John Lord.

Beacon Lights of History, Volume 14 The New Era; A Supplementary Volume, by Recent Writers, as Set Forth in the Preface and Table of Contents online

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Huxley's Writings, _passim_.

Haeckel's "Natural History of Creation."

Weismann's "Studies in the Theory of Descent" and subsequent papers.

Romanes's "Scientific Evidences of Organic Evolution."

Lankester's "Degeneration."

Fiske's "Darwinism and Other Essays."

For adverse criticism of Darwin, read Mivart's "Genesis of Species," and
the Duke of Argyll's "Unity of Nature."





The exact combination of inspiration, heredity, and environment which
serves to produce genius will perhaps ever be a problem beyond the skill
of human intelligence. When the rare elements do combine, however, the
result is always worthy of most careful study, both because great
achievements furnish a healthy stimulus to emulation, and because some
glimpse may be gained of Nature's working in the formation of her
rarest products.

Few lives better illustrate these remarks than that of John Ericsson.
Born of middle-class parentage and with no apparent source of heredity
from which to draw the stores of genius which he displayed throughout
his life, and with surroundings in boyhood but little calculated to
awaken and inspire the life-work which later made him famous, from this
beginning and with these early surroundings John Ericsson became
unquestionably the greatest of the engineers of the age in which he
lived and of the century which witnessed such mighty advances along all
engineering lines. The imprint left by Ericsson's life on the
engineering practice of his age was deep and lasting, and if one may
dare look into the future, the day is far removed when engineers will
have passed beyond their dependence on his life and labors.

It is perhaps not amiss that, before looking more closely at the
achievements of Ericsson's life and activity, note should be taken of
the large dependence of our present civilization and mode of life on the
engineer and his work.

In different ages of the world's history each has received its name,
appropriate or fanciful as the case may have been. For the modern age no
name is perhaps more adequately descriptive than the "Age of Energy,"
the age in which our entire fabric of civilization rests upon the
utilization of the energies of nature for the needs of humanity, and to
an extent little appreciated by those who have not considered the matter
from this point of view. If we consider the various elements which enter
into our modern civilization, - the items which enter into the daily life
of the average man or woman; the items which we have come to consider as
necessities and those which we may consider as luxuries; the items which
go to make up our needs as expressed in terms of shelter, food,
intercommunication between man and his fellow, and pleasure, - the most
casual consideration of such will serve to show distributed throughout
almost the entire fabric of our civilization dependence at some point on
the power of the steam-engine, the water-wheel, or windmill, the subtle
electric current, or the heat-energy of coal, petroleum oil, or natural
gas. The harnessing and efficient utilization of these great natural
energies is the direct function of the engineer, or more especially of
the dynamic engineer, and in this noble guild of workers, Ericsson
carved for himself an enduring place and left behind a record which
should serve as an inspiration to all who are following the same pathway
in later years.

No one feature perhaps better differentiates our modern civilization
from that of earlier times, four hundred years ago, or even one hundred,
than that of intercommunication between man and his fellow. Compare the
opportunities for such intercommunication in the present with those in
the time of Queen Elizabeth, Sir Isaac Newton, George Washington, or
Napoleon I. We now have our steamships, steam and electric railroads,
cable, telegraph, and telephone. A few years ago not a single one was
known. The modern age is one which demands the utmost in the possibility
of communication between man and his kind, and in this respect the wide
world is now smaller than the confines of an English county a
century ago.

In this field, as we shall see, Ericsson did some of his greatest work,
and left perhaps his most permanent record for the future.

Ericsson's life falls most naturally into three periods chronologically
or geographically, and likewise into three periods professionally,
though the latter mode of subdivision has by no means the same
boundaries as the former. The first mode of subdivision gives us the
life in Sweden, the life in England, and the life in the United States.
The second mode gives us the life of struggle and obscurity, the life of
struggle, achievement, and recognition, and the calmer and easier life
of declining years with recognition, reward, and the assurance of a
life's work well done.

John Ericsson was born in the province of Vermland, Sweden, in 1803. His
father was Olof Ericsson, a mine owner and inspector who was well
educated after the standard of his times, having graduated at the
college in Karlstad, the principal town of the province. His mother was
Britta Sophia Yngstrom, a woman of Flemish-Scotch descent, and to whom
Ericsson seems to have owed many of his stronger characteristics. Three
children were born: Caroline in 1800, Nils in 1802, and John in 1803. Of
John's earliest boyhood we have but slight record, but there seems to
have been a clear foreshadowing of his future genius. He was considered
the wonder of the neighborhood, and busied himself day after day with
the machinery of the mines, drawing the form on paper with his rude
tools or making models with bits of wood and cord, and endeavoring thus
to trace the mystery of its operation.

In 1811 the Ericsson family fell upon evil times. Due to a war with
Russia, business became disturbed and in the end Olof Ericsson became
financially ruined. This brought the little family face to face with the
realities of life, and we soon after find the father occupying a
position as inspector on the Göta Canal, a project which was just then
occupying serious attention after having been neglected for nearly one
hundred years, and nearly three hundred years after it was first
proposed in 1526. Through this connection, in 1815, John and Nils
Ericsson were appointed as cadets in a corps of Mechanical Engineers to
be employed in carrying out the Government's plans with reference to the
canal. During the winter of 1816-17 and at the age of thirteen, John
Ericsson received regular instruction from some of his officers in
Algebra, Chemistry, Field Drawing, and Geometry, and the English
language. Ericsson's education previous to this seems to have consisted
chiefly in lessons at home or from tutors, after the manner of the time.
He had thus received instruction in the ordinary branches and in
drawing and some chemistry. His training in drawing seems to have been
unusually thorough and comprehensive, and with a natural genius for such
work, his later remarkable skill at the drawing board is doubtless in no
small measure due to the excellent instruction which he received in his
early years. His progress in his duties as a young engineer was rapid,
and he was soon given employment in connection with the canal-work,
involving much responsibility and calling for experience and skill.

At length on reaching the age of seventeen he became stirred with
military ambition, and, dissatisfied with his present prospects, he left
his position with its opportunities for the future, and entered the
Swedish army as ensign of a regiment of Field Chasseurs. This regiment
was famous for its rifle practice, and Ericsson was soon one of its most
expert marksmen. The routine of army life was, however, far from being
sufficient to satisfy the uneasy genius of John Ericsson, and we soon
find him engaged in topographical surveying for the Government, and so
rapid and industrious in his work that as the surveyors were paid in
accordance with the amount accomplished, he was carried on the pay rolls
as two men, and paid as such, in order that the amount which he received
might not seem too excessive for one individual. Even this was not
sufficient to exhaust his energy, and about this time he conceived the
idea of publishing a book of plates descriptive of the machinery
commonly employed in the mining operations of his day. To this end he
collected a large number of sketches which he had prepared in his
earlier years, and made arrangements to take up the work of preparation
for publication. The drawings selected were to be engraved for the book,
and, nothing daunted by the undertaking, Ericsson proposed to do this
work himself. After some discouragement the engraving was undertaken,
and eighteen copper plates of the sixty-five selected, averaging in size
fifteen by twenty inches, were completed within a year. In various ways
the project met with delays, and it soon became apparent that the rapid
advance in the applications of machinery to mining would render the work
out of date, and it was at length abandoned.

At about this time Ericsson seems to have taken up seriously his work on
his so-called "flame-engine," certain experiments made by his father
having suggested to him the hope that a source of power might in this
way be developed which would be more economical than the steam-engine.
At this point we see entering into Ericsson's life an idea which never
left him, which controlled much of his work in mid-life, and which
attracted no small part of his attention throughout his closing years.
This idea was the discovery of some form of heat-engine which should be
more economical than the steam-engine, especially as it was in his day.
The flame-engine idea grew rapidly, and soon absorbed his chief
attention. Military life now lost its attraction, and in 1826 obtaining
leave of absence he left his native land and turned his face toward
London, doubtless with the hope strong within him that a substitute for
the steam-engine had been found, and that his future lay secure and easy
before him.

The characteristic features of Ericsson's life up to this time, when he
had reached his twenty-third year, are energy, industry, independence,
all in most pronounced degree, and combined with a most astonishing
insight into mechanical and scientific questions. It was not a period of
achievement, but one of formation and of development in those qualities
which were soon to make him famous in both worlds. Of his work during
this period of life little or nothing outside the idea embodied in the
flame-engine can be said to belong to the permanent record of his life's
achievement. This appeared in the "Caloric" engine, and still later in
the well-known Ericsson "Air" engine of the present day.

This era was one of development and promise, and richly were the
promises fulfilled in the achievements of his later years. A careful
study of his life to this point is sufficient to show that, with health
and time, such a nature would certainly leave a mark wide and deep on
the world in which it was placed. His characteristics were such that
achievement was the very essence of life, and, with the promise and
potency as revealed in this first twenty-three years of his life, we may
be well prepared for the brilliant record of the remaining sixty-three.

With Ericsson's arrival in London began the second important period of
his life. His first efforts were directed toward the introduction of the
flame-engine, but he soon found unexpected difficulties in the use of
coal as fuel instead of wood, and it became clear that in order to live
he must turn his attention to other matters for a time. Then followed a
series of remarkable pieces of work in which Ericsson's genius showed
itself, either in original invention or in the adaptation and
improvement of the existing facts and material of engineering practice.
While thus occupied, his leave from his regiment expired, and he seems
to have overlooked taking proper steps to have it renewed. He was thus
placed technically in the attitude of a deserter. Through the
intervention of a friend, however, he was soon afterward restored, and
promoted to the rank of Captain in the Swedish Army. This commission he
immediately resigned, and thus his record became technically cleared of
all reproach.

To give a mere list of the work with which Ericsson was occupied during
the years from 1827 to 1839, when he removed to the United States, would
be no small task, and reference to the more important only can be here
made. Compressed air for transmitting power, forced draft for boilers by
means of centrifugal blowers, steam boilers of new and improved types,
the surface condenser for marine engines, the location of the engines of
a ship for war purposes below the water line, the steam fire-engine, the
design and construction of the "Novelty" (a locomotive for the Rainhill
contest in 1829, when Stephenson's "Rocket" was awarded the prize,
though Ericsson, heavily handicapped in time and by lack of a track on
which to adjust and perfect the "Novelty," achieved a result apparently
in many ways superior to Stephenson's with the "Rocket"), various
designs for rotary engines, an apparatus for making salt from brine,
further experimental work with various forms of heat, or so-called
"caloric" engines, and the final development, in 1833, of a type from
which great results were for a time expected, superheated steam and
engines for its use, a deep-sea-sounding apparatus embodying the same
principle as that later developed by Lord Kelvin in the well-known
apparatus of the present day, a machine for cutting files automatically,
various types of steam-engines, and finally his work in connection with
the introduction of the screw-propeller as a means of propulsion for
steam vessels. These are some of the important lines of work on which
Ericsson was engaged during the twelve years of his life in London. In
connection with some he was undoubtedly a pioneer, and deserves credit
as an original inventor; in connection with others, his work was that of
improvement or adaptation; but in all his influence was profound, and
the legacy which we have received from this period of engineering
progress is due in no small degree to Ericsson, and to his work in
London during these years. At a later point we shall refer in some
further detail to these questions, but desire for the moment, rather, to
gain a broad and comprehensive view of his life as a whole.

Ericsson has been by some called a spendthrift in invention, and the
term is not without some justice in its application. His genius was
uneasy, and his mind was oppressed by the wealth of his ideas. It was
this very wealth which led him from one idea to another, without always
taking sufficient time in which to develop and perfect his plans. Rich
in invention, he cared but little for exploitation, and when the truth
of his predictions was demonstrated, or the ground of his expectation
justified, he was eager for new achievements and new combinations of the
materials of engineering progress. In this spirit of struggle and
unrest, he passed the years in London, rapidly becoming known for his
versatility in invention, and for his daring and originality in the
details of his engineering work. From 1833 to 1839, or during the second
half of this term of residence in London, he became in increasing
measure absorbed in his work connected with the screw-propeller as a
means of marine propulsion.

Ericsson's name in the popular mind has been most commonly associated
with the "Monitor" and her fight with the "Merrimac" in the Civil War,
and next, probably, with the screw-propeller as a means of marine
propulsion. It will, therefore, be proper at the present point to refer
in some further detail to the circumstances connected with his relation
to the introduction of the screw-propeller.

Regarding this question an entire volume might be written without doing
more than justice to the subject, but only a brief statement of the
chief facts can be here attempted.

As early as the Seventeenth Century the possibility of developing a
propulsive thrust by the use of a submerged helicoidal, or screw,
propeller, had been vaguely recognized, and during the following, or
Eighteenth Century, the same idea had been brought forward. It had been
viewed in this connection, however, merely as a curiosity, and led to no
immediate results. Later, in 1804, Francis B. Stevens, of New Jersey, in
an experimental boat on the Hudson, operated twin screws, and
demonstrated their applicability to the requirements of marine practice.
These propellers, in fact, had a form far more nearly approaching the
modern screw-propeller than did those which came somewhat later, and
which marked the real entry of the screw-propeller into actual and
practical service.

Again, in 1812, Ressel, a student in the University of Vienna, began to
study the screw-propeller, and his first drawing dates from this time.
In 1826 he carried on experiments in a barge driven by hand, and in 1827
an Austrian patent was granted him. Two years later he applied his screw
to a boat with an engine of six horse-power, and a speed of six miles
per hour was said to have been attained. Then came a bursting
steam-pipe, and the police put a stop to the experiments, which seem to
have had no further results.

Likewise in 1823 Captain Delisle, of the French Engineers, presented a
memorial to his Government in which he urged the use of the submerged
propeller for the propulsion of steam vessels. No especial attention was
given to the suggestion, however, and it was apparently forgotten until
later, when the propeller had become a demonstrated success. Then this
memorial was remembered, and its author brought forward to receive his
share of credit in connection with the adaptation of the propeller to
marine propulsion.

These various attempts to introduce the screw-propeller seem curiously
enough to have had no lasting result. They were not followed up, and in
the mean time had to some extent passed out of memory, or, if
remembered, the absence of result can hardly have acted as an incentive
to fresh effort. At the same time it must be admitted that the
screw-propeller as a possibility for marine propulsion was known in a
vague way to the engineering practice of the day, and it is at this time
of course quite impossible to say how much may have been known by
Ericsson, Smith, or others concerned in later developments, or to what
extent they may have been dependent for suggestion on what had preceded
them. The question of who invented the screw-propeller in the absolute
sense is entirely futile and without answer. No one could ever have
reasonably advanced any such unique claim. At the best it is simply a
question of the relative influence in the introduction, improvement, and
practical application of what was the common property of the engineering
practice of the day.

In 1833, or at the period now under consideration, however, the
paddle-wheel was the recognized instrument of marine propulsion. Since
the beginning of the century it had been growing in use with the gradual
growth in the application of steam, and at this time it held the field
alone. Some years earlier it appears that some of the objections to the
paddle-wheel had become plainly apparent to Ericsson, although,
occupied with other matters as he was, there was no immediate result. He
apparently recognized that the slow revolutions possible with the
paddle-wheel did not favor the improvement of the steam-engine along the
lines which have since been followed, and he saw clearly that for
warship purposes the engines employed, exposed above the water-line to
destruction from the shell of an enemy, were entirely out of the
question. Finally in 1833 and 1834 we find him employed by a carrying
company in London to conduct numerous trials with submerged propellers
in the London and Birmingham canal. In an affidavit made in March, 1845,
he states that in 1833 his attention was particularly called to the
subject of oblique propulsion, and that under his direction propellers
of various patterns and embodying these principles were fitted on a
canal-boat named the "Francis," and later in 1834 to another called the
"Annatorius." Shortly after this, or in 1835, his ideas took more
definite form, and he refers to his work in a letter to his friend John
Bourne in the following terms: -

"1835. Designed a rotary propeller to be actuated by steam-power
consisting of a series of segments of a screw attached to a thin broad
hoop supported by arms so twisted as also to form part of a screw. The
propeller subsequently applied to the steamship 'Princeton' was
identical with my said design of 1835. Even the mode adopted to
determine, by geometrical construction, the twist of the blades and arms
of the 'Princeton's' and other propellers was identical with my design
of the year last mentioned."

At about this same time, or in 1835, the attention of Mr. F.P. Smith
seems to have been drawn to the subject of the screw-propeller, and we
find him taking out a patent for his form, consisting of an elongated
helix or spiral of several turns, under date of May 31, 1836. Ericsson's
patent followed some six weeks later, or on July 13, 1836. While it thus
appears that Ericsson had been studying the problem since 1833 or
earlier, according to his own statements, there is no evidence that
Smith's attention was drawn to the matter earlier than 1835. Delay on
Ericsson's part in the matter of patent gives the earlier date to Smith.
The mere date of a patent, however, is of small moment for our present
purposes. It must be admitted that the modern form of screw-propeller is
quite unlike either of these original forms, although they all involve
of course the same fundamental principles. Ericsson's propeller may
properly be called an engineering success, built on sound principles,
but improved and largely modified by the results of later experience and
research. Smith's propeller, while capable of propelling a boat, was the
design of an amateur rather than of an engineer, and in comparison with
Ericsson's seemed to show a somewhat less accurate appreciation of the
underlying principles upon which the propeller operates.

In the present case, as we have noted above, the question is not so much
one of invention as of influence in introduction, adaptation, and
improvement. The screw-propeller was already known, but had not been
introduced into and made a part of actual engineering practice. Services
in this direction are all that can be claimed for any of those concerned
with the question during the third decade of the Nineteenth Century.
From this point of view we must give to Ericsson large credit. He had
the courage of his convictions, and did not allow his work in this
direction to lapse for lack of effort on his part to secure its
introduction into the practice of the day.

Thus, in 1837, the "Francis B. Ogden" was built for the special purpose
of testing the power of the screw-propeller, and was operated on the
Thames for the benefit of the British Admiralty and many others. Shortly
after this, and largely through the influence of Capt. Robert F.
Stockton of the American Navy and Francis B. Ogden, the American Consul
at Liverpool, Ericsson began to consider a visit to the United States
for the purpose of building, under Stockton's auspices, a vessel for the
United States Navy. While these negotiations were under way, in 1838, he
built for Captain Stockton a screw-steamer named the "Robert F.
Stockton," the trials of which attracted much attention from the public
at large and from engineers of the time. At about the same period
Ericsson's propeller was fitted to a canal-boat called the "Novelty,"
plying between Manchester and London. This was presumably the first
instance of a screw-propeller employed on a vessel actually used for
commercial purposes.

Finally, in pursuance of Ericsson's plans with Captain Stockton, he left
England Nov. 1, 1839, and started for New York in the steamer "Great
Western," where he arrived November 23, after a long and stormy passage.

We now reach the final scene of Ericsson's life and professional
activities. His visit was at first intended only as temporary, and he
seems to have anticipated an early return after carrying out his plans
with reference to a ship for the United States Navy. To quote from a
letter to his friend, Mr. John O. Sargent, he says: "I visited this
country at Mr. Ogden's most earnest solicitations to introduce my

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Online LibraryJohn LordBeacon Lights of History, Volume 14 The New Era; A Supplementary Volume, by Recent Writers, as Set Forth in the Preface and Table of Contents → online text (page 11 of 26)