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.
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
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
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