Today, a fable about failure and success. 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.
Ericsson was the knight errant of 19th-century
inventors. Born in Sweden, he moved to England,
then America. His imagination was as fertile as
Edison's. Yet his real majesty lay in the way he
let his reach exceed his grasp.
Michael Lamm spells that story out in the history
of three ships: The Princeton, the
Ericsson, and the
Monitor. Each one failed one way or
another. But each one rewrote history.
Ericsson was 39, and in debtor's prison, when he
decided to come to America. He'd spent himself
bankrupt trying to sell the British Navy on
replacing paddle wheels with screw propellers.
Here, he convinced our Navy to build its first
screw-driven warship, the Princeton,
in 1844. In a trial run, a Princeton
gun exploded. Two cabinet members lay among the
dead. The blast had nothing to do with propellers,
but it greatly damaged Ericsson's cause. Still,
screw propellers drive all our ships today.
The next great fiasco came nine years later. It was
the Ericsson, a 250-foot paddle-driven
ship powered by a gigantic hot-air engine. The
engine was one fourth as long as the ship itself.
Ericsson didn't invent the hot-air engine. It'd
been cooked up earlier by a Scottish Presbyterian
minister named Stirling. But Ericsson developed it
into a fine working perfection.
He used heated air to drive a piston. As the air
exhausted, it gave its remaining heat to the
incoming air. That could've made it quite
efficient. But there are a few catches.
Air is an insulating material. It's hard to heat
and hard to cool. To work, the engine had to be
large and slow moving. So, on January 11, 1853,
reporters went below to see the Ericsson's engine.
It was a quiet visual symphony of slow-moving
connecting rods -- beautiful to see. The test run
seemed to be a complete success. Few people noticed
how slowly the ship had moved.
Ericsson's huge engine had put out only 250 HP. An
ocean-going steamboat that size typically needed
over 2000 HP.
Ericsson saw the problem before the newspapers did.
To generate enough power and run efficiently, the
engine would have to run at higher pressures than
we could yet handle. The engine faded from view in
his lifetime. But down through the whole 20th
century we've created variants on that same hot-air
Now Civil War clouds gathered, and Ericsson created
his third star-crossed ship. In 1862, his Union
Monitor could only limp way from a
dubious battle with the Confederate
Merrimack. Yet it eventually defined
the modern iron-clad, steam-driven, turreted
So, again and again, Ericsson reached too far. And,
each time he did, he helped to create the engines
-- of this century.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds