Ericsson's Early Years
A remarkable child was born on July 31, 1803 in Langbanshyttan, in the province of Wermland, Sweden. John Ericsson, a prodigy of science and engineering, as Mozart was to music, showed his talents at an astoundingly young age. Young Ericsson’s access to the drafting tables around his father’s place of work, piqued his interest. He built his own drafting tools and began to draw and conceive his own creations. A model of a sawmill was formed from everyday items found around the house, and of more grand scale, in the winter following his tenth birthday, he developed a mechanism designed to pump water out of the iron mines which were so vital to the economy of his home in central Sweden. This brilliant debut by young Ericsson, was not lost on Baron von Platen, the President of the Gotha Ship Canal project on which his father worked. The Gotha Ship Canal, proved a massive undertaking which was planned to cut across Sweden from Stockholm to Gothenborg, and in effect created a shortcut for maritime traffic between the North Sea and the Baltic. Young John Ericsson demonstrated that his early achievements were no fluke; for he found himself employed on Gotha Canal project by the age of 14. This work placed him in charge of the labor of 600 Swedish soldiers; no mean feat for a young man, indeed. At 17, he joined the Swedish army in whose service he studied the art of artillery, as well as surveying. In fact, some of Ericsson’s maps of the northern Swedish highlands are still held in file by the Swedish government. Interestingly, during his time in the military, Ericsson had a relationship with a young lady which produced a son, unfortunately little is known of this facet of his life. Nonetheless, a marriage did not occur, and thus separated, John Ericsson did not see his son for close to 50 years, for his legendary work eventually took him far away from his ancestral home.
In 1826, following his tour of duty with the army, Ericsson moved to England. There along with John Braithwaite, he developed the Novelty, a steam locomotive. It was entered in a contest with George Stephenson's Rocket in 1829. Despite the fact that the Novelty moved at a far faster rate, Ericsson and Braithwaite lost the competition because the Rocket pulled more. It was not speed, but power that carried the day. Frustrated in this endeavor, the brilliant engineer soon diverted his attention toward matters of nautical interest, an area that would dominate the rest of his life.
He developed the screw propeller, which is the prime source of motivation for sea vessels even to this day. In the late 1830s he tried to sell the concept of the screw propeller to the British Royal Navy, but was rejected. This decision was tantamount to one dismissing the notion of the wheel itself. Although the Admiralty dismissed his propeller as not suitable for military use, Ericsson did impress a representative for the United States Navy, Captain Robert F. Stockton. While on a test run on the Thames River, Captain Stockton rode on Ericsson's screw propelled tugboat, the Francis B. Ogden. The steam engines were below the waterline and the source of propulsion was under the rudder of the craft, as opposed to the unwieldy paddle-wheeled steamer. After receiving Stockton's glowing approval, Ericsson moved to New York City.
From there he developed the Princeton, a screw propelled man-of-war, for the United States Navy in 1844. The ship's construction placed the engines four feet below the water line. From there they and the screw propeller were well protected from enemy fire. Unfortunately, the Princeton experiment ended in failure. A gun that Captain Stockton designed exploded during a trial run on the river in Washington, DC, killing among others, the Secretaries of State and of the Navy. Although Congress cleared Ericsson of any blame, he nonetheless became a outcast to the United States government. It was the propeller, rather than Ericsson, which survived the disaster. Since its inception and placement into practical use by the United States, this invention has been the main driving force behind seagoing vessels up to the present day. However, it was not until 18 years later that Ericsson himself would reclaim his reputation from the gutter. His floating battery, the Monitor, revolutionized naval warfare. The Monitor-class ships dominated rivers and coastlines for the duration of the Civil War. Following the original vessel's dynamic arrival on the scene in March 1862, Ericsson's success with this particular vessel restored his international prominence.
During a visit from the double-turreted Monitor-class ship, the U.S.S. Miantonomah in 1866, the Times of London reported,
Truly, Ericsson's vision, which was denied by the British Admiralty, came back to haunt the Royal Navy as a reminder that a new age in the realm of naval warfare had dawned. John Ericsson's life is a true American success story. His arrival in the United States was marred by disaster not of his making, however his reputation was salvaged due to teaming his engineering genius with his great love for the United States of America. He was a true hero of the struggle to preserve the Union. After his long, productive career, his life ended in New York City on March 8, 1889. His remains now lie buried in his native Sweden.