803. The son of a mining engineer, Ericsson showed an early interest in mechanics. By the age of ten, he had designed and constructed a miniature sawmill. At the age of 13, as a cadet in the Swedish navy, he was appointed supervisor of more than 600 men on a major ship canal project. At the age of 17 he entered the Swedish army, joining as an ensign in the 23rd. The 23rd Corps served in part as a specialized engineering unit for the army, and while assigned there, Ericsson had extensive opportunities to sharpen his mechanical and engineering skills. The army also introduced him to the use and design of artillery. While serving in the army, Ericsson became interested in steam engines and developed the theory for his caloric engine, which operated on the principle that air heated to very high temperature could be used to drive engines.

Caloric Engine In 1826 Ericsson published a paper on his work to develop a caloric engine. That year he traveled to England to demonstrate his invention to the British Society of Civil Engineers. Sadly, the engine failed in the demonstration, and Ericsson, now penniless and with a tarnished reputation as an engineer, was stranded in England. Fortunately for Ericsson, present at the demonstration was an English engineer named John Braithwaite. Though Braithwaite had witnessed the failure of Ericsson's engine, he was impressed with the young Swede's determination and offered him a position as a partner in his firm. The partnership was to prove particularly fruitful. In the ten years that Braithwaite and Ericsson worked together they developed some 30 new inventions, including an evaporator, a depth finder, a series of improved engines, and a steam engine with a surface condenser.

Taking part in a contest to develop a train locomotive for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, in 1829 Ericsson developed an improved steam locomotive. Named the Novelty, Ericsson's steam locomotive weighed only two tons. During trials the Novelty covered a mile in 53 seconds, and exceeded 20 miles per hour while pulling three time its own weight. Despite the Novelty's success, the railroad granted the contract to a competing firm.

Ericsson Propeller In 1826 Ericsson published a paper on his work to develop a caloric engine. That year he traveled to England to demonstrate his invention to the British Society of Civil Engineers. Sadly, the engine failed in the demonstration, and Ericsson, now penniless and with a tarnished reputation as an engineer, was stranded in England. Fortunately for Ericsson, present at the demonstration was an English engineer named John Braithwaite. Though Braithwaite had witnessed the failure of Ericsson's engine, he was impressed with the young Swede's determination and offered him a position as a partner in his firm. The partnership was to prove particularly fruitful. In the ten years that Braithwaite and Ericsson worked together they developed some 30 new inventions, including an evaporator, a depth finder, a series of improved engines, and a steam engine with a surface condenser.

Taking part in a contest to develop a train locomotive for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, in 1829 Ericsson developed an improved steam locomotive. Named the Novelty, Ericsson's steam locomotive weighed only two tons. During trials the Novelty covered a mile in 53 seconds, and exceeded 20 miles per hour while pulling three time its own weight. Despite the Novelty's success, the railroad granted the contract to a competing firm.

Though the British navy rejected the idea of using screw propellers on warships, an American naval officer, Robert Stockton, was impressed with what he had seen Ericsson produce. Stockton persuaded Ericsson to immigrate to the United States. In 1839, with Stockton's influence, Ericsson was awarded a contract to build a screw-propelled warship for the United States Navy. Launched in 1843, the USS Princeton was the first warship in naval history to be designed and built as a screw-powered ship.

Though the Princeton proved to be a successful design, she placed a black mark on Ericsson's reputation. In 1844, while steaming on a demonstration cruise with a party of guests including President John Tyler, the secretaries of state and the navy, and two senators, one of the Princeton's guns exploded, killing five people (including both secretaries) and wounding 17 others. Although the gun that exploded was not of Ericsson's design, he was blamed for the disaster. A congressional investigation eventually cleared Ericsson of any responsibility for the accident aboard the Princeton, but the damage to his reputation had been done. Ericsson developed an animosity for the United States Navy that was to last for nearly 20 years.

After the explosion on the Princeton, Ericsson continued his work as an engineer and designer. In 1854, during the time when the French navy was experimenting with ironclad ships, Ericsson submitted to Napoleon III a design for a floating battery. Ericsson's design called for a battery that was steam powered and completely armored with iron plate. The profile of the battery was radically new. The entire engine space and living areas of the crew were below the water line. Only a flat armored gun platform supporting a revolving gun turret could be seen above the water. "Ericsson's Impregnable Battery and Revolving Cupola" was revolutionary in its design and construction. In fact, it was perhaps too radical, for Napoleon III did not contract for the construction of any of Ericsson's batteries.

We're in a race to conserve history! Follow along as artifacts are uncovered and more facts are learned about the Monitor and the men who served aboard!

From the heart breaking accounts of life aboard the ironclads to thrilling descriptions of the battles recounted by those who witnessed them you're sure to learn something new!

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