John Ericsson was one of the 19th century's most creative engineers and inventors. Born July 31, 1803, in Värmland, Sweden, Ericsson joined the Swedish Army at age 17. His engineering talents were quickly recognized, and he was soon promoted to lieutenant and assigned to a field survey unit tasked with making maps of the country. Ericsson left the Army in 1826 and moved to England. While in England, Ericsson pursued a variety of engineering projects including hot air engines, locomotives and steam-powered fire engines. Ericsson also developed significant improvements to the screw propeller, gaining a reputation as a talented young engineer, designer and inventor.
In 1839, Ericsson relocated to New York City, where he and Captain Robert Stockton designed the U.S. Navy's first screw-powered warship. The ship was launched in 1843 as the USS Princeton. In February 1844, the Princeton was hosting dignitaries from Washington on the Potomac River when one of the ship's cannons exploded. The explosion killed eight people aboard, including the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy. Although Ericsson was not at fault for the explosion, he was blamed, and his relationship with the U.S. Navy quickly soured.
Ericsson would spend many years in the courts trying to clear his name and maintain the patents on his inventions. Determined to put the ordeal behind him, he redirected his talents towards the civilian and merchant fields, where he found considerable success in America during the 1840s and 1850s. On Oct. 28, 1848, John Ericsson proudly became a U.S. citizen.
In November 1853, Ericsson read about the Crimean War and a battle between Russian and Turkish naval fleets. Although the ships on both sides of the battle were made from wood, the Russian vessels were equipped with guns that shot exploding shells, while their Turkish counterparts only had iron shot. Ten of the 11 Turkish ships were either sunk or captured, proving that wooden ships were no match for shell-firing guns. In New York, Ericsson read this story with great interest and was thus inspired to design his "sub-aquatic system of naval warfare."
England was at war with France at the time. But due to Ericsson's distrust of the English, he decided to offer his new ship design to the French. However, the inventor shortly received a courteous note from Paris indicating that they did not think his plans were worthy of the expense. Disappointed, Ericsson put his cardboard model and plans away, where they would stay for almost a decade.
The outbreak of the American Civil War brought John Ericsson back into formal contact with the Navy. It was well known that the Confederacy was building an ironclad ship on the hull of the former USS Merrimac(k), to be christened CSS Virginia. The Union felt an urgent need to combat such a threat. Therefore, on Aug. 3, 1861, President Lincoln signed Bill 36 into law, establishing the Ironclad Board and authorizing $1.5 million for the construction of ironclad warships.
The board received 16 proposals. One of the two proposals accepted was from Cornelius S. Bushnell, a talented venture capitalist from New Haven. However, the board wanted proof of the ship's stability before it granted final approval. Bushnell was not a shipbuilder, so he contacted Cornelius Delamater, proprietor of the Novelty Iron Works of New York, who advised Bushnell to consult with John Ericsson. During their meeting, Ericsson dusted off his ironclad model, showed it to Bushnell, and explained that it could be built in 90 days. Bushnell was convinced that Ericsson's design was the best. He was determined to take it to the Ironclad Board, despite the Navy's sour relationship with Ericsson.
Being a smart businessman, Bushnell took the model to his two business partners, John F. Winslow and John A. Griswold. Both were enthusiastic about the ship design. Winslow and Griswold also happened to be good friends of William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State. When the three men showed Seward the model and explained the design, he was so enthusiastic that he gave them an introduction letter enabling them to meet with the president that afternoon. President Lincoln, taken with the proposal, promised to meet them the following morning when they presented to the Ironclad Board. Approval did not come easily, but just eight days after unveiling his plans to Bushnell, the Ironclad Board granted Ericsson permission to build his ship.
On Oct. 25, 1861, the ship's keel was laid at Continental Ironworks in New York.
Construction of the ship was fast and furious. As the ship was nearing completion, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox asked Ericsson what name should be given to the ship. In Ericsson's reply, he said
In accordance with your request, I now submit for your approbation a name for the floating battery at Greenpoint. The impregnable and aggressive character of this structure will admonish the leaders of the Southern Rebellion that the batteries on the banks of their rivers will no longer present barriers to the entrance of the Union forces. The iron-clad intruder will thus prove a severe monitor to those leaders. But there are other leaders who will also be startled and admonished by the booming of the guns from the impregnable iron turret. "Downing Street" will hardly view with indifference this last "Yankee Notion," this monitor. To the Lords of the admiralty the new craft will be a monitor, suggesting doubts as to the propriety of completing those four steel clad ships at three and a half million apiece. On these and many similar grounds, I propose to name the new battery "Monitor."
Your obedient servant,
And on Jan. 30, 1862, the USS Monitor, a revolutionary armored ship with the world's first rotating gun turret, was launched!
The Monitor's performance during the battle with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia on March 9, 1862, made Ericsson a great hero in the North. For the remainder of the conflict, he was actively involved in designing and building a series of monitor-type warships for the U.S. Navy. Ericsson continued his work on maritime and naval technology after the Civil War, producing ships for foreign navies and experimenting with submarines, self-propelled torpedoes and heavy ordnance.
John Ericsson remained active until his death in New York City on March 8, 1889. Touted as one of the greatest inventors and most remarkable mechanical geniuses of the 19th century, Ericsson died at 85 years of age. Even on his deathbed, Ericsson's work was so important to him that one of the last things he did was to leave special instructions to his secretary, Valdemar F. Lassöe, for the completion of his “sun motor” (solar engine).
In August 1890, following a large memorial service in New York, his body was placed aboard the cruiser USS Baltimore and carried across the Atlantic to his native Sweden for re-burial. His final resting place is at Filipstad in Värmland, Sweden. Today, Ericsson remains one of the most influential engineers of all time. His influence in changing naval warfare, through his revolutionary ironclad design of the USS Monitor and its rotating gun turret, lives on through the ship's legacy 150 years later.