Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac

Captain John Ericsson (New York Illustrated News)

Black-and-white illustration from New York Illustrated News, March 29, 1862 issue, showing Captain John Ericsson, designer and builder of the Monitor.

Caption: [Head-and-shoulders portrait of] Captain John Ericsson, the Designer and Builder of the Iron-clad Battery Monitor. From a photograph.

Source: Both the illustration above and the text below are from New York Illustrated News, March 29, 1862, page 329.

Capt. John Ericsson, the Designer and Builder of the Iron-clad Battery Monitor.

From a photograph.

John Ericsson was born in 1803, in the Province of Vermeland, among the iron mountains of Sweden. His father was a mining proprietor, so that in his youth he had ample opportunities to watch the operations of the various engines and machinery connected with the mines. At the age of ten years he constructed with his own hands, and after his own plans, a miniature sawmill, and also made numerous drawings of complicated mechanical contrivances, with instruments of his own invention and manufacture.

In 1814 he attracted the attention of the celebrated Count Platen, who had heard of his boyish efforts, and desired an interview with him. After examining the various plans and drawings which this youth exhibited on this occasion the Count handed them back to him, simply observing, in an impressive manner, "Continue as you have commenced, and you will one day produce something extraordinary." These few words of kind encouragement from so distinguished a personage sunk deeply in to the mind of the young mechanic, and confirmed him in the career on which he had entered. Immediately after this in interview young Ericsson was appointed a cadet in the corps of engineers, and after six months' tuition, at the age of twelve years, was appointed nivelleur at the Grand Ship Canal of Sweden, which connects the North Sea with the Baltic, under Count Platen. In this capacity, in the year 1816, he was required to set out the work for more than six hundred men, and that time he was not tall enough to look through the leveling instruments, and in using it he was obliged to mount upon a stool, carried by his attendants for that purpose. As the discipline in the Swedish army required that the soldier always uncover his head in speaking to his superior, gray headed men came up, cap in hand, to receive their instructions from this mere child. There are now many important works on the canal constructed after drawings made by Ericsson at this early age. At the age of fifteen he was in possession of accurate plans of the whole work, drawn by his own hand. His associations with military men on the canal had given him a tendency for military life, and at the age of seventeen he entered the Swedish army as an ensign, without the knowledge of his friend and patron, Count Platen. This step excited the indignation of the Count, who tried to prevail on him to change his resolution; but, finding all his arguments useless, he terminated an angry interview by bidding the young ensign "Go to the devil." The affectionate regard which he entertained for the Count caused the circumstances of this interview to make a deep impression upon young Ericsson.

Soon after the young ensign had entered upon his regimental duties a matter occurred which threatened to obscure his hitherto bright prospects. His Colonel, Baron Kosknull had been disgraced by the King about the time that he had recommended Ericsson for promotion. This circumstance induced the King to reject the recommendation. Prince Oscar, however, interceded for the young man with the King, who yielded to the persuasions of the Prince and promoted Ericsson to the lieutenancy for which he had been recommended.  About this time the government had ordered the northern part of Sweden to be surveyed, and that officers in the army should be employed in this service. Ericsson, whose regiment was stationed in the Northern highland, proceeded to Stockholm, for the purpose of submitting himself to the severe examination then requisite to precede the appointment of government surveyor. The mathematical education which he had received under Count Platen now proved very serviceable. He passed the examination with great distinction, and in the course of it, to the surprise of the examiners, showed that he could repeat Euclid verbatim; not by the exercise of the memory, but from his perfect mastery of geometrical science.  There are yet in the archives of Sweden detailed maps of upwards of fifty square miles made by his hand.

While thus variously occupied, being on a visit to the house of his Colonel, Ericsson on one occasion showed his host how readily and by what simple means mechanical power may be produced, independently of steam, by condensing flame.  On the 18th of May, 1826 he obtained permission from the King to visit England.  He here proceeded to construct a number of engines of new inventions, which were attended with no trifling expenditure, and to meet the demands then made upon him, the young adventurer was compelled to draw on his mechanical resources.

Invention now followed invention in rapid succession, until the records of the Patent Officio in London were enriched by the drawings of the remarkable steam boiler on the principle of artificial draft.  In bringing this invention before the public, he thought it advisable to join some old and established mechanical house in London, and accordingly, he associated himself with John Braithwaite.  In the Fall of 1829 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company offered a prize for the best locomotive engine, to be tested on the small portion of the railway then completed.  Ericsson, not willing to allow this occasion to escape him, immediately set to work, planned the engine, executed the working drawings, and caused the patterns to be made, and the whole machine was completed within seven weeks.  The day of trial arrived.  The competing engines were on the ground, and the novelty of the race had attracted an immense concourse of people.  Both sides of the railway, for more than a mile in length, were lined with thousands of spectators and to the surprise and admiration of the crowd, the Novelty steam carriage started, guided by its inventor, Ericsson, assisted by John Braithwaite, darted along the track at the rate of fifty miles an hour.  In a short time afterwards he constructed a steam fire engine, which excited much interest in London at the time the Argyle Rooms were on fire.  He subsequently constructed a similar engine for the King of Prussia, which was mainly instrumental in saving several valuable buildings at a great fire some years ago at Berlin. For this invention Ericsson received, in 1842, the large gold medal offered by the Mechanics' Institute of New York, for the best plan of a steam fire engine.  Mr. Ericsson was the first to apply to marine engines centrifugal blowers, now so common in this country in all boilers using anthracite coal.  In the year 1831 he applied such a blower, worked by a separate small steam engine, to the steam packet Corsair of one hundred and twenty horse power, plying between Liverpool and Belfast.

Mr. Ericsson emigrated to this country in 1839, then being thirty-six year old.  His first great achievement after his arrival was the building of the United States steam frigate Princeton, the first vessel that steam was ever introduced into with the works below the water line.  She proved a complete success.  About the same time he planned the French frigate Pomone, fifty guns, which is at present in our waters; she also proving a great success.  Captain Ericsson after the completion of these vessels, gave the whole time to his favorite work, the completion of the caloric engine, which he has since brought to great perfection, though on a small scale.  His next undertaking was the planning and invention of the steamer Ericsson, which is familiar to all our readers.  He did the whole work, from the time her keel was laid to the moment that her paddles were first turned, in the brief space of seven months.  Although not answering all that was commercially expected of her, she was an entire mechanical success, speaking more than words of the great genius of the inventor, and as a marine structure she has been equalled, much less surpassed.  The name of Captain Ericsson has been comparatively unheard of for some time past, until the commencement of another new idea of his, as illustrated satisfactorily in the noble steam battery Monitor.  He signed the contract for her construction on the 5th day of last October, and on the 31st of December -- being a period of two months and eight days -- her steam, machinery and propeller were put into operation, and on the one hundredth and first working day she was launched.  This is a celerity which has never been equalled in this country or in England.

Portraits of Captain Ericsson also appeared in the March 29, 1862 issues of Harper's Weekly and Leslie's Illustrated News.

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Last Updated: March 14, 2012