John Ericsson Inventor History

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John Ericsson (1803-1889): Biography

Who invented the ironclad Monitor of the American Civil War?

Inventor John Ericsson
Inventor John Ericsson.jpg
U.S. Naval Historical Center

John Ericsson, one of the 19th Century's most creative engineers and inventors, was born on 31 July 1803 in Sweden. As a youth, he joined the Swedish Army, which recognized his talents and put him to work on topographical duties. Ericsson left the Army in 1826 and moved to England, where he pursued a variety of engineering projects, among them the use of screw propellers on ships, the development of extraordinarily large guns and the creation of engines driven by hot air instead of steam.

Ericsson's work attracted the attention Robert F. Stockton, an influential and progressive U.S. Navy officer, who encouraged him to relocate to the United States. During the early 1840s, the two designed a screw-propelled warship, which was commissioned in 1843 as USS Princeton, armed with heavy guns of their devising. The tragic explosion of one of these guns, and efforts to improperly assign the blame to Ericsson, led the strong-willed engineer to redirect his creativity into civilian fields, which he pursued successfully during the 1840s and 1850s.

The outbreak of the American Civil War brought John Ericsson back into formal contact with the Navy, when he designed and produced USS Monitor, a revolutionary armored ship carrying her guns in a rotating turret. Monitor's successful battle with the Confederate ironclad Virginia on 9 March 1862, made Ericsson a great hero in the North (see Battle of USS Monitor and CSS Virginia). For the remainder of the conflict, he was actively involved in designing and building a large series of "Monitor"-type turret ships for the Navy.

Ericsson continued his work on maritime and naval technology after the Civil War, producing ships for foreign navies and experimenting with submarines, self-propelled torpedoes and heavy ordnance. He remained active until his death in New York City on 8 March 1889. In August 1890, following a memorial service at New York, his body was placed on board the cruiser Baltimore, which carried him across the Atlantic to his native Sweden for burial.

Three U.S. Navy ships have been named in honor of John Ericsson: the torpedo boat Ericsson (Torpedo Boat # 2), 1897-1912; and the destroyers Ericsson (DD-56), 1915-1934; and Ericsson (DD-440), 1941-1970

Reference: Department of the Navy, Naval History & Heritage Command, 805 Kidder Breese SE, Washington Navy Yard, Washington D.C., 20374-5060

Recommended Reading: The Man Who Made the Monitor: A Biography of John Ericsson, Naval Engineer. Description: Mention Civil War naval confrontations and the Monitor instantly springs to mind. The first of the ironclads, the Monitor not only took part in a major battle, it forever changed the face of naval construction. But who was the man behind the ship? Born in Filipstad, Sweden, in 1803, the brilliant and somewhat eccentric engineer John Ericsson spent his childhood observing his father's work in mining and later learned his engineering skills at the North Atlantic Baltic canal. As a young man Ericsson turned to a variety of projects. In England, he introduced the ship's propeller, built an Arctic expedition vessel and designed some of the first successful steam locomotives. Continued below…

Moving to New York in 1839, he soon teamed up with Harry Cornelius Delameter of the Phoenix foundry, a partnership which resulted in Ericsson's most famous work, the USS Monitor. Focusing on the man behind the inventions, this book tells the life story of John Ericsson. It details a number of Ericsson s inventions including a steam-powered fire engine, the first screw-propelled warship, a variety of "hot-air engines," and early experiments in solar power from the roof of his Manhattan home. The main focus is Ericsson's design and construction of the ironclad USS Monitor. One of the first viable armored warships, the Monitor revolutionized naval warfare the world over. The ship s battle with the CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads and its eventual fate off the coast of Cape Hatteras are covered. Ericsson's relationships with contemporaries such as Alfred Nobel and recent developments concerning the recovery of the wreck of the Monitor are also examined. About the Author: Olav Thulesius was professor at Indiana University, University of Trondheim, and Kuwait University. He is also the author of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Florida, 1867 to 1884 (2001). Olav divides his time between the United States and Sweden.

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Recommended Reading: War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor. Description: In a familiar story, the USS Monitor battled the CSS Virginia (the armored and refitted USS Merrimack) at Hampton Roads in March of 1862. In War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor, David A. Mindell adds a new perspective to the story as he explores how mariners -- fighting "blindly" below the waterline -- lived and coped with the metal monster they called the "iron coffin." Mindell shows how the iron warship emerged as an idea and became practicable, how building it drew upon and forced changes in contemporary manufacturing technology, and how the vessel captured the nineteenth-century American popular and literary imaginations. Continued below…

Combining technical, personal, administrative, and literary analysis, Mindell examines the experience of the men aboard the Monitor and their reactions to the thrills and dangers that accompanied the new machine. The invention surrounded men with iron and threatened their heroism, their self-image as warriors, even their lives. Mindell also examines responses to this strange new warship by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, who prophetically saw in the Civil War a portent of the mechanized warfare of the future. The story of the Monitor shows how technology changes not only the tools but also the very experience of combat, generating effects that are still felt today in the era of "smart bombs" and push-button wars. "We find new significance in the otherwise well-known history of the Monitor. It is no longer the story of the heroic inventor and his impenetrable weapon thrusting themselves upon a doubtful and conservative bureaucracy... It is no longer the story of a heroic battle and the machine's epic loss soon after. Rather it is a story of people experiencing new machinery, attempting to make sense of its thrills, constrictions, and politics, and sensing its power and impotence -- both in glory and frustration." -- from War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor. About the Author: David A. Mindell is Dibner Associate Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. He has degrees in Electrical Engineering and Literature from Yale University and a Ph.D. in the History of Technology from MIT. His research interests include the history of military technology, the history of electronics and computing, and archaeology in the deep ocean. He is currently working on a history of feedback, control, and computing in the twentieth century, and on locating and imaging ancient shipwrecks and settlements in the deep regions of the Black Sea.

 

Recommended Reading: Ironclad, by Paul Clancy (Hardcover). Description: The true story of the Civil War ironclad that saved the Union Navy only to sink in a storm--and its remarkable salvage 140 years later. Ironclad tells the saga of the warship USS Monitor and its salvage, one of the most complex and dangerous in history. The Monitor is followed through its maiden voyage from New York to Hampton Roads, its battle with the Merrimack, and its loss off Cape Hatteras. At the same time, author Paul Clancy takes readers behind the scenes of an improbable collaboration between navy divers and cautious archaeologists working 240 feet deep. Clancy creates a memorable, fascinating read, including fresh insights into the sinking of the Union ship and giving the answer to an intriguing forensic mystery: the identities of the two sailors whose bones were found in the Monitor's recovered turret. Continued below…

Its one great battle in the spring of 1862 marked the obsolescence of wooden fighting ships and may have saved the Union. Its terrible end in a winter storm off Cape Hatteras condemned sixteen sailors to a watery grave. And the recovery of its 200-ton turret in August 2002 capped the largest, most complex and hazardous ocean salvage operation in history. In Ironclad, Paul Clancy interweaves these stories so skillfully that the cries of drowning Union sailors sound a ghostly undertone to the cough of diesel generators and the clanging of compression-chamber doors on a huge recovery barge. The din and screech of cannonballs on iron plating echo beneath the hum of electronic monitors and the garbled voices of Navy divers working at the edge of human technology and endurance in water 240 feet deep.

Clancy studied the letters and diaries of the Monitor's long-ago sailors, and he moved among the salvage divers and archaeologists in the summer of 2002. John L. Worden, captain of the Monitor, strides from these pages no less vividly than the remarkable Bobbie Scholley, the woman commander of 160 Navy divers on an extreme mission. Clancy writes history as it really happens, the improbable conjunction of personalities, ideas, circumstances, and chance. The Union navy desperately needed an answer to the Confederacy's ironclad dreadnought, and the brilliantly eccentric Swedish engineer John Ericsson had one. And 140 years later, when marine archaeologists despaired of recovering any part of the Monitor before it disintegrated, a few visionaries in the U.S. Navy saw an opportunity to resurrect their deep-water saturation diving program. From the breakneck pace of Monitor's conception, birth, and brief career, to the years of careful planning and perilous labor involved in her recovery, Ironclad tells a compelling tale of technological revolution, wartime heroism, undersea adventure, and forensic science. This book is must-reading for anyone interested in Civil War and naval history, diving and underwater salvage, or adventures at sea.

 

Recommended Reading: Confederate Ironclad vs Union Ironclad: Hampton Roads 1862 (Duel). Description: The Ironclad was a revolutionary weapon of war. Although iron was used for protection in the Far East during the 16th century, it was the 19th century and the American Civil War that heralded the first modern armored self-propelled warships. With the parallel pressures of civil war and the industrial revolution, technology advanced at a breakneck speed. It was the South who first utilized ironclads as they attempted to protect their ports from the Northern blockade. Impressed with their superior resistance to fire and their ability to ram vulnerable wooden ships, the North began to develop its own rival fleet of ironclads. Eventually these two products of this first modern arms race dueled at the battle of Hampton Roads in a clash that would change the face of naval warfare. Continued below…

Fully illustrated with cutting-edge digital artwork, rare photographs and first-person perspective gun sight views, this book allows the reader to discover the revolutionary and radically different designs of the two rival Ironclads - the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor - through an analysis of each ship's weaponry, ammunition and steerage. Compare the contrasting training of the crews and re-live the horrors of the battle at sea in a war which split a nation, communities and even families. About the Author: Ron Field is Head of History at the Cotswold School in Bourton-on-the-Water. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in 1982 and taught history at Piedmont High School in California from 1982 to 1983. He was associate editor of the Confederate Historical Society of Great Britain, from 1983 to 1992. He is an internationally acknowledged expert on US Civil War military history, and was elected a Fellow of the Company of Military Historians, based in Washington, DC, in 2005. The author lives in Cheltenham, UK.

 

Recommended Reading: Union Monitor 1861-65. Description: The first seagoing ironclad was the USS Monitor, and its profile has made it one of the most easily recognized warships of all time. Following her inconclusive battle with the Confederate ironclad Virginia on March 9, 1862, the production of Union monitors was accelerated. By the end of the year, a powerful squadron of monitor vessels protected the blockading squadrons off the Southern coastline and was able to challenge Confederate control of her ports and estuaries. Further technological advancements were included in subsequent monitor designs, and by the end of the war the US Navy possessed a modern coastal fleet carrying the most powerful artillery afloat. This book covers the design, development and operational history of the Union’s Monitor fleet.

 

Recommended Viewing: The First Ironclads - Into the Modern Era (DVD) (2008). Description: This is the story of the great vessels, the formidable warships, the epic ironclads (early battleships), that changed forever naval ship design as well as naval warfare: the Monitor, the Merrimack (later renamed the Virginia) and it presents a fascinating animated reconstruction of their epic battle during the American Civil War. Continued below...

The Battle of Hampton Roads, aka Duel of the Ironclads, which made the world's navies tremble as well as obsolete, is handsomely depicted in this video. The First Ironclads – Into the Modern Era is a welcome addition for the individual interested in the Civil War, U.S. Naval Warfare, and shipbuilding and design. It also includes footage from aboard the world's most devastating “sailing ironship” the HMS Warrior.

 

Recommended Reading: Lincoln and His Admirals (Hardcover). Description: Abraham Lincoln began his presidency admitting that he knew "little about ships," but he quickly came to preside over the largest national armada to that time, not eclipsed until World War I. Written by prize-winning historian Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals unveils an aspect of Lincoln's presidency unexamined by historians until now, revealing how he managed the men who ran the naval side of the Civil War, and how the activities of the Union Navy ultimately affected the course of history. Continued below…

Beginning with a gripping account of the attempt to re-supply Fort Sumter--a comedy of errors that shows all too clearly the fledgling president's inexperience--Symonds traces Lincoln's steady growth as a wartime commander-in-chief. Absent a Secretary of Defense, he would eventually become de facto commander of joint operations along the coast and on the rivers. That involved dealing with the men who ran the Navy: the loyal but often cranky Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, the quiet and reliable David G. Farragut, the flamboyant and unpredictable Charles Wilkes, the ambitious ordnance expert John Dahlgren, the well-connected Samuel Phillips Lee, and the self-promoting and gregarious David Dixon Porter. Lincoln was remarkably patient; he often postponed critical decisions until the momentum of events made the consequences of those decisions evident. But Symonds also shows that Lincoln could act decisively. Disappointed by the lethargy of his senior naval officers on the scene, he stepped in and personally directed an amphibious assault on the Virginia coast, a successful operation that led to the capture of Norfolk. The man who knew "little about ships" had transformed himself into one of the greatest naval strategists of his age. A unique and riveting portrait of Lincoln and the admirals under his command, this book offers an illuminating account of Lincoln and the nation at war. In the bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth, it offers a memorable portrait of a side of his presidency often overlooked by historians.

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