Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 695:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 695.

Today, a great 19th-century inventor teaches us to dance to change. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

John Ericsson invented in three countries over most of a century. He invented an early locomotive. He invented the hot-air engine. He brought the screw propeller into modern use. He invented the gun turret. He designed ships and submarines. His life was ongoing war against technological conservatism.

Ericsson was born in Sweden in 1803. He came to engineering through art. He had a rare talent for expressing himself graphically. At 17 he joined a topographical unit of the Swedish Army and made maps on a piece-rate basis. He did so well the Army paid him as two people to account for his productivity.

At 23 he sought his fortune in London. There he worked with compressed air and marine engines. Then he entered an historic locomotive design contest. He barely lost the race to the Rocket locomotive -- now on display at the Smithsonian.

All the while, inventions poured forth: A deep-sea sounding device, superheated steam engines, desalting apparatus. He had uncanny fluency on a drawing board. His pen spoke eloquently.

He conceived the Ericsson hot-air engine. It's now part of any engineering thermodynamics course. It's a very efficient concept, but it's hard to build. We've come close in this century with regenerative gas turbines.

Ericsson came to America in 1839 to promote the screw propeller. He'd married three years before. His wife was a striking and intelligent lady. They took great pride in one another. But he was a consummate workaholic, and she was isolated.

She finally went back to England to wait while he finished his business here. He never did. America gave him elbow room. He kept working here for 50 years. He supported his wife and corresponded with her. But she died without ever seeing him again.

Meanwhile, he developed ships and naval ordnance. As Civil War gathered, he took a new project to the Navy. It was a fully iron steam vessel, driven by a screw propeller instead of the usual paddle wheel. He called it the Monitor.

The Monitor was the first modern naval war vessel. Its revolving turret was entirely new. It's low profile was a radical change. The day the Monitor met the Merrimack in combat was the day naval warfare changed forever. Yet Ericsson took little interest in it after it left his drawing board. The idea was what mattered. He let others worry about the machinery.

Ericsson was still far ahead of his time in old age. He worked on means for using solar and tidal power. Maybe he was less than a complete person. But, oh, he danced so beautifully to the muse of creative change. And that dance is his gift to us.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Church, W.C., The Life of John Ericsson. Vol. I & II, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1890.

Ericsson, John. Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. VI, New York: Charles Scrbner's Sons, 1931, pp. 171-176. For more on Ericsson and the Monitor, with references, see Episodes 151, 795, and 1344.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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