John Ericsson (July 31, 1803 – March 8, 1889) was a Swedish inventor and mechanical engineer, as was his brother, Nils Ericson. He was born at Långbanshyttan in Wermelandia, Sweden, but did primarily come to be active in the United States.
John's and Nils's father Olof Ericsson who worked as the supervisor for a mine in Wermelandia had lost money in speculations and had to move his family from Wermelandia to Forsvik in 1810. There he worked as a 'director of blastings' during the excavation of the Swedish canal Göta kanal. The extraordinary skills of the two brothers were discovered by Baltzar von Platen, the architect of Göta kanal. The two brothers were dubbed cadets of mechanics of the royal fleet and engaged as trainees at the canal enterprise. At the age of fourteen, John was already working independently as a surveyor. His assistant had to carry a chair for him to reach the instruments during surveying work.
At the age of seventeen he joined the Swedish army in Jemtia as a Second Lieutenant, but was soon promoted to Lieutenant. He was sent to northern Sweden to do surveying, and in his spare time he constructed a heat engine which used the fumes from the fire instead of steam as a propellant. His skill and interest in mechanics made him resign from the army and move to England in 1826. However, his heat engine was no success, as it would not work with coal, which was the primary propellant used in England.
Notwithstanding the disappointment, he invented several other mechanisms instead based on steam, improving the heating process by adding fans to increase oxygen supply to the fire bed. In 1829 his steam engine "the Novelty" joined the competition arranged by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and was fastest in the competition for seven days, but broke on the eighth and lost the competition to the English engineer George and his son Robert Stephenson. The many machines devised and built by Ericsson during this period put him in a harsh economic situation and at this time he also married 19-year-old Amelia Byam, a marriage that was nothing but a huge disaster.
He then invented the propeller (with two propellers moving in different directions, as opposed to earlier tests with this technology) but the Admiralty disapproved of the invention, which led to the fortunate contacts with the encouraging American captain Robert Stockton who had Ericsson design a propeller steamer for him and told him to bring his invention to the northern states of America instead, as it would supposedly be more welcomed in that milieu. As a result, Ericsson moved to New York in 1839, and soon his propeller was installed in the newly constructed frigate SS Princeton, finished in 1843. This attempt at propeller technology was a huge success. On October 20, 1843 SS Princeton won a speed competition against the steamer SS Great Western, which had until then been regarded the fastest steamer.
He then proceeded to invent the "hot air engine" in 1852 which used hot air instead of steam as a propellant, probably inspired by his earlier attempts of fume heat engines in Sweden. This engine was no success. However Ericsson was awarded the Rumford Prize in 1862 for this achievement. Already on September 26, 1854 Ericsson presented Napoleon III of France with drawings of iron-clad armoured battle ships with a dome-shaped gun tower, and even though the French king praised this invention, he did nothing to bring it to practical application.
The USS Monitor
When the American Civil War broke out, the Southern states quickly armoured some of its battleships with iron, leading the United States Congress to address this issue in August 1861 and recommend that such ships be built for the Northern army. At this moment, Ericsson presented drawings of the USS Monitor a totally unique and novel design of armoured ships, which after much controversy was eventually built and finished on March 6, 1862.
At this moment the Southern battle ship CSS Virginia was harvesting victories against the Northern fleet until the Monitor appeared. A battle on March 9, 1862 at Hampton Roads in Virginia, ended with the flight of CSS Virginia and victory of the Monitor, saving the Northern fleet from defeat. After this several Monitors were built, and are believed to have considerably influenced the victory of the Northern states.
Later, Ericsson worked with torpedo inventions, in particular the Destroyer torpedo boat, and in the book Contributions to the Centennial Exhibition he presents the so-called "sun engines", using solar power as propellant for a "hot air engine". At this time, he was once again bitter and plagued by economic difficulties, and his invention of the solar engine would not have practical applications for another 100 years.
Although none of his inventions created any big industry, he is regarded as one of the most influential mechanical engineers ever. After his passing in 1889 his remains were brought from the United States to Stockholm by USS Baltimore and to the final resting place at Filipstad, in his Wermelandia.
The surface condenser
The ship propeller
The "hot air engine"
The USS Monitor for the Union Navy in the American Civil War, was both designed and built by John
Torpedo technology, especially Destroyer, an advanced torpedo boat.
The "solar machine", using concave mirrors to gather sun radiation strong enough to run an engine.
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1850
Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences in 1852
Honorary Doctorate at Lund University in 1868
Monuments in honor of John Ericsson have been erected at:
The Mall in Washington D.C.
Battery Park, in New York City
Nybroviken in Stockholm
Kungsportsavenyn in Gothenburg.