Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Many Inventions of John Ericsson

By Jerome Kirkland 
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

John Ericsson may best be remembered as the designer of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, which set off a revolution in ship design with its revolving turret. The fame he gained with his “floating battery” resulted in the creation of songs such as the “Ericsson Gallop,” the “Monitor Polka,” and “Give Us a Navy of Iron.” Ericsson and his Monitor certainly deserved being immortalized in songs of the day, but many people do not remember the other contributions Ericsson made throughout his life.

John Ericsson and his invention, USS Monitor

After six years as a surveyor in the Swedish Army, John Ericsson left his native Sweden and moved to England to pursue his interest in mechanics. While there, he teamed up with John Braithwaite to develop a steam locomotive to compete in trials for a contract. Their entry, Novelty, quickly became the crowd favorite, sustaining the high speed of 28 miles per hour, but boiler problems developing late in the competition saw them take second place. The winner of the competition, the Rocket, is now considered the first “modern” steam locomotive.

Braithwaite and Ericsson went on to improve steam engine designs that were used in locomotives and fire engines. Their steam-powered fire engine gained notoriety while fighting the “Argyll Rooms fire” in London, on a cold February night, by outlasting all other fire engines on the scene by five hours.

Ericsson and Braithwaite's steam-powered fire engine and a period add for Ericsson’s Caloric engine.

While in England, Ericsson fine-tuned an invention he first made in Sweden, the “Caloric Engine.” This engine worked much like a steam engine, but instead of heating water to produce steam under pressure (a very dangerous operation in those days), it used heated air to work the piston. This arrangement was less effective but far safer, making it popular for less demanding work, such as pumping water. This invention became successful enough to supply Ericsson a steady income throughout his life.

One of Ericsson’s other major inventions was a screw propeller, meant to replace the side wheel paddle for steam boats and ships. The screw propeller was more efficient, less prone to damage, and allowed the steam engine powering the craft to sit lower in the hull. For river boats, this made the boat more stable and allowed more upper deck space for cargo and passengers. For military boats and ships, a steam engine below the water line allowed the ship to be protected from enemy shells, and the propeller could not be hit like a side paddle wheel could. Despite all the advantages of his design, Ericsson was unable to convince the conservative British Admiralty to use his designs on military vessels. As Ericsson was losing hope for selling this design, he met Captain Robert Stockton from the United States. Stockton convinced Ericsson to build him a screw propeller steamship and sail it to America, where his designs would receive more attention. Thus, Ericsson built the Robert F. Stockton, a propeller-driven steamship, and sailed it to America. 

By the time Ericsson arrived in the United States, he already had fourteen patents to his name. Shortly after his arrival, Ericsson began work on what should have been one of his greatest accomplishments, the USS PrincetonPrinceton was a twin propeller steam-powered sloop. Ericsson designed and supervised the construction of most of the ship, its engine, and one of its two 12-inch cannons. Stockton, with his focus on political gain and prestige, claimed most of the credit. Upon launching, Princeton took on the British paddle steamer SS Great Western, considered the fastest steamer on the seas, and easily beat it. Princeton returned to port in Philadelphia and completed outfitting, eventually making it to New York to receive her two 12-inch guns.

After receiving her guns, Princeton took on hundreds of dignitaries for a demonstration cruise. The list included President John Tyler and most of his Cabinet. During a demonstration of the 12-inch guns, the "Peacemaker," the gun designed by Stockton, exploded. Luckily, the president was belowdecks at the time and was not harmed; however, eight men were killed, including the Secretary of State and Secretary of the Navy. Despite having claimed most of the credit for Princeton, as well as designing and supervising the construction of the gun that had blown up, Stockton tried to blame Ericsson. Using his political connections, Stockton was able to shift most of the responsibility to Ericsson and even blocked the Navy from paying Ericsson for the ship, which went on to outperform the rest of the U.S. Gulf Fleet during the Mexican-American War.

This bad experience with Stockton and the Navy almost stopped Ericsson from working with the Navy again. Luckily, a group of Ericsson’s friends convinced him to submit his design for a revolving turret “floating battery” to the Navy. This design, which became the USS Monitor, was accepted and completed just in time to meet the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) in the Battle of Hampton Roads.

After the Civil War, Ericsson could have retired financially secure and with his fame assured, but he still had more to offer. In the 1880s, he developed a warship that was fast, armored, low in the water, and fired an “underwater rifle.” Calling his ship the Destroyer, he claimed it could take on any ship of the day. Destroyer was never accepted by the Navy, largely because the “underwater rifle” had to be aimed by pointing the ship in the direction you wanted to fire and the shell was not self-propelled, so it had a limited range.

(top left) The low-riding Destroyer with a round coming out of the underwater rifle. (top right) A view inside the hull of the watertight cannon with a shell ready to load. (bottom) A cut-away view of the ship's hull and underwater cannon.
With the Navy turning down Destroyer, Ericsson later developed a self-propelled and guidable torpedo. Although able to change direction and depth, it was bulky and unable to compete against the much faster Whitehead torpedo. Ericsson also helped John Holland in his early submarine work by providing technical support.

These are but a few samples of Ericsson’s many contributions to engineering and naval science.

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