Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/November 1893/Sketch of John Ericsson

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1219879Popular Science Monthly Volume 44 November 1893 — Sketch of John Ericsson1893



THE arts of marine engineering and naval construction have been revolutionized through the inventions of Captain Ericsson. As is remarked in a passage cited by Mr. F. C. Church, in his biography of him, “in the closing years of his life he could look back upon ‘a change in the physical relations of man to the planet on which he dwells, greater than any which can be distinctly measured in any known period of historic time,’ and this he had no small part in creating.”

John Ericsson was born at Langbanshyttan, in the province of Wermland, Sweden, July 31, 1803, and died in the city of New York, March 8, 1889. His ancestry is traced back to the family of Leif Ericsson, the son of Eric the Red, the Norse discoverer of America. He was also related to Thorwaldsen, the sculptor, who was descended, according to Mr. John Fiske, from the son of Thorfinn Karlsefne, the first white child born on American soil. His father, Olaf Ericsson, was a proprietor of mines; his mother was a daughter of an ironmaster, who was possessed of gifts which, according to Mr. Church, she transmitted to her sons Nils and John. She used to relate that an old man had prophesied to her father that two boys would be born in the family who would become famous. John manifested an aptitude for constructive work at an early age. As a child he amused himself with drawing, boring, and cutting. A little older, he watched the engines at the mines, copied their models in his drawings, and studied their motions. He traced the first suggestion of his future career to the day when, in his seventh year, he dug a mine a foot deep and made a ladder for the use of imaginary miners. When nine years old he had learned the use of drawing instruments and the art of preparing constructive plans.

In the industrial disturbances occasioned by the war with Russia Ericsson's father lost all his property and was thrown out of business. In 1811 he obtained a responsible position in connection with the construction of the Gotha Canal, in which he gradually rose. John in the meantime was improving in the exercise of his rare talents. In the deep forests, to which his father had removed, drawing tools were hard to get. He had a pen and pencil. He made compasses of wood, with needles for the points; contrived a drawing pen out of a pair of tweezers; and made brushes of the hairs of his mother's sable cloak. With these home-made instruments he executed the drawings for a pumping engine to be operated by a windmill.

The best use was made for the Ericsson boys of the limited educational advantages which the region afforded. A governess was furnished them in the years 1811 and 1812. A draughtsman, connected with the work on the canal, taught them how to finish their drawings in a style which rivaled that of engraving. They were given access to the draughtsman's office of the canal company. John exhibited his first drawing to the scale when eight years old, and he learned to sketch maps. One of the superintending constructors of the canal was engaged to teach the boys algebra and architectural drawing. Another tutor “plagued them with lessons in Latin grammar,” from whom also John learned “chemistry and many other things," he says, “of great use to me; for instance, how to make and mix colors for my drawings out of materials bought at the druggists for a few cents.” The curate at Fredsberg on the Lefsäng was engaged to teach them French. The most distinguished mechanical draughtsman in the country gave them further perfection in his art; and other instructors, drawn also from the professional men engaged on the canal, taught them algebra, field drawing, geometry, and English. While John was naturally disposed to think and act for himself, these lessons tended to promote and encourage his intellectual self-reliance. When a friend spoke to him with regret of his not having been graduated from some technological institute, he answered that the fact, on the other hand, was very fortunate. If he had taken a course at such an institution, he would have acquired such a belief in authorities that he would never have been able to develop originality and make his own way in physics and mechanics.

When John was eleven years old he and his brother became pupils in engineering of Captain Edström, who had been sent to England to study the most approved methods in canal construction. He was so pleased with their work that he recommended them to Count Platen, President of the Götha Ship Canal. This officer had been shown specimens of what John had done, and, receiving him, predicted that if he continued as he had begun, he would some day produce something extraordinary. When twelve years old John was employed, under the direction of his chief, in drawing profile maps and plans for use on the canal, and to be filed in the archives of the company; in the next year he was assistant to the niveleur (or leveler) in charge of the station of Riddarhagen; and in another year, when only fourteen years old, and obliged to stand on a stool to reach the eyepiece of his surveyor's level, he was put in charge of the Rottkilms station, where he had to give directions daily to six hundred men. About this time he became assistant to the chief of the work. While engaged as leveler he made drawings of the Sunderland iron bridge, which Count Platen admired very much. He drew for his private use maps and sketches of important parts of the canal and of the machinery used in its construction, which he began to publish several years afterward, inventing an engraving machine to enable the work to be more speedily done. He found, however, that the machinery illustrated by his drawings was being superseded in the rapid progress of improvement in mechanical construction, and discontinued this enterprise.

In 1820, when Ericsson was seventeen years old, after his father had died, he entered the military service of Sweden, and was appointed an ensign in the Royal Field Chasseurs of Jämtland, and stationed at Frösön, near Ostersund. The step was taken against the protest of Count Platen, and was the occasion of a breach between them. Soon after joining his regiment he was recommended for promotion, but his colonel was out of favor at court, and the recommendation would not have been heeded, had not the Duke of Upland, son of King Bernadotte, pleaded for him. The duke showed his Majesty one of Ericsson's military maps, whereby the promotion was secured, and the king's attention was directed to Ericsson's skill as an engineer. Ericsson was subsequently commissioned to draw maps to illustrate the campaigns of Bernadotte as marshal of Napoleon. He passed the examination for and obtained an appointment on the survey of northern Sweden, and in connection with that work made detailed drawings of fifty square miles of the country.

On the advice of friends, including the king, who considered his abilities greater than could be adequately rewarded in Sweden, and himself, no doubt, willing to seek a larger field of usefulness, Ericsson in 1826 secured a leave of absence from the service and went to England. He took with him plans, including a flame engine which he had experimented on successfully with wood as fuel, but which was not available when coal was used; and a still undeveloped idea in his mind of a vessel which “it was possible for Sweden to build, and which would render the wooden walls of England of no avail against her.” He had intended to resign his lieutenancy, but, overstaying his leave of absence without obtaining an acceptance of his resignation, he was placed in an embarrassing position, from which he was extricated by the intercession of the crown prince; and in October, 1827, he received a promotion to a captaincy and an acceptance of his resignation. The title of captain thus obtained, and a degree of LL. D. from an American university, were the only honors he cared to display to the public, though he had many others equally high.

In the two years, 1828 and 1829, after he went to England, Captain Ericsson completed seven inventions. One of these, a machine for compressing air, was used in clearing one of the Cornish mines of water; another involved the use of artificial draft for steam-boiler furnaces. Sir John Ross was preparing for his second arctic expedition, but not wishing his purpose known, concealed it in ordering the engines of his vessel; and the contractors, Braithwaite and Ericsson, supposing that the voyage was to be of an ordinary character, put in one of these engines with other appendages not adapted to arctic navigation. When Captain Ericsson learned the destination of the vessel, he warned Captain Ross that the engine had not been built for that kind of work and would be useless. His prediction was fulfilled as soon as the vessel entered arctic waters, and the engine was thrown overboard. The principle was, however, retained for ordinary steam vessels, with results quite satisfactory. The third invention was a steam fire engine. The first, an experimental engine, was followed by four others, completed, one of which, sent to Prussia, proved so efficient that the designer received, in recognition of its value, an honorary membership in the Berlin Institute. Another engine, employed in London, extinguished the fires, but was objected to and rejected on account of the quantity of water it required; and it was nearly thirty years before London would have another steam fire engine, inferior to Ericsson's.

In 1829, while it was still undecided whether stationary or locomotive traction should be adopted for the railway between Liverpool and Manchester, a prize of £500 was offered for the best locomotive. Although five months were given the competitors in which to prepare themselves, Ericsson did not learn of the offer till within seven weeks of the day of trial. Stephenson brought out his “Rocket” engine, with every appointment perfect and tested. Ericsson produced his “Novelty,” graceful in design and structure, and with every part planned on sound principles, but built in haste and untested. It suffered two breakdowns in the trial, caused by undetected faults in workmanship; but not before it had passed the “Rocket” and reached a speed of thirty-two miles an hour. Ericsson withdrew it in disgust, and the prize went to Stephenson. But every one admired the beauty of the “Novelty”; the judges spoke of its appearance as being very much in its favor, and commended the ingenuity with which the machinery was so contrived as to work out of sight, and the compactness of its form; and John Scott Russell, the eminent English engineer, wrote in the Encyclopædia Britannica in 1840 that “the ‘Novelty’ had to be withdrawn through a series of unfortunate accidents which had no reference to the character or capabilities of the engine. And we well recollect that it made a profound impression on the public mind at the time. On the first day of the trial it went twenty-eight miles an hour (without any attached load), and did one mile in seven seconds under two minutes.” Two other elegant locomotives were built by Ericsson, but they failed to give entire satisfaction in the working, and this field of construction was left to Stephenson.

In 1830 Captain Ericsson devised the centrifugal fan blower which afterward came into general use on our river steamers; in 1834 he took out a patent for a deep-sea lead, on a principle similar to the one employed in a lead designed by Sir William Thomson. He received a prize from the London Society of Arts for a hydrostatic weighing machine. He exhibited at the International Exhibition of 1852, and received a medal for them, an instrument to measure distances at sea; an alarm barometer which sounded a gong in warning of approaching storms; and a pyrometer which measured temperatures up to the boiling point of iron. He invented an instrument for measuring the compressibility of water; methods of propelling boats on canals, one of which has been applied to the heavy grades of Swiss mountain railroads; a water meter, a centrifugal pump, a file cutting machine, an apparatus for making salt from brine, and numerous applications to the steam engine, many of which came into use, while others were abandoned. He experimented with superheated steam; and Mr. Church says that he designed more than five hundred steam engines.

While he was making all these machines he was also experimenting with designs for a caloric engine. His researches in this direction were begun with the “flame engine” already mentioned. He contributed a paper on the subject to the English Institution of Civil Engineers in 1826; built three engines in 1827 based on the principle of the expansion of air; brought out a completed caloric engine in 1833, to which he applied improvements as his investigations continued; received the Rumford medal in 1856 for his researches into the nature of heat; and, according to Mr. Church, spent in thirty years, including the engines for his caloric ship, more than a quarter of a million dollars in building twenty-seven experimental engines. The caloric system was not successful when applied to the propulsion of large vessels like the Ericsson, although that vessel registered a speed of eight and attained at one time a speed of eleven miles an hour, but for lighter work it has proved very practicable and efficient; the smaller machines have been extensively used, and the inventor derived large profits from them.

The first experiment with the screw propeller was made in 1836 by Captain Ericsson, in conjunction with his friend Francis B. Ogden, of New Jersey, United States consul at Liverpool. A model of the apparatus was built and tested in a public bath. Then a boat forty feet long, propelled by a double screw, attained a speed of ten miles an hour on the Thames. The Lords of the Admiralty were passengers on the trial trip; but seeing was not believing with them, and, while they witnessed the successful performance of the craft, they declared that no vessel could be steered if the power was applied at the stern, and would have nothing to do with it. Captain Robert J. Stockton, of New Jersey, afterward United States Senator, was visiting England at the time on business connected with the Delaware and Raritan Canal, and, witnessing the performance of the propeller vessel, ordered one built for himself and named after him. It was sent across the Atlantic, and when it reached New York the freedom of the city was given to its captain. This vessel was employed for many years in the waters of the United States, and, passing into the possession of the Messrs. Stevens, of Hoboken, N. J., was known as the tug New Jersey till 1866, when, or about that time, it was broken up.

On the invitation of Captain Stockton, Captain Ericsson resigned, in 1839, the position of Superintending Engineer of the Eastern Counties Railroad in England, and removed to the United States. By the aid of Captain Stockton's influence he obtained a commission to build a steam-propeller frigate, the Princeton, for the United States Navy. Before this vessel was finished, in 1844, his screw had been placed in forty-one commercial vessels of the United States. Another new and valuable principle was introduced in the Princeton—that of applying the power directly to the shaft turning the screw. Ericsson's propellers with direct-acting engines below the water line were also applied in the French frigate Pomona in 1843, and in the British frigate Amphion in 1844. The Princeton was fitted with a twelve-inch wrought-iron gun, forged after Ericsson's designs, and strengthened with bands, which had been tested; and with a heavier gun ordered by Captain Stockton, called the Peacemaker. This gun, when fired—Ericsson's friends claim, against his advice—during a visit of President Tyler and members of his Cabinet to the Princeton, February 28, 1844, burst, killing the Secretaries of State and the Navy, and Colonel Gardiner, of New York.

From the year 1826 Ericsson had entertained the idea of contriving an “impregnable and partially submerged instrument for destroying ships of war,” and had a plan matured for it in 1835; and the idea of protecting war engines for naval purposes was as old with him, he wrote, as his recollection. He had become satisfied also that armor plates that a vessel could carry could not be forged which a gun could not be constructed to penetrate if fired directly at them. From these ideas was developed the plan of the submerged vessel carrying a turret, which was embodied in the Monitor. In August, 1861, he proposed to President Lincoln to build a vessel for the destruction of the Confederate war-craft, declaring that his purpose was not private profit but only to serve his country. No settled purpose or idea of what was to be done seems to have existed in Washington; but Ericsson, after presenting his plans, was directed to construct the Monitor according to them, within a hundred days. The result of the first experiment with this vessel constitutes one of the sensational incidents of history. The Monitor's guns were not allowed to be charged in that action as heavily as Ericsson desired—they would have borne, in fact, a charge three times as great as was given them—consequently the Merrimac was not destroyed, as it probably might have been. Nine other monitors were built for the Government by Ericsson and his business associates, of which the Dictator was completed, as he reported to the Navy Department, with a displacement of a fraction of an inch less than he had calculated.

In 1869 Captain Ericsson contracted to furnish the Spanish Government with thirty gunboats after his own designs, for use against Cuban insurgent blockade-runners. They were all afloat within four months, two months before the time they were to be called for by the contract, and half of them had their engines and boilers on board. Several novel features were introduced upon them; they proved admirably adapted to their purpose; and in recognition of his service the Spanish Government conferred upon Ericsson the decoration of Isabel la Católica.

Captain Ericsson's ideas of a war vessel for submarine work more seaworthy than the monitors were embodied in the Destroyer, which was launched in 1878. “It is an iron vessel, one hundred and thirty feet long, seventeen feet wide, and eleven feet deep, protected by a wrought-iron breastwork of great strength near the bow,” carrying a submarine sixteen-inch gun thirty feet long, the muzzle of which projects through an opening in the stem near the bottom, and which is intended to carry a fifteen-hundred-pound projectile charged with three hundred pounds of guncotton. The vessel is intended to attack “bow on,” and to discharge its projectile from within three hundred feet of the object of assault. The bill for the purchase of this vessel by the United States, although it passed the Senate in 1885, failed to become a law.

“Three distinct purposes,” says Mr. Church, “are apparent in Ericsson's labors: first, to improve the steam engine and extend the scope of its application; next to discover some more economical and efficient method for changing the mode of motion we call heat into the mode of motion we call power; third, to force the great maritime nations to declare the ocean neutral ground, by making naval warfare too destructive a pastime to be indulged in.” We have seen how he worked out the first of these ideas in his numerous adaptations of the steam engine, and the third in the monitors and the Destroyer. In trying to make the second idea practical he devised the caloric engine and devoted many of the later years of his life to the investigation of the solar heat and of methods of converting it into a direct source of mechanical power. He devised and constructed a solar engine in 1883, which was described and illustrated in Nature (Vol. XXIX, p. 217), and labored until within two years of his death to improve and perfect it. In his description of this engine he showed that with reflecting plates of one hundred and thirty by one hundred and eighty inches and a steam cylinder of six by eight inches he could obtain a speed of engine of one hundred and twenty turns per minute, with an absolute pressure on the working piston of thirty-five pounds per square inch. He devoted himself regularly and, except for the daily walk for his health, unremittingly to his work. Fitting up his office and workshop in Beach Street, New York, he occupied his whole time in investigation, experiment, and construction, refusing to be interrupted, and shutting himself out from general visitors. He was a man of great physical strength, and some remarkable stories are told of his feats in lifting. In one of them, when in youth he raised a weight of six hundred pounds, he thought he overstrained himself, and he ascribed to it certain pains in his back from which he suffered.

He participated eagerly in physical sports, was expert in Swedish gymnastics, was one of the best shots, the best leaper, and the champion wrestler in his regiment, and was famed as an athlete, skater, and swimmer. Mr. E. H. Stoughton, formerly minister to Russia, is said to have surprised him once at sixty years of age standing on his head, to prove that he had not lost his agility. He was a man of unbounded benevolence, and never refused the petitions of those who came to him in need.

While his literary works were not numerous, Captain Ericsson was a writer of force and ability, with imaginative faculties that might have been developed under cultivation. In his youth, and while engaged in his surveying work, he sometimes, he says, “wrote poetry to the wonderful and enchanting midnight light of Norrland. Connoisseurs often doubted that it came from the second lieutenant and surveyor among the mountains.” His communications to the periodical press on the subjects in which he was interested were clear and vigorous, and always acceptable.

He was a man of intense patriotism, which he manifested equally toward his native land, although he never returned to it, and the United States, the country of his adoption. In his studies and inventions he had always in view the protection of Sweden against the aggressive stronger powers; and he gave the fruits of them ungrudgingly to the United States—not always insisting upon his reward as persistently as he had a right to do, and too often not receiving it, or receiving it at the expense of delay and trouble not creditable to our Government. His gifts to Sweden, after he became prosperous, were numerous and bountiful, and included contributions for the relief of sufferers from famine and from a fire at Carlstad, and for a benevolent fund for the aged miners and miners' widows of his native province; a subscription to the Royal Library of Stockholm; the guns for the first Swedish monitor; and a gunboat for coast defense. In 1867 the miners of his native region erected in front of the house in which he was born, at their own expense, a large granite monument, bearing the inscription, in Swedish, “John Ericsson was born here in 1803.”

We are very largely indebted for the detail of the facts concerning Captain Ericsson's inventions to the excellent biographical articles concerning him by Mr. William C. Church, which were published in Scribner's Magazine in 1890.