John Ericsson

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John Ericsson
BirthplaceLångbanshyttan, Värmland
Engineer, innovator

Ericsson, John

Ericsson, John (ĕrˈĭksən), 1803–89, Swedish-American inventor and marine engineer, b. Värmlands co., Sweden. He moved to London in 1826, and entered the railroad locomotive Novelty in a contest in 1829, only to be defeated by George Stephenson's Rocket. Ericsson's outstanding role in the development of the screw propeller (he patented one in 1836) for ships was responsible for his coming to America in 1839 to build for the U.S. navy. The U.S.S. Princeton, completed by him in 1844, was the first warship with a screw propeller. Unfortunately, one of the ship's guns, which he did not build, exploded and killed several dignitaries, and he was blamed unjustly for the disaster.

Ericsson is chiefly remembered as the designer and builder of the Monitor, a radical departure from previous types; and its fortuitous conflict with the Virginia during the Civil War, less than five months after its keel was laid, caught the imagination of the people and made Ericsson a hero (see Monitor and Merrimack. With his associates he was busy the remainder of the war designing and building other ironclad vessels, and after the war he built monitors for other governments until the type was abandoned. He also constructed gunboats for Spain, and worked on a “destroyer” with successful devices for releasing torpedoes underwater, but he could not interest the U.S. government in it.

Ericsson made many other contributions to engineering, notably in ordnance, in marine engines, and in caloric or heat engines. In his late years he did experimental work in solar physics.


See biography by R. White (1960).

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Ericsson, John

(1803–89) engineer, inventor; born in Varmland County, Sweden. He served as a topographer and a captain in the Swedish army. He moved to London and worked as an independent engineer (1826–39), developing the idea of placing a ships' engine below the waterline; his Novelty was the world's first propeller-driven commercial ship. He came to New York in 1839 with a commission to build a ship for the U.S. Navy. His propulsion system was used by commercial steamers and by the USS Princeton (1844), the world's first screw-propelled war vessel. He became a U.S. citizen in 1848. The advent of the Civil War brought a demand for his talents; he designed and built the USS Monitor in a 100-day period (1861–62). Following the battle between the Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly the Merrimac) he continued to design and build ironclads. He launched a ship capable of firing underwater torpedoes (1878) and continued his experiments to find better methods of utilizing heat energy, even looking into solar energy. He died in New York and his remains were returned to Sweden (1890) at the request of the Swedish government.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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The new memorial is distinctive in other ways: It is only the fourth to an individual who did not serve as president (the others are for George Mason, John Ericsson and John Paul Jones) and, more importantly, the first honoring an African-American to be located on or near the National Mall.
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He emphasizes their life stories over their achievements, and arranges profiles chronologically, which feature engineers from Western and Eastern Europe and the US, and include Pierre-Paul Riquet, Thomas Telford, John Rennie, Richard Trevithick, George Stephenson, Charles Babbage, John Ericsson, Gustave Eiffel, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Hertha Ayrton, Nikola Tesla, Heinrich Hertz, Wilbur and Orville Wright, Wernher von Braun, and Edith Clarke.
While building this computer model and using all my technical education and modern computer tools, I came to realize that regardless of my training and tools, John Ericsson and the craftsmen who built and designed these components were much smarter than me.