- Engineering & Materials
- Ericsson, John (1803–1889)
Ericsson, John (1803–1889)
Swedish-born U.S. engineer and inventor who is best known for his work on naval vessels.
Ericsson was born on July 31, 1803 at Langban Shyttan in Varmland, Sweden, and between the ages of 13 and 17 served as a draftsman in the Gotha Canal Works. He was then commissioned into the Swedish army, where he carried out map surveys. In 1826 he moved to London to seek sponsorship for a new type of heat engine he had invented (which used the expansion of superheated air as the driving force). This forerunner of the gas turbine was not successful, and Ericsson turned his attention to steam engines.
In 1829 he built the Novelty, a steam locomotive that competed unsuccessfully against George Stephenson's Rocket at the Rainhill Trials for adoption on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. In 1839 Captain Stockton of the U.S. navy placed an order for Ericsson to supply a small iron vessel fitted with steam engines and a screw propellor. The vessel was built and sailed to New York; Ericsson himself sailed out a few months later. He became a U.S. citizen in 1848.
In 1851 he resumed his interest in the heat or “caloric” engine. It was found to be too heavy for the ship he had built for it (immodestly called the Ericsson), making the vessel too slow. Only toward the end of his life did Ericsson construct small, efficient engines of this type.
A more successful line of development resulted from his work on the helical screw propellor, an interest he shared with his contemporary Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Realizing that the paddle steamer was incapable of further development, Ericsson had built two small screw-driven ships in the U.K. in 1837 and 1839. In 1849 he built the Princeton, the first metal-hulled, screw-propelled warship and the first to have its engines below the waterline for added protection.
It was the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 that finally gave Ericsson the opportunity to demonstrate his skill as a naval engineer. His turreted iron-clad ship, the Monitor, was first offered to Napoleon III and only after he refused it did it go to Ericsson's adopted country. Equipped with a low freeboard and heavy guns, it was the first warship to have revolving gun turrets—a practice soon to be adopted universally. In the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862, the Monitor defeated the Confederate ship Morrimack.
After the Civil War Ericsson continued to design warships, torpedoes, and a 35.6-cm/14-in naval gun, but he also devoted time to more peaceful pursuits. Among his inventions were an apparatus for extracting salt from sea water, fans for forced draft and ventilation, a shipboard depth-finder, a steam fire engine, and surface condensers for marine engines. Between the years 1870–85, he also explored the possiblity of using solar energy and gravitation and tidal forces as sources of power.
Not always successful in the realization of his ideas, Ericsson was a willful and impetuous man, often far ahead of other engineers of the day. He died on March 8, 1889 in New York City, and in 1889 the VSS Baltimore took his body back to Sweden, in accordance with his last wishes.
From the Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography, © RM, 2020. All rights reserved. Published under license in AccessScience, © McGraw-Hill Education, 2000–2020. Helicon Publishing is a division of RM.