John Ericsson - Inventor and Designer of the USS Monitor

Swedish Inventor Designs Engines, Propellors, Submarines and Torpedoes

John Ericsson invented an early locomotive, the Ericsson hot-air engine, an improved screw propeller, the gun turret, and a deep-sea sounding device. He also designed ships and submarines, most notably the USS Monitor.

Early Life of John Ericsson in Sweden

John (originally Johan) Ericsson was born on July 31, 1803, in Värmland, Sweden. His father, Olof Ericsson, was superintendent of a mine and taught John and his brother Nils the skills of mechanics.

They received little formal education but showed their talent early. The boys learned to draw maps and finish off mechanical drawings when their father was director of blastings on the Göta Canal project. They became cadets in the Swedish Navy at ages 11 and 12 and learned from instructors in the Swedish Corps of Mechanical Engineers. Nils went on to be a prominent canal and railway builder in Sweden.

By age 14, John was working as a surveyor. He joined the Swedish Army at age 17 and worked as a surveyor and was noted for his mapmaking skill. He began constructing a heat engine in his spare time, which used the heat and fumes of fire rather than steam.

Move to England

He decided to seek his fortune in England and moved there in 1826 at the age of 23. The railroad industry was hungry for talent and innovation. He continued to design engines that used airflow to provide more heat, and his locomotive design "Novelty" was barely beaten by the "Rocket" designed by George and Robert Stephenson in the Rainhill Trials.

Other projects in England included the use of screw propellers on ships, a fire engine design, large guns,and a steam condenser that provided fresh water for ships.

American Naval Designs of John Ericsson

Ericsson's work on twin screw propellers attracted the attention Robert F. Stockton, an influential and progressive U.S. Navy officer, who encouraged him to relocate to the United States.

They worked together in New York to design a twin screw-propelled warship. The USS Princeton was commissioned in 1843. It was armed with a heavy gun 12-inch gun on a revolving pedestal that Ericsson designed. Stockton worked to get the most credit for these designs and designed and installed a second gun, which exploded and killed eight men, including Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer. When Stockton shifted the blame to Ericsson and blocked his pay, Ericsson resentfully but successfully moved on to civilian work.

Designing the USS Monitor

In 1861, the Navy needed an ironclad to match the Confederate USS Merrimack and the Secretary of the Navy convinced Ericsson to submit a design. He presented them with designs for the USS Monitor, an armored ship with guns on a rotating turret. The Merrimack had been rechristened the USS Virginia and the two ironclad ships did battle in 1862 to a stalemate that nonetheless aved the Union fleet. This success made Ericsson hero and many Monitor-type turret ships were built during the rest of the war.

After the Civil War, Ericsson continued his work, producing ships for foreign navies and experimenting with submarines, self-propelled torpedoes, and heavy ordnance.

He died in New York City on March 8, 1889 and his body was returned to Sweden on the cruiser Baltimore.

Three U.S. Navy ships have been named in honor of John Ericsson: the torpedo boat Ericsson (Torpedo Boat # 2), 1897-1912; and the destroyers Ericsson (DD-56), 1915-1934; and Ericsson (DD-440), 1941-1970.

Partial List of John Ericsson's Patents

U.S. #588  for a "Screw Propeller" patented February 1, 1838.
U.S. #1847 for a "Mode of Providing Steam Power to Locomotives" patented November 5, 1840.

Source: Information and photos provided by U.S. Naval Historical Center