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Leading article on John Ericsson

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Note: This is a sub-section of John Ericsson

Published in The Engineer 1889/03/29

MEN of genius are often over-rated by their country-men, because they are at once valuable and exceedingly scarce. John Ericsson was in the fullest sense of the term a genius, and in the United States there is manifest just now a strong tendency to rate him at a higher value than he deserved. This amiable weakness does no one any harm, but it is just a little vexatious to find success after success claimed for him at the expense of Englishmen. That Ericsson was an excessively clever man we do not for a moment dispute; we use the word "excessively" advisedly, and of set purpose; none other could so well convey our meaning. Ericsson was too clever, and the fact really impaired his utility. The best way to illustrate this is to glance briefly at some of the events of his life, and to consider the claims made for him, claims, indeed, which he himself would possibly have repudiated. He was born in 1803 in a Swedish mining district, and was made a cadet in the Swedish Corps of Engineers when he was twelve years old. He was soon afterwards employed in taking levels for a section of the Gotha Ship Canal, and it is said that be was so small that a stool had to be carried for him on which he stood to reach the eye-piece of the level. One of his first inventions was a flame engine; what this was precisely we have never been able to learn. It was some form of caloric engine worked with pine shavings. He came to England in 1826, and got into partnership with John Brathwaite, and between them was designed and constructed a locomotive - The Novelty - in which the products of combustion traversed a tube winding backwards and forwards through the boiler; combustion was forced by a bellows worked by the engine. During the memorable Rainhill trials the engine competed for the prize, but the workmanship was so indifferent that the boiler broke down, and the machine was withdrawn. One of the great defects in Ericsson's character as an engineer was manifested here, namely, inattention to details. It appears, indeed, the invariable rule that a mechanical genius shall neglect detail, not only in construction, but in design; yet on detail depends all the difference between success and failure. We use the word, be it remembered, in a very large sense. How large will be understood as we proceed.

Ericsson about this time, and for some years subsequently, produced a host of inventions. It is claimed for him that he was the first man to use forced draught at sea in a steamship called the Victory, constructed in 1828. This ship had no smokestack. What was to become of the smoke after it was got overboard he does not seem to have cared. Yet it is sufficiently obvious that nothing was to be gained by suppressing the chimney, whatever might be the benefit of the forced draught. We need scarcely add that the value of the invention as it stood was practically nil. In a second ship, the Corsair, built at Liverpool in 1832, centrifugal fan blowers were employed, and we willingly give Ericsson the credit for an invention with a possible future. Ericsson was one of the first, if not the first, to construct a steam fire engine, and in 1840 he took the gold medal of the Mechanics Institute of New York for one. The United States claim that he invented the link motion, and applied it in 1830 to the King William and Adelaide locomotives. There is no basis, however, for the claim, Ericsson's valve gear being in no sense or way identical with that known as Stephenson's. In 1833 he produced his caloric engine. Very great things were expected of this invention, but it came to nothing. In the hands of English engineers the principle has been successfully applied on a small scale. Ericsson was quite unable, from lack of consideration for detail, to see that it could not be made to answer on a large scale. Money was available, however, and on a large scale it was tried on board the Ericsson, a ship 260ft. long, built specially for the purpose. She was fitted with paddle-wheels driven by four cylinders, each 14ft. in diameter, with a stroke of 6ft. The number of revolutions made per minute was nine, and the indicated horse-power of this huge machine was only 300 horses, the effective pressure being, according to Rankine, only 2.12lb. per square inch. It is said that during the trial trip a man was kept in each cylinder - they were open-topped - and well supplied with buckets of melted tallow, with which he lubricated the sides of the cylinder. He stood on the piston and went up and down with it. It was only a detail that the use of hot air was incompatible with any efficient system of lubrication, and that the fires were lighted under the cylinder bottoms - a way of heating the air as inefficient as possible. The engine, however, notwithstanding its unwieldliness, might have achieved a certain measure of success if only the lubrication could have been managed. The ship was altogether too slow for commercial purposes, and Ericsson had the caloric engines taken out and replaced with steam.

The greatest claim set up for Ericsson is that he invented the screw propeller. Of course, it is well known that he did nothing of the kind. He did invent a screw propeller, and a very good one, and very great credit is due to him for the pertinacity with which he insisted that the screw would be invaluable for ships of war . It is noteworthy that after he had proved to the Lords of the Admiralty that a screw propeller could work, their lordships condemned the whole thing, because they asserted that a ship with a propeller at the stern could not be steered. Ericsson was so vexed that he left England and went to the United States. His friend, Commodore Stockton left no stone unturned to induce the United States naval authorities to build a ship from Ericsson's designs. After two years the Princeton was ordered. She was fitted with rocking piston engines designed by Ericsson, and so well designed and so well made were they, that when the hull of the Princeton was worn out they were removed and a new vessel was built for them. It might be imagined that the construction of such a war vessel as the Princeton would involve novelties enough, even if she were fitted with ordinary guns. But that was not Ericsson's opinion, and he had huge guns made for her. Whether these guns would or would not bear to be fired was a detail. The Princeton was finished early in 1844, and on February 20th in that year, John Quincy Adams wrote thus in his diary:- "The House of Representatives yesterday adjourned over until tomorrow on the motion of Isaac E. Holmes, member for South Carolina, for the avowed purpose of enabling the members to visit the Princeton, a war steamer and sailing vessel combined, with the steam machinery of Ericsson's propellers, all within the hull of the vessel and below the water line, and carrying twenty-four 42lb. carronades, and on her main deck two enormous wrought iron cannon, with barrels of 14in. diameter, chargeable with 40lb. of powder, and discharging a ball of 225lb. weight. This vessel, a gimcrack of sundry other inventions of Captain Stockton himself, was built under his directions, and is commanded by him. She was ordered round here to be exhibited to the President and heads of the executive departments, and to the members of both Houses of Congress, to fire their souls with patriotic ardour for a naval war." On the 28th of the same month he wrote:- "I went into the chamber of the Committee of Manufactures, and wrote there till six. Dined with Mr. Grinnell and Mr. Winthrop; Mr. Pakenham - the new British Minister - and his secretary - Mr. Bidwell - were there. While we were at dinner, John Barney burst into the chamber, rushed up to General Scott, and told him, with groans, that the President wished to see him; that the great gun on board the Princeton, the 'Peacemaker,' had burst, and killed the Secretary of State, Upshur, the Secretary of the Navy, T. W. Gilmer, Captain Beverly Kennon, Virgil Maxey, a Colonel Gardiner of New York, and a coloured servant of the President, and desperately wounded several of the crew. General Scott soon left the table; Mr. Webster shortly after; also Senator Bayard. I came home before ten in the evening." Notwithstanding the failure of the gun, the Princeton reflects infinite credit, not only on Ericsson, but on the public spirit of the builders.

Ericsson's greatest invention was, however, the Monitor. It is impossible to over-rate the service which the original Monitor, built in 100 days, rendered to the Federal Government in a time of the utmost peril. No one but a genius could have invented and designed such a ship, and we should be the last to say a disparaging word, were it not that extravagant claims are now being made on the other side of the Atlantic. The United States Army and Navy Journal says:- "The Monitors were speedily adopted by Ericsson's native country, Sweden, by Norway, and by Russia. England, with stubborn incredulity, long refused to believe that there was anything worthy of acceptance in this latest Yankee notion. It was not until the double turretted Monitor Miantonomoh presented herself in English waters in the summer of 1866 - more than four years after the appearance of the original Monitor in Hampton Roads - that British public opinion finally yielded." The opinion of experts in this country never yielded. England never built a. Monitor, nor did France, nor Russia, nor any other country save the United States. The Monitor was a craft sui generis, and must not for a moment be confounded with turret ships, which if they were invented at all by any single individual - which we doubt - were invented by Captain Cowper Coles. The Monitor answered its purpose for the time, but no Monitors are built now. As sea-going ships they are entirely useless. The idea involved in their construction is captivating. They mount tremendous guns. They offer a minute mark to an enemy. They have a steady gun platform, and can be well protected; but when we have said this we have said all that can be said. They are execrable sea-boats. It is impossible for a crew to live any time on board them. They are very slow, and in anything like a sea their guns cannot be fought. In every necessary detail they are utter failures, and the success they achieved during the American War was attained in still water, and only because they had no adequate foe to contend against; but they were novel and ingenious to the last degree. They could not have been invented by a sailor, because he would know too much. Ericsson's combination of ignorance and genius happily resulted in the production of a craft which was just the thing for its intended purpose. Every credit is due to him so far; but to claim that he in any way left a permanent mark on naval construction is little short of absurd, and is not at all short of being injudicious. To show how far adulation can be pushed, we quote the following lines from the New York Army and Navy Journal:- "Although these works are usually referred to as inventions, it should be remembered that Captain Ericsson objected, and with reason, to the title of inventor, a designation more properly belonging to men endowed with fertile genius but lacking rudimentary knowledge, and in most cases ignorant of the first principle of mechanics. Ericsson's knowledge, on the contrary, embraced the entire range of mechanical philosophy. He was also a profound geometrician, and possessed greater practical experience as a mechanical constructor than any living man." Writing of this kind does harm instead of good to a reputation. We are of those who hold that Ericsson was a most remarkable and original genius; but we do not hold that he was, in the proper sense of the term, a great engineer. Nearly everything that he produced was ephemeral in its character, and necessarily so, because it lacked that combination of qualities which is essential to the longevity of an invention. Only the fittest inventions survive - and Ericsson's products were not the fittest. His screw propeller, for example, was admirable simply regarded as a propeller, but it was not admirable as an appurtenance to a ship; not nearly so good a propeller as that ultimately produced by Smith, who worked out his invention rather before Ericsson, and who really did far more to promote screw propulsion than Ericsson did. But Smith was a man of one idea - a Hendon farmer interested all his life in boats. As a genius he could not compare for a moment with the Swede; but that did not prevent him from inventing a much better method of propelling ships. Sweden may well be proud of her son. Any nation would be justified in boasting that such a man was born within her shores; but truth and justice must be respected, and it is well not to forget that it is very difficult to put forward the magnificent claims now made for Ericsson without sacrificing the truth and depriving others of the credit justly due to them. The assertion that to Ericsson is due steam navigation by screw propulsion is more than the average English engineer or naval architect, or shipowner, will accept without a protest. For Ericsson's abilities we have always had the highest respect. Fulsome adulation of his memory certainly cannot originate in a correct appreciation of his mental powers, and will tend rather to hurt than to raise his reputation. The man himself, if alive, would probably be the first to condemn such utterances as those we have quoted.