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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increased in engineering favor from the days of its obscure infancy
until it became the only means employed for the propulsion of ships
navigating the high seas, while it had become a most serious rival to
the paddle-wheel even for the purposes of interior and shallow-water
navigation, - long a field considered as peculiarly suited to the
paddle-wheel and to the engines adapted to its operation.

Regarding the change from wind to steam for the motive-power of ships,
Ericsson did his full share among the engineers of his day, but it would
be unfair to many others to claim for him any exclusive or
preponderating influence in this movement, and in such matters it is
difficult to clearly define the services of any one man. The lines of
progress, however, have been in accord with his studies, and his work
has certainly had a most direct and powerful influence upon the
movement. The most important points of contact between Ericsson's work
and these advances were in connection with his introduction of the
surface condenser, the use of artificial draft, devices for heating feed
water, his studies in superheated steam and its use, and his work in
connection with the development of the compound principle in
steam-engines, his relation to the introduction of the screw-propeller,
and to the use of twin screws at a later time. He also devised and
adapted many new types of engines for marine purposes, having respect to
the geometrical character of the connections by means of which a
reciprocating motion of the piston may be transformed into a rotary
motion of the shaft. In particular, he was the first to introduce and
show the advantages of engines directly connected to the
propeller-shaft, instead of through the more indirect and clumsy modes
which others had previously thought necessary.

Aside from his relation to the screw-propeller, perhaps no item of his
work in connection with the steam-engine is of more importance than the
surface condenser, with its variant forms in the distiller and
evaporator. If Ericsson had done nothing else, his claims to recognition
and remembrance as an engineer and benefactor might have been well
founded on his work in this connection. As it is, the fact that he was
so largely instrumental in their perfection and adaptation to marine
uses is wellnigh forgotten in the brighter light of his other

Regarding Ericsson's relation to the successful introduction of the
screw-propeller, little need be added to what has already been said.
Whatever may be urged regarding dates and patents or earlier years in
which the screw-propeller was used, it is a fact that in 1833-35 it was
not recognized as an accepted mode of propulsion. While known as a
possibility, it had no standing in the engineering practice of the day.
A few years later it was recognized as an accepted mode of propulsion
and had gained a permanent and definite place in the practice of the
day, - a place which has continued to grow in importance until its
earlier rival, the paddle-wheel, is almost on the brink of relegation to
museums of antiquities, except possibly for rare and special
shallow-water uses. A careful and dispassionate study of the facts, so
far as they can be known at the present time, seems to indicate clearly
that of those who were concerned in successfully adapting the
screw-propeller to the needs of marine propulsion and in laying the
foundation for these changed conditions, especially in the United
States, none was so prominent as Ericsson, or so fairly deserving of the
chief credit; and with this judgment the mature thought of the present
day seems to agree with little dissent.

Turning to a consideration from a similar point of view of Ericsson's
services in connection with warship design and construction, note may be
first taken of the condition of the art of naval warfare in the years
1840-50, or when Ericsson first began his labors in this field.

The material used was wood, the means of propulsion sails, with some
thought of steam-engines and paddle-wheels; the means of offence were
cast-iron guns large in number but small in size, the largest being 9 or
11 inches in diameter and throwing a shell of some 75 or 130 pounds
weight, while the means of defence consisted solely in the "wooden
walls," and modern ideas regarding armor had not even appeared above
the horizon.

Ericsson's contributions to the art of naval warfare are embodied in the
"Princeton," the "Monitor" and its class, and the "Destroyer." In the
"Princeton" the material used was wood, and in the "Monitor" and
"Destroyer" iron, following simply the developments of the age. In the
three the means of propulsion was by screw-propeller. In the "Princeton"
the means of offence were two 12-inch wrought-iron guns, as already
noted. In the "Monitor" and its type the means of offence were two
11-inch smooth-bore cast-iron guns, followed later by larger guns of 13
and 15 inches of similar type. In the double-turreted monitors four such
guns were of course installed. In the "Destroyer" the means of offence
was a single gun for discharging a torpedo under water at the bow. On
the "Princeton" the means of defence consisted still in wooden walls,
while in the "Monitor" and its class the change was profound and
complete. The essential idea of the "Monitor" was low freeboard and
thus small exposed surface to the ship herself, combined with the
mounting of guns in circular revolving turrets, thus giving an
all-around fire and on the whole making possible an adequate protection
of the exposed parts of the ship and providing for the combination in
maximum proportions of armored protection and heavy guns for offence. On
the "Destroyer" the means of defence consisted simply in a light
deflecting deck armor forward, the vessel being intended to fight bows
on and depending on her means of offence rather than defence, which were
made quite secondary in character.

The "Monitor," however, was Ericsson's great contribution to the art of
naval war, and with it his name will always be associated. It broke with
the past in every way. It reduced the number of guns from many to few,
two or at most four; it reduced the freeboard from the lofty topsides of
the old ship-of-the-line to an insignificant two or three feet, and thus
made of the target a circular fort and a low-lying strip of armor. It
placed the guns in this circular fort and covered it with armor thick
enough to insure safety against any guns then afloat, and thus, as
perfectly as the engineering means of the day would permit, insured the
combination of offensive and defensive features in maximum degree. It
cleared away at one stroke masts, sails, and all the lofty top-hamper
which since time immemorial had seemed as much an essential feature of
the fighting ship as the guns themselves. It transformed the design of
the fighting ship from the older ideals expressed in the American
frigate "Constitution," or the English "Victory," to the simplest terms
of offence, defence, and steam motive-power. It made of the man-of-war a
machine rather than a ship, an engine of destruction to be operated by
engineers rather than by officers of the ancient and traditional type.
There is small wonder that in all quarters the idea of ships of this
type was not received with enthusiasm. The break with the past was too
definite and complete. The monitor type represented simply the solution
of the problem of naval warfare worked out by a man untrammelled by the
traditions of the past and determined only on reducing such a ship to
the simplest terms of offence and defence as expressed by the
engineering materials and possibilities of the day. Judged from this
standpoint, the vessel seems beyond criticism. She filled perfectly the
ideal set before himself by her designer, and represents as a complete
and harmonious whole what must still be recognized as the most perfect
solution of the problem in terms of the possibilities of those days.

It is proper here that due reference should be made to the claims in
behalf of Mr. Theodore R. Timby as an inventor of the turret and of the
monitor idea as expressed thereby. These claims and the main facts in
the case have long been known, and there should certainly be no attempt
to take from any one his due share in the developments which gave to our
nation a "Monitor" in her hour of need. It is well known that Mr. Timby
between 1840 and 1850 conceived the idea of a revolving fort of iron
mounted with numerous guns and intended to take the place of the masonry
or earth-structures in common use for such purposes. He seems also to
have conceived of a similar structure for use on a ship of low
freeboard, and a model showing such a design was constructed. In 1843 he
filed a caveat for the invention of the revolving turret. Here the
matter apparently rested until 1862, and after the battle between the
"Monitor" and "Merrimac," when he took out a patent which was dated July
8, 1862, covering "a revolving tower for defensive and offensive
warfare, whether on land or water." Ericsson's associates in the
business of building monitors for the Government acquired these patents
of Timby, presumably as shrewd business men, in order to quiet any claim
on his part, and to have the plan available for land forts, should the
opportunity arise to push the business in this direction. There is no
question but that Ericsson was antedated by Timby in the suggestion of a
revolving turret, at least in so far as public notice is concerned.
Ericsson frankly admitted this, and stated that he made no claim to
absolute originality in this respect. He further stated what is
undoubtedly true, that the main idea in the turret, that of a circular
revolving fort, antedates the Nineteenth Century as a whole, and its
origin is lost in the uncertainties of early tradition. It is simply one
of those early ideas which naturally must have been known in essence
since time immemorial, and as such it was the common property of the
engineering practice of the century. It belongs neither to Timby nor to
Ericsson, and no claims regarding priority in this respect are worthy of
serious consideration. The question is not who first conceived the idea
of a revolving fort, but who designed and built the "Monitor" as she
was, and as she met the "Merrimac" on the 9th of March, 1862. The answer
to the latter is too well known a part of the history of the times to
admit of question or to call for further notice. Ericsson's claim for
recognition in this respect rests not on any priority of idea regarding
the use of a circular fort, but rather upon the actual "Monitor" as she
was built and as she crushed at one blow the sea-power of the South, and
representing as it did a completely and carefully designed whole, dating
back to the earlier dealings with Napoleon III. in 1854. This is an age
which judges men by what they do, and judged by this standard Ericsson's
claims in connection with the monitor type of warship are never likely
to be seriously questioned.

Taking Ericsson's life and work, what portion remains as a permanent
acquisition or as a part of the practice of the present age? This is a
question which merits at least a moment's notice.

We should not make the mistake of thinking that permanency is
necessarily a test of merit, or that the value of his services to the
world should be judged by such parts of his work as are plainly apparent
in the practice of the present day. A piece of work must be judged by
the circumstances which brought it forth, and by the completeness and
perfection of its adaptation to the needs and possibilities of its age.

We have then the steam fire-engine; compressed air which he early
employed in England, and which has become an instrument of enormous
importance in connection with the industrial progress of the age,
although this is in no especial degree due to his efforts; the surface
condenser, distiller, and evaporator are a permanently and absolutely
essential part of modern marine practice; the screw-propeller has almost
sole possession of the field of marine propulsion; modern marine engines
and boilers in naval practice are always placed below the water-line and
are protected by deflective deck armor and frequently by coal as well;
the turret has become a permanent and accepted part of the practice of
the age, while the monitor type in its essential feature seems to be

The modern battleship is a vastly more complex structure, and
represents more complex ideas and combinations than did Ericsson's
"Monitor." It contains a battery of guns of the heaviest type known to
naval ordnance. At present such guns are usually of 12-inch bore and
throw a shell of about 800 pounds weight, with an initial velocity of
nearly 3,000 feet per second. Then there is a supporting battery of
guns, 6, 7, or 8 inches in diameter of bore, and finally a secondary
battery of smaller quick-firing guns, throwing shells of from 1 pound to
20 or 30 pounds weight, and added to these there may be a torpedo outfit
as well. The exigencies of fighting ships at sea and in all weathers
seems to have pronounced against the monitor type with its low freeboard
as unsuitable for use on the open sea, while the enormous advances in
modern guns and armor have made a totally different problem of the
distribution of means offensive and defensive. Again, the monitor type
was never intended for long cruising, or indeed for other service than
the defence of coasts and harbors. The policy of building a vessel thus
adapted only to an inner line of defence, and not adapted to an outer
line of defence and offence as well, has been further called in
question, and the judgment of the present day has decided against such
policy. It is true that in the so-called "new navy," begun in 1883, one
monitor, the "Monterey," has been built, while four others of older
type have been somewhat modernized, and there are three monitors
building at the present time. It may be doubted, however, if they will
be followed by others, at least so long as the conditions of naval
warfare and the spirit of public policy remain as they now are.

The monitor type was a perfect solution of the problem of its day, and
nobly it answered the calls made on it. The problem has now changed, the
conditions affecting its solution have also changed, and it is no
discredit to the original type that it now seems to have had its day,
and that it must give way to other forms more perfectly expressing the
spirit of the present age, and the means available for the solution of
present-day problems in the art of naval war.

In many ways, however, the influence of Ericsson's work still lives in
the modern battleship, and while in our modern designs we have gotten
far away from the essential features of the monitor type, yet it is not
too much to say that the germ of the modern battleship is in many ways
found in the "Monitor," especially as expressed in terms of
concentration of heavy gun-fire and localized protection of gun
positions; and in more ways than may be suspected, the influence of
Ericsson and of his work had its part in the developments which have led
to the splendid designs of the present day.

Returning again to our note of the dependence of the present age on
Ericsson, mention may be made of the blower for forcing the combustion
in steam-boilers as a well-established feature of standard marine
practice, and one absolutely essential to the development of the highest
attainable speeds, such as are required in warships, and especially in
those of the torpedo and modern "Destroyer" types. Likewise the use of
the fan for ventilation, as used by him in his early practice, has
become a necessity of modern conditions both on naval and passenger
ships, for the health and comfort of both passengers and crew. His long
series of experiments and his years of labor on air and other forms of
"caloric" engine are only represented by the "Ericsson air-engine" now
on the market, and having its fair share of service in locations where
simplicity of operation and scarcity of water may naturally suggest
its use.

Of his labors in connection with a solar engine, and with other
questions which occupied much of the time of his closing years, we have
but little direct result. Others are at work on the idea of the solar
engine, and it may be that a practicable solution of the problem will
be found.

Ericsson's lasting imprint on engineering practice, curious as it may
seem, was made in his earlier and middle life, rather than in his later
years, and we have even more in the way of permanent acquisition from
his earlier than from his middle years. This results from the fact that
in middle life he was largely engaged on warship designs, admirably
adapted to the needs of the time and to the possibilities of the age,
but no longer suited to either, while in later life he no longer found
it necessary to work at problems which would produce a direct financial
return, and therefore interested himself in a variety of questions
somewhat farther removed from the walks of every-day engineering
practice than those with which he was occupied in earlier life.

In personality Ericsson possessed the most pronounced and self-centred
characteristics. Professionally he felt that to him had been granted a
larger measure of insight than to others into the mysteries of nature as
expressed in the laws of mechanics, and he was therefore little disposed
to listen to the advice or criticism of those about him. This was
undoubtedly one of Ericsson's most pronounced professional faults. He
did not realize that with all his insight into the laws of mechanics and
all his capacity for applying these laws to the solution of the problems
under consideration, he might well make some use of the work of his
fellow-laborers in the same field. So little disposed was he to thus use
the work of others that a given device or idea which had been in
previous use was often rejected and search made for another, different
and original, even though it might involve only some relatively trivial
part of the work. He was simply unwilling to follow in the lead of
others. He must lead or have none of it, and thus the fact that a device
or expedient was in common use would furnish an argument against rather
than for its adoption. His natural mode of work was utterly to disregard
precedent and to seek for fundamental solutions of his problems, having
only in view the conditions to be fulfilled, the laws of mechanics, and
the engineering materials of construction. This habit of independence
and of seclusion within the narrow circle of his own work so grew upon
him in later years that mechanical science made many advances of which
he took little or no note, and of which he refused to avail himself,
even though he might have done so greatly to his own advantage.

In his later years, in a letter to his friend Captain Adlersparre, he
says: "Do not laugh at me now, Captain, when I say that nobody can
mislead me. Do not condemn me if I at the same time confess that I am
directed by nobody's judgment but my own, and that I never consult
anybody and take nobody's advice." In all matters connected with his
work his will was imperious, and he would brook no interference or
criticism. His temper was high, his organization sensitive, and many
times throughout his life, relations with his best friends became
strained by his instability of temper or impatience with what he might
construe as a criticism regarding his work. With this instability of
temper, however, was combined a deep-seated tenderness and kindness of
heart, and he was as quick to forget the cause of offence as he was to
manifest displeasure upon occasion.

Notwithstanding the asperities of Ericsson's character in regard to his
professional work, and his entire lack of effort to make friends among
the learned of his day, recognition and unsought honors came in upon
him. He was elected to honorary membership in the societies of note in
the United States and Sweden, and in addition to the thanks of Congress
and of the Legislature of the State of New York, he received a
resolution of thanks from the Swedish Riksdag, or Parliament, in 1865.
In 1862 he was granted the rarely bestowed Rumford medal, and received
at other times during his life medals, honors, and decorations such as
have perhaps fallen to no other who has wrought in the same field of
human effort. While recognition of this character pleased him greatly
when it came spontaneously and willingly, he placed but little value on
that which he thought grudgingly or tardily tendered, and in one or two
instances refused membership in societies which he thought granted in
that manner.

A large measure of this independence of character is necessary to the
performance of the work which Ericsson did. Had he been ever ready to
listen to the views of others, and to modify his ideas in accordance
with them, his greatest achievements would never have been accomplished.
In Ericsson, however, this characteristic was carried to an undue
extreme, and he might unquestionably have accomplished more had he been
able to co-operate with others and to accept and use freely the best
work of contemporaries in his own field.

Ericsson was essentially a designing rather than a constructing
engineer. His genius lay in new adaptations of the principles of
mechanics or in new combinations of the elements of engineering practice
in such way as to further the purposes in view. His mode of expression
was the drawing-board. While he wrote vigorously and well, and while he
was a frequent contributor in later years to scientific literature,
especially on the subject of solar physics, yet his best and natural
mode of expression was the graphical representation of his designs on
the drawing-board. Forms and combinations took shape in his brain and
were transferred to the drawing with marvellous speed and skill. Those
who have been associated with him bear testimony that the amount of his
work was simply astounding, and that only by a combination of the most
remarkable celerity and industry could they have been accomplished.

These drawings were furthermore so minute in detail and so accurate in
dimension that as a rule he did not find it necessary to give further
attention to the matter after it had left his hands. Of the many parts
of a complicated mechanism, one could be sent for construction to one
shop and another elsewhere, all ultimately coming together and making a
harmonious and perfectly fitting whole. In no other way could such
astonishing speed in the detailed construction of the "Monitor" and
other vessels of her type possibly have been made; and the fact that
such speed in construction was obtained, and largely in this manner, is
by no means the least impressive of the many evidences of Ericsson's
genius as a designer.

The designs once completed on the drawing-board, however, Ericsson's
interest in the work ceased in great measure, and as a rule he paid but
little attention to constructive details, and took but slight interest
in the completed whole. Thus he is said to have visited his "Destroyer"
but once after she was built, and then simply in search of his
assistant. He also declined an invitation from the Assistant Secretary
of the Navy to visit Hampton Roads and inspect the "Monitor" immediately
after her fight with the "Merrimac." He seemed to have no curiosity to
inspect his work after it had left his hands, or to receive a report as
to the practical working of his designs. This shows a peculiar lack of
appreciation of the value of intimate contact with constructive and
operative engineering work. No one could hope to avoid errors, or to
realize by drawing-board alone the best possible solution of engineering
problems. Ericsson wilfully handicapped himself in this manner, and
might unquestionably have more effectively improved and perfected his
ideas had he been disposed to combine with his designs at the
drawing-board practical contact with his work as constructed.

His work was all done in his office at his house. For the last
twenty-five years of his life he lived at 36 Beach Street, New York,
where he wrought every day in the year, and often until far into the
night. His office contained, beside his drawing-table and other
furniture, a long table, on which at times, when overcome by fatigue, he
would stretch himself and take a short nap, using a dictionary or low
wooden box for a pillow.

His relations with his native land were always close, and, as already
hinted, he gave much of his best effort to the study of means for her

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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 13 of 26)