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JOHN ERICSSON (1803-1889)

By Martha J. Lamb
John Ericsson.

In a message, referring to the relations of our country with the several nations of Europe, President Harrison said: "The restoration of the remains of John Ericsson to Sweden afforded a gratifying occasion to honor the memory of the great inventor, to whose genius our country owes so much, and to bear witness to the unbroken friendship which has existed between the land which bore him and our own, which claimed him as a citizen."

This paragraph is a forcible reminder of the impressive ceremonial witnessed in the streets and harbor of New York City, on Saturday, August 23, 1890. It had been intimated to this Government, as is well known, that the Government of Sweden would regard it as a graceful act if the remains of Captain John Ericsson should be conveyed to his native country upon a United States man-of-war; and arrangements having been completed, the Baltimore was assigned to the service. In committing the illustrious dead to the care of the commander of the Baltimore, Mr. George H. Robinson said: "We send him back crowned with honor, proud of the life of fifty years he devoted to this nation, and with gratitude for his gifts to us."

John Ericsson's birthplace in Sweden is marked by a large granite monument erected in 1867. His father was a mining proprietor, and his mother an energetic, intellectual, and high-spirited woman. His brother, Nils, one year older than himself, was trained as an engineer, became chief of the construction of the system of government railways in Sweden, was created a baron, and retired in 1862 with a pension larger than any before bestowed upon a Swedish subject. His sister Caroline, born in 1800, was a girl of unusual beauty. As a boy John was the wonder of the neighborhood. The machinery at the mines was to him an endless source of curiosity and delight. He was constantly trying to make models, even before he had learned to read. He had from his own plans constructed a miniature saw-mill prior to his tenth birthday, and made numerous drawings of a complicated character. The graphic account of his youth and early manhood which his biographer presents is full of suggestion and instruction. The boy was too much occupied with his contrivances to join in the pastimes of other children. His opportunities were unusually stimulating. The project of the Göta Canal Company, one of the most formidable undertakings of its kind, was revived when he was about ten years old, his father being appointed one of its engineers, holding place next to that of the chief of the work. This opened a new world of ideas, and the little fellow undertook all manner of schemes. He was independent of outside assistance. Steel tweezers, borrowed from his mother's dressing-case and ground to a point, furnished him with a drawing pen, and his compasses were made of birch-wood with needles inserted at the end of the legs. Later on, he robbed his mother's sable cloak of the hairs required for two small brushes, in order to complete his drawings in appropriate colors. The clever lad attracted the notice of some of the greatest mechanical draughtsmen in Sweden, who made him drawings to serve as models, and taught him many of the principles of the art. Finally the celebrated engineer, Count Platen, becoming interested, appointed him a cadet in the corps of mechanical engineers; and such was his progress in sketching profiles, maps, and drawings for the archives of the canal company, that in 1816, at the age of thirteen, he was made assistant leveller at the station of Riddarhagen. The next year he was employed to set out the work for six hundred operatives, though he was yet too small to reach the eye-piece of his levelling instrument without the aid of a stool carried by an attendant. Thus it will be seen that he was identified almost from his cradle with great engineering works. His father died in 1818, and in 1820, when seventeen, he entered the Swedish army as an ensign and was rapidly promoted to a lieutenancy.

The skill of young Ericsson in topographical drawing was so marked that he was soon summoned to the royal palace to draw maps to illustrate the campaigns of the marshal of the empire. He also passed with distinction a competitive examination for an appointment on the survey of Northern Sweden. This new employment was exacting, and the pay determined by the amount of work accomplished. Mr. Church says: "The young surveyor from the Göta Canal was so indefatigable in his industry and so rapid in execution, that he performed double duty and was carried on the pay-roll as two persons in order to avoid criticism and charges of favoritism. The results of his labors were maps of fifty square miles of territory, still preserved in the archives of Stockholm."

At the age of twenty-one John Ericsson is described as "a handsome, dashing youth, with a cluster of thick, brown, glossy curls encircling his white, massive forehead. His mouth was delicate but firm, nose straight, eyes light blue, clear and bright, with a slight expression of sadness, his complexion brilliant with the freshness and glow of healthy youth. The broad shoulders carried most splendidly the proud, erect head. He presented, in short, the very picture of vigorous manhood. A portrait of him at this age, painted upon ivory for his mother by an English artist named Way, has been preserved."

Fifteen years later he was in New York, and is thus described by Samuel Risley: "Captain Ericsson all his life was careful of his personal appearance; at the time I refer to (1839) he was exceptional in dress, not dandified, but more in keeping with the present morning-call attire than an ordinary day habit. A close-fitting black frock surtout coat, well open at the front, with rolling collar, showing velvet vest and a good display of shirt-front; a fine gold chain hung about his neck, looped at the first button-hole of the vest and attached to a watch carried in the fob of the vest. Usually light-colored, well-fitting trousers, light-colored kid gloves, and a beaver hat completed the dress. To this add a well-built military figure, about five feet ten and one-half inches in height and well set-up, with broad shoulders and rather large hands and feet; the head well placed and supported by a military stock round the neck. Expressive features, blue eyes, and brown curly hair, fair complexion. His head was of medium size, his mouth well cut, upper lip a little drawn, the jaws large and firm set, conveying an expression of firmness and individual character. Up to the summer of 1842 I was in constant attendance upon the captain, being a sort of factotum to him in preparing his models. At that time he boarded at the Astor House, where I first met his wife. His manner with strangers was courteous and extremely taking. He invariably made friends of high and low alike. With those in immediate contact in carrying out his work he was very popular."

Mr. Church, in his biography, devotes three chapters to a delightfully condensed account of Ericsson's career in England, whither he went in 1826 to exhibit his flame-engine. He quickly formed a partnership with John Braithwaite, a working engineer, and in his new field of activity produced invention after invention in such rapid succession that the truth reads like a fairy tale. An instrument for taking sea-soundings, a hydrostatic weighing-machine, his improvements in the steam-engine—dispensing with huge smoke-stacks, economizing fuel, using compressed air and the artificial draught—and in surface condensation, were the work of this period, during which he also invented the steam fire-engine, which excited great interest in London. The famous battle of the locomotives in 1829 brought the young man of twenty-six before the English public in a manner never to be forgotten. At that date Stephenson himself dared not say very much about the speed of the locomotive. Had he ventured to predict that it would reach twenty miles an hour on the railway, he would have been laughed out of court. He cautiously expressed his faith in the possibility of running it ten miles an hour, and multitudes regarded the experiment with consternation. There was great prejudice then existing in England against railroads. It was a mode of conveyance that would bring noble and peasant to a common level, and fashion clung tenaciously to its earlier inconveniences, which had at least the merit of being exclusive.

But in spite of the baleful prophecies concerning the locomotive engine, the officials of the projected railroad between Liverpool and Manchester, where the cars were expected to be drawn by horses, offered a premium of £500 for the best locomotive capable of drawing a gross weight of twenty tons at the rate of ten miles an hour. The conditions required a run of seventy miles. Five months were allowed for building the engines. Ericsson heard of the project only seven weeks before the appointed time of trial, and at once determined to compete. He hastily built the "Novelty," assisted by Braithwaite, and when the exhibition came off his was practically the only locomotive which disputed for the supremacy with Stephenson's "Rocket." But a portion of the railroad had yet been finished; thus the competing locomotives were compelled to cover their distance by making twenty trips back and forth over one and three-quarter miles of track. The excitement was intense. The London Times next morning said: "The 'Novelty' was the lightest and most elegant carriage on the road yesterday, and the velocity with which it moved surprised and amazed every beholder. It shot along the line at the amazing rate of thirty miles an hour! It seemed, indeed, to fly; presenting one of the most sublime spectacles of human ingenuity and human daring the world ever beheld."

Ericsson had really built a much faster locomotive than Stephenson's "Rocket;" and although it had been constructed with such celerity that it broke down before the final point was reached, and he thereby lost the prize, yet the superiority of the principle involved in it was universally recognized. John Bourn said: "To most men the production of such an engine would have constituted an adequate claim to celebrity. In the case of Ericsson, it is only a single star of the brilliant galaxy with which his shield is spangled." "We may imagine," writes Mr. Church, "the excitement following the announcement in the Times concerning the performance of the 'Novelty,' for to this engine England's great daily devoted chief attention." Railroad shares leaped at once to a premium, and excited groups gathered on 'change to discuss the wonderful event. The pessimists were silenced, and the art of modern railway travel inaugurated. A grand banquet was given in Liverpool to the directors and officers of the railway and to the competing locomotive builders. Toasts and speeches followed; and if Ericsson did not carry home with him the £500 offered as a prize, he at least made himself known to all England as one of the rising men of his profession.

Ericsson's long-cherished plan of a caloric engine was realized in 1833, and was hailed with astonishment by the scientific world of London. Lectures were delivered on it by Dr. Dionysius Lardner and Michael Faraday, and it was much praised by Dr. Alexander Ure and Sir Richard Phillips. In 1836 Ericsson invented and patented the screw propeller, which revolutionized navigation, and in 1837 built a steam vessel having twin screw propellers, which on trial towed the American packet-ship Toronto at the rate of five miles an hour on the river Thames. In 1838 he constructed the iron screw steamer Robert F. Stockton, which crossed the Atlantic under canvas in 1839, and was afterward employed as a tug-boat on the Delaware River for a quarter of a century. Within ten years Ericsson patented thirty inventions considered by him of sufficient importance to claim a place in the list that in 1863 numbered one hundred.

A notable feature of the admirable work of Mr. Church is the elucidation of the truth, so often overlooked, that events never spring into being disjoined from antecedents leading to them. He explains how the varied achievements of John Ericsson were developed, showing with great force and in imperishable colors the steps to his successes, and the help the famous engineer derived in later life from the studies and experiments of his earlier career. Mr. Church, as the literary executor of Ericsson, has had unrivalled opportunities for examining the accumulation of data which throw light all along the way, and while dealing with the masterly engineering exploits of his subject, does not forget that he had a human side, and presents him with all his hopes and fears and failures, his aims, his obstacles, his courage, and his habits and eccentricities. Ericsson certainly cherished a very high ideal, and was free to an unusual extent from mercenary motives. His inventions did not always pay; he found this a weary world for those who see beyond their fellows. Some of his mechanical contrivances in common use to-day dated so far back of the memory of any one living that before he died he often learned that he was supposed to have copied from others what he, in fact, originated himself or first brought into use.

The barriers of tradition and prejudice had to be overcome with his every new invention. The introduction of steam in any shape to the English navy was sharply opposed. It is interesting to trace the incidents, apparently without connection, which stand in orderly relations one to another as essential parts of an intelligent design. Ericsson was in America at the critical moment when all the experiences of his previous life were to be brought into full play; when he was to take part in an enterprise involving the existence of a nation, the hopes of humanity. He was ready to meet the strain of a demand to which no other living man was adequate. He was then fifty-eight years of age, with the constitution and the vital forces of a man of forty, and such experience in actual accomplishment as few acquire in the longest span of a lifetime.

When he received the order of our Government for the Monitor his plans were already drawn. He had been at work for years perfecting his system of aquatic attack, originally designed for the protection of Sweden against foreign aggression, and had in 1854 submitted his drawings to the Emperor of France. The story of his proceedings in Washington is familiar to our readers, but in these notable volumes of Mr. Church it is told with a fulness of detail never before attempted. The Monitor in all its parts was designed by Ericsson, and, fortunately for the country, he was allowed to superintend its construction. His former plans, however, had to be carefully revised to meet the novel conditions of life in a submerged structure. It was estimated that this iron-clad vessel contained at least forty patentable contrivances. The entire resources of modern engineering knowledge were brought to bear upon the solution of the problem of an impregnable battery, armed with guns of the heaviest calibre then known, hull shot-proof from stern to stern, rudder and propeller protected against the enemy's fire, and above all, having the advantage of light draught. Ericsson was made responsible for the successful working of his vessel in every respect. The anxiety of the Government was such that every stage in the progress of the work toward completion was watched with restless interest. Ericsson's nerves and sinews seemed to be made of steel. He scarcely took time to eat or sleep, and he was deluged with a continuous tempest of criticism, warning, and advice, from those who knew nothing about the intricacies of science involved in the undertaking. The least halting, even trifling delay, confusion of mind, or weakness of body, and the story of Hampton Roads might not have been written.

The Monitor was finished and left the harbor of New York for Washington on the afternoon of March 6, 1862, in tow of a tug, and accompanied by two naval steamers. Chief Engineer Alban S. Stimers, U. S. N., who was on the vessel as a passenger, described in a letter, dated March 9, 1862, to Ericsson, the dramatic incidents attending its arrival at Hampton Roads. "After a stormy passage we fought the Merrimac for more than three hours this forenoon, and sent her back to Norfolk in a sinking condition. Iron-clad against iron-clad, we manœuvred about the bay here, and went at each other with mutual fairness. I consider that both ships were well fought. We were struck twenty-two times—pilot-house twice, turret nine times, deck three times, sides eight times. The only vulnerable point was the pilot-house. One of your great logs (nine by twelve inches thick) is broken in two. The shot struck just outside of where the captain had his eye, and disabled him by destroying his left eye and temporarily blinding the other. She tried to run us down and sink us as she did the Cumberland yesterday, but she got the worst of it. Her horn passed over our deck, and our sharp, upper-edged rail cut through the light iron shoe upon her stern and well into her oak. She will not try that again. She gave us a tremendous thump, but did not injure us in the least; we were just able to find the point of contact. The turret is a splendid structure. You were very correct in your estimate of the effect of shot upon the man on the inside of the turret, when it struck near him. Three men were knocked down, of whom I was one. The other two had to be carried below, but I was not disabled at all, and the others recovered before the battle was over. Captain Worden (afterward admiral) stationed himself at the pilot-house. Greene fired the guns, and I turned the turret until the captain was disabled and was relieved by Greene, when I managed the turret myself, Master Stoddard having been one of the two stunned men.

"Captain Ericsson, I congratulate you upon your great success; thousands here this day bless you. I have heard whole crews cheer you; every man feels that you have saved the nation by furnishing us with the means to whip an iron-clad frigate that was, until our arrival, having it all her own way with our most powerful vessels."

If space permitted, it would be interesting to trace the career of Ericsson in detail after the success of the Monitor. There was an imperative demand for armor-clads, and ere long several were built by the inventor and his associates. Ericsson was never idle. In connection with his labors upon war vessels he expended no small amount of ingenuity on the improvement of heavy guns, his efforts in this field being directed by a most exhaustive study into the strength of materials, the operation of explosive forces, and the laws governing the flight of projectiles. In 1869 he constructed for the Spanish Government a fleet of thirty steam gunboats, intended to guard Cuba against filibustering parties. In 1881 he devised his latest war vessel, the Destroyer, the object of which he said was "simply to demonstrate the practicability of submarine artillery, unquestionably the most effective, as well as the cheapest, device for protecting the sea-ports of the Union against iron-clad ships. I do not," he continued, "seek emoluments, as I am financially independent; but I am anxious to benefit the great and liberal country which has enabled me to carry out important works which I should not have carried out on a monarchical soil." His investigations included computations of the influences which retard the earth's rotary motion; he erected a "sun motor" in 1883, to develop the power obtained from the supply of mechanical energy in the sun, and he contributed numerous valuable papers to various journals in America and Europe on scientific, naval, and mechanical themes.

The year in which John Ericsson reached the culmination of his fame, 1862, was the same in which his brother Nils retired from active life in Sweden. The latter had retained his position on the Göta Canal when his brother left it in 1820, and gradually won his way to fame and fortune. "He was a man of industry and energy, of sterling integrity and public spirit, and an excellent organizer; while his conservative and cautious temperament and his skill in bending others to his purposes enabled him to make the most of his opportunities." After he received his title he altered the spelling of his name and became Baron Ericson. This change gave great offence to John, who wrote to Nils: "I can never forget the unpleasantness caused me by this annulling of relationship. Possibly your wife has had her share in it. If so, she will find some day that the blotted-out letter will cost her children half a million."

Some of the most interesting chapters in the work of Mr. Church relate to the personal characteristics of John Ericsson. He was generous to his friends, and his benefactions to Sweden were considerable. The financial side of his affairs from year to year appears, as well as the record of his failures and successes. It is difficult to grasp the whole man and present him to the reader in all his many-sided aspects, or to touch upon the variety of his studies, endeavors, schemes, and achievements, without danger of bewilderment. His biographer has done all this, however, in the most skilful and acceptable manner.

A list of the honors conferred upon Ericsson would fill one of our pages, and some of the medals received were very beautiful. He was decorated as Knight of the Order of Vasa, which was founded by Gustavus III. to reward important service to the nation; he was made Knight Commander of the Order of the North Star, for promoting the public good and useful institutions; a Commander of the Order of St. Olaf, to reward distinction in the arts and sciences; received the Grand Cross of the Order of Naval Merit, with the white badge and star, from King Alfonso of Spain, which confers personal nobility and bestowed upon Ericsson the title of "Excellency;" a special gold medal from the Emperor of Austria, in behalf of science; a gold medal from the Society of Iron-Masters in Sweden; thanks under the royal seal and signature from Sweden; joint resolutions of thanks from the United States Congress; thanks from the Legislatures of New York and of other States; from the Chamber of Commerce; from boards of trade in many cities; and he was elected to honorary membership in scientific, historical, literary, religious, and agricultural institutions innumerable. Among them all he took the most pride in his simple title of captain, and in the diploma of LL. D. received from the Wesleyan University in 1862.