Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Ericsson, John

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Edition of 1900. See also John Ericsson on Wikipedia, and our Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography disclaimer. The 1892 edition cites “Ericsson and his Inventions,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1862, and “John Ericsson,” Scribner's Monthly, April 1879.

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ERICSSON, John, engineer, b. in Långbanshyttan, province of Wennland, Sweden, 31 July, 1803; d. in New York city, 8 March, 1889. His father, Olof, was a mining proprietor, and his brother, Baron Nils Ericsson, was chief of the Swedish railways. As a boy, John had ample opportunity of watching machinery connected with mines, and his mechanical talent was early developed. He received his earliest instruction from a Swedish governess, and a German engineering officer who had served under Bernadotte. Before he was eleven years of age he had constructed with his own hands, and after his own plans, a miniature saw-mill, and had made numerous drawings of complicated mechanical contrivances. These efforts having attracted the attention of Count Platen, this celebrated engineer appointed him a cadet in the corps of mechanical engineers, and, after six months' tuition, he was made a leveller at the grand Swedish ship canal, then in course of construction. Two years later, at the age of fourteen, he was employed to set out the work of a section employing 600 soldier operatives, and occupied his leisure in making drawings of every implement and machine connected with the canal. He entered the Swedish army as ensign in 1820, and was rapidly promoted to a lieutenancy. Shortly afterward he passed with distinction a competitive examination for an appointment on the survey of northern Sweden. Notwithstanding the labor attendant upon his duties as a surveyor, he undertook to make drawings for a work on canals, and to engrave the plates in the style of what was known as machine engraving. He devised a line engraving machine, by means of which, within one year, he completed eighteen large copper plates, which experts pronounced to be of superior merit. When about twenty-two years old he constructed a condensing flame-engine of ten-horse power, and in 1826 went to England to introduce it; but it was not successful, the flame produced by mineral fuel being far less in volume than that obtained from a pine-wood fire, while the intense heat from coal seriously affected the working parts of the engine. In 1827 he resigned his commission in the army, after being promoted to a captaincy. The failure of the flame-engine compelled him to draw upon his mechanical abilities for means to prosecute further experiments. He produced, in rapid succession, an instrument for taking sea soundings, a hydrostatic weighing machine, and numerous other devices, including tubular steam-boilers, and artificial draught by centrifugal fan-blowers, dispensing with huge smoke-stacks, economizing fuel, and showing the fallacy of the assertion that the production of steam was dependent on the amount of fire surface. In the steamship “Victory,” in 1828, he made the first application to navigation of the principle of condensing steam and returning the water to the boiler, and in the same year submitted to the admiralty his self-acting gun-lock, the peculiarity being that by its means naval cannon could be automatically discharged at any elevation, notwithstanding the rolling of the ship. Not being able to agree as to the terms of adoption in the British navy, he kept the secret of this invention till 1843, when he applied it to the wrought-iron gun of the “Princeton.” In 1829 he produced the celebrated steam carriage “Novelty,” built for the purpose of competing with George Stephenson for the historical Liverpool and Manchester railway prize. This engine was planned and completed, and placed on the trial-ground within seven weeks; but, although the “Novelty,” guided by its inventor, far exceeded all other competitors in lightness, elegance, and speed, attaining the then amazing speed of thirty miles an hour, Stephenson's “Rocket” proved superior in traction, and was awarded the prize. In the “Novelty” he introduced several features, the four most important of which are retained in the locomotive of the present day. This year, also, he invented a steam fire-engine, which excited great interest in London, and for which he afterward received, in 1840, the great gold medal of the Mechanics' institute of New York. In 1830 he introduced “link motion” for reversing locomotive engines, and a modification of this device is now in use in all locomotives. His long-cherished plan of a caloric engine was realized in 1833, and was hailed with astonishment by the scientific world of London. Lectures were delivered on it by Dr. Dionysius Lardner and Michael Faraday, and it was highly approved by Dr. Andrew Ure and Sir Richard Phillips. A working engine of five-horse power was built, in which he placed the “Regenerator,” but it was unsuccessful owing to the high temperature essential, which produced oxidation, quickly destroying the valves and other working parts. In 1853 the caloric ship “Ericsson,” of 2,000 tons, was propelled by a motor on the same principle. A sea trial from New York to Washington and back established great economy in fuel, but at a speed too slow to compete with steam. For several years thereafter Ericsson devoted himself to the improvement of the stationary caloric engine and its application to light mechanical purposes, and more than 6,000 of such engines have been built up to 1887, hundreds being employed in New York city in pumping water in private dwellings. In 1862 the American academy of arts and sciences awarded the gold and silver Rumford medals to Ericsson “for his improvements in the management of heat, particularly as shown in his caloric engine of 1858.” This was the second bestowal of the premium in the United States. In 1836 Ericsson invented and patented the screw propeller, which revolutionized navigation, and in 1837 built a steam vessel having twin screw propellers, which on trial towed the American packet-ship “Toronto” at the rate of five miles an hour on the river Thames. Subsequently the admiralty barge, bearing the lords of the admiralty, was towed at a rapid rate, but the endeavor to convince them of the practicability of the new device was futile, since they thought that, as the power must be applied at the stern, the vessel would not steer. In 1838 he constructed the iron screw-steamer “Robert F. Stockton,” which crossed the Atlantic under canvas in 1839, and was afterward employed as a tug-boat on the river Delaware for a quarter of a century. In 1839, urged by Com. Robert F. Stockton, U. S. N., Ericsson resigned his office in London as superintending engineer of the Eastern Counties railway, and came to the United States during November. In 1841, under order from the U. S. navy department, he furnished designs for the screw war-ship “Princeton,” the first vessel having the propelling machinery below water-line, out of the reach of hostile shot. This vessel dictated the reconstruction of the navies of the world. Besides its screw propeller, the “Princeton” was remarkable for numerous mechanical novelties devised by Ericsson, such as a direct-acting semi-cylindrical steam-engine of great compactness and simplicity; a telescopic smoke-stack; and independent centrifugal blowers for ventilation and for promoting combustion in the boiler-furnaces, obviating the necessity of exposing the chimney during battle. He also fitted it with wrought-iron gun-carriages, with mechanism for dispensing with breeching, and taking up the recoil of the twelve-inch wrought-iron gun, the first of its kind, and up to that time the largest and most powerful piece of ordnance mounted on ship-board; the self-acting lock, before referred to; and an optical instrument to enable the commanding officer, by mere inspection, accurately to ascertain the distance of the object to be aimed at. The “Princeton” is correctly regarded as the pioneer of modern naval construction, and also as the foundation of the steam marine of the world. During the construction of the “Princeton,” and before the end of 1843, numerous propeller vessels were built and furnished with engines by Ericsson, for carrying freight on the rivers and inland waters of the United States, and his propellers were in successful application in more than sixty vessels in this country before a single attempt was made to evade his patent. Up to this period Europe was skeptical regarding the commercial value of the new method of propulsion. In 1851, in the U. S. division of the World's fair held in London, he exhibited several of his inventions, including his instrument for measuring distances at sea; a hydrostatic gauge for fluids under pressure; a gauge for the volume of water passing through pipes; the alarm barometer; a pyrometer; an instrument for measuring fluids by the velocity with which they pass through definite apertures; and a self-registering deep-sea lead, still in use by the U. S. coast survey, the principle of which was adopted in constructing the sounding apparatus used by the “Challenger” expedition. For these philosophical exhibits Ericsson was awarded the prize medal of the exhibition. Previous to 1836, Ericsson conceived the idea that was put in practical shape when, in 1854, he presented to Emperor Napoleon III. plans of a partially submerged armored vessel, with guns in a revolving shot-proof cupola placed centrally on the deck. This was the first suggestion of the “Monitor,” which was designed and built by him in Greenpoint, N. Y., in 1861, for the U. S. government, under very arbitrary conditions. When the proposition to build this vessel was accepted, the only drawing completed by the designer was a mere outline and section to illustrate the stability of the structure; but, by extraordinary energy and executive skill, calculations and working-plans were made, and the “Monitor” launched, with steam machinery complete, in one hundred days from the laying of the keel. She arrived in Hampton Roads just in time to defeat, on 9 March, 1862, the Confederate iron-clad “Merrimac,” which, on the day preceding, had destroyed the “Cumberland” and “Congress,” and was about to sink or disperse the rest of the government's wooden fleet. But for the victory of the “Monitor,” the result of the war might have been changed, and European interference attempted. A fleet of monitors was then quickly built, which defeated several Confederate iron-clad batteries; and Ericsson's system was taken up by European maritime powers and carried out by them on a large scale. In 1869 he constructed for the Spanish government a fleet of thirty steam gun-boats, which was intended to guard Cuba against filibustering parties. In 1881 his latest war-vessel, the “Destroyer,” was devised. It carries a submarine gun of sixteen inches calibre, which discharges 300 pounds of gun-cotton, in a 1,500-pound projectile, against an iron-clad's hull beneath the water-line. During many years Ericsson devoted much time to scientific investigation, including computations of the influences that retard the earth's rotary motion. His “Sun Motor,” erected at New York in 1883, develops a steady power obtained from the supply of mechanical energy stored up in the sun. This motor was intended by the designer as a contribution to applied science. Ericsson contributed numerous papers, on scientific, naval, and mechanical subjects, to various journals in America and Europe. In “Contributions to the Centennial Exhibition” (New York, 1876) he described the scientific apparatus devised and employed by him in experiments which determined all important practical questions relating to radiant heat, and numerous novel instruments by which he demonstrated the intensity of solar energy and the temperature of the solar surface; it also contains a description of his principal engineering constructions during his residence in the United States. Many honors were bestowed upon him. Besides receiving royal favors from Sweden, he was knight commander of royal orders in Denmark and Spain; recipient of the grand cross of naval merit from the late King Alfonso of Spain, and of a special gold medal sent by the emperor of Austria in behalf of science; he received the thanks of congress, and was a member of various scientific institutions in Europe and America. Wesleyan university gave him the degree of LL. D. in 1862. In 1867 a huge monument, quarried in one piece from the neighboring granite-mines, was set up in front of his birthplace, bearing the inscription, in the Swedish language, “John Ericsson was born here, 31 July, 1803.” In 1890 his “Life” appeared, written by William C. Church, and in April, 1893, his bronze statue was unveiled on the New York Battery.

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