John Ericcson and The USS Monitor

John Ericcson, a Swedish-American inventor and engineer, was born in 1803 in Langsbanshyttan, Sweden. As a young child, he showed an extrordinarily strong talent in the field of engineering. His father, a mine supervidor, encouraged John to pursue an education in the mechanical field. Working with his father during construction of the Göta Canal, he was made a cadet of engineering and trainee in the Swedish Royal Navy. By age 14, John was tasked as an independant surveyor, and required an assistant to carry a footstool to allow him to reach the eyepiece of the surveying instruments.

By age 17, Ericcson was commisioned in the Swedish Army as a Lieutenant of field rangers, and was assigned to surveying duties. Some of the maps he drafted are still kept on file by the Swedish government, as examples of and tribute to his abilities.

Ericcson moved to New York in 1839 and became a US citizen in 1848. In 1844 he designed the USS Princeton, the first metal hulled, screw-propelled warship and the first with engines below the waterline for protection from shot and shell. He also dexigned a high-velocity prototype cannon, which he named "the Orator", as he believed that the gun "speaks with authority. His US Navy counterpart, CAPT Robert Stockton, also designed a naval gun that he named "Peacemaker". In 1844, on a demonstration cruise of the Princeton, the breech of the "Peacemaker" burst during a test, killing the Secretaries of State and Navy, and killing or seriously injuring many others. Although the Peacemaker was Stockton's design, Stockton implied that Ericcson was at fault. Due to Stockton's political influence, he was exonerated from responsibility, and Ericcson was unofficially blackballed from receiving any further government contracts for eighteen years.

Soon after the Confederate capture of the Portsmouth Naval shipyard, word of the captured USS Merrimack's conversion created a sensation and put the Lincoln administration- especially Secretary of War Stanton- into a panic. It had taken the Confederates many months to design and construct their pioneer ironclad, and word of what they were doing quickly got North. Very few military secrets were really kept in that war, and the Navy Department realized that it had to get an ironclad of its own.

It fell to Ericsson for a design, getting a craft which in it's own way was every bit as odd-looking as the rebuilt Merrimack/Virginia. The USS Monitor was completed in an amazing 100 days. People who saw the Monitor afloat said she looked like a tin can on a shingle. Ericsson's design involved a long, flat hull with no more than a foot or two of freeboard, a rotating 100-ton gun turret amidships mounting two 11-inch Dahlgren guns, removable smoke stacks located aft of the turret and a stubby rectangular pilothouse far toward the bow. She incorporated many of his most famous inventions,including a screw propeller, forced-draft boilers and ventilation, and the below-the-waterline flush toilet.

This craft was towed down to Hampton Roads from New York by a tug, almost foundering off of Cape May en route- neither of these great ironclads was very seaworthy- and steamed in past the Virginia capes late in the evening of March 8, just as the Virginia was finishing up her day's chores.

The Next day the two ships in met in open combat. For four hours the two ships circled each other, probing for weaknesses, but at the end of the battle neither vessel was seriously damaged.Monitor's battle with the CSS Virginia was a landmark event in the history of naval warfare.

After the destruction of the Virginia by her own crew at Craney Island, Monitor participated in the unsuccessful attempt to pass the rebel battery at Fort Darling, Drewry's Bluff on the James River. She was lost in the Atlantic Ocean during a storm 17 miles off Cape Hatteras on New Year's Eve, 1862.

Return to Main Page