John Ericsson

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Fire, Water, Land, and Sea

In 1925 H.M. King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden, as Crown Prince, unveiled the John Ericsson Memorial in Washington DC. In his speech, he described Ericsson as “..the greatest man of Swedish blood who ever came to the U.S.” The occasion was also marked by the issue a 5c stamp depicting the center section of the Memorial. These two events show the extent of the esteem to which he was held by the two countries divided by thousands of miles of ocean.

Between finding fame in his homeland and a place in American history he also acquired a well-earned reputation in this country. In Britain, he justly holds a place in fire service history for the introduction of the steam fire engine. Sadly the recognition, and acceptance, for this milestone was not forthcoming until many years after he had left these shores and crossed the Atlantic.

John Ericsson was born July 31st, 1803 at Långbanshyttan, Färnebo socken, in the Swedish province of Vermland, Sweden. His parents were well educated and John was the youngest of their three children. His abiding interest in science and engineering began at an early age and by the time he was 12 he was already studying to be a draftsman. At 13 he produced technical drawings for the Gota Canal, whilst at 14 years he participated in the building of it. Throughout this time he was receiving instruction in mathematics, the sciences and technical drawing.

In 1820, then aged 17, Ericsson joined a topographical unit of the Swedish army drawing maps on a piece-rate basis. Due to his prolific output he was paid the wages of two men and received rapid promotion to the rank of captain. He must have been a great loss when, in 1827, he applied for and was granted permission to leave the army and travel to England.

Within a very short time of arriving in London he had met up with John Braithwaite, a fellow engineer, already well know in the capital. Although the son of a famous father he was already making his own name in the world. In 1820 he had provided ventilation in the House of Lords using system of air pumps, whilst two years later, in 1822, he had constructed a well received donkey engine.

However it was with trains that the pair first made their reputation together. In October, 1829, they entered their locomotive, “Novelty“, in the famous Rainhill Trials which although won by Stephenson’s “Rocket” drew much praise for their smaller (2 ton 3 cwt), faster (28 mph) entrant. Indeed the Mechanics Magazine, 10th October 1829, said of their engine “The great lightness of this engine, (it is about one half lighter than Mr. Stephenson’s) its compactness, and its beautiful workmanship, excited universal admiration; a sentiment speedily changed into perfect wonder, by its truly marvellous performances.”

It was a sentiment echoed by the Liverpool Mercury, which wrote “…the grand prize of public opinion is the one which has been gained by Messrs. Braithwaite and Ericsson, for their decided improvement in the arrangement, the safety, simplicity, and the smoothness and steadiness of a locomotive engine;”

Unfortunately the two men were working to a tight schedule constructing the untried Novelty in only six weeks. On the second day of the trials damage occurred to a boiler pipe, which necessitated repairs using a special type of heat resistant cement. Normally this would be allowed a week to set, an impossibility under these circumstances and, not surprisingly, when put under pressure, a matter of hours later, the joint failed forcing the withdrawal of their engine from the competitions.

Amazingly at the same time as they were involved with trains they were also putting their considerable abilities to designing a steam driven fire engine. This they experimented with in 1828 and finding it satisfactory “I accordingly at once designed the second steam fire engine. The work was pushed vigorously, the machine proving a perfect success on first trial.” Thus wrote Ericsson many years later. But despite the outstanding ability of the engine it received scant praise from the media and fire fighting circles. It was described variously as a kitchen stove, and a steam squirt.

Even after an attendance at the memorable Argyle Rooms fire where, in bitterly cold conditions, it worked continuously for five hours while the manual pumps froze up, its detractors were not swayed. James Braidwood, the renowned Superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment would have nothing to do with it. Despite attending serious conflagrations at the English Opera House, and Messrs. Barclay’s Brewery, as well as numerous lesser incidents its maker received only the derisory sum of one sovereign for their efforts from insurance companies who benefited much from the attendance of their pump.

Braidwood, in a paper printed in the ‘Journal of Society of Arts,’ May 23rd, 1856, acknowledged “their great efficiency” but argued that they were expensive. He also believed that their use was out of the question while water mains pressure of the day remained low. On the other hand, he countered; if higher pressures could be achieved they would not then need the abilities of a steam fire engine.

Nevertheless, just two years later, these firmly held views took an about turn. In 1858, when Messrs. Shand Mason constructed their first steamer Braidwood wrote of their engine “That at large fires, beyond the reach of the steam floating engine, the land steam fire engine has been of great service. It is not only the large quantity of water which it throws (!), but the height and distance to which it is thrown, which makes it so valuable. At the same time it can be worked as gently as an ordinary engine.”

Charles Young in his book, ‘Fires, Fire Engines and Fire Brigades’, written in 1866, pointed out these inconsistencies. “It is curious to find that the objection so persistently urged against the use of steam fire engines from 1829 to 1856, viz. That they threw to much water, should in 1860-2 be esteemed one of their chief advantages, and that, too, by their most strenuous opponent! It is difficult to assign a reason for this, since fires were as heavy in those days as at present, and certainly as likely to require ?a large body of water? then as now.”

A second steamer, much similar to the first, was built by the two pioneers in 1831. With a steam pressure of 50 psi, and making 40 strokes per minute, threw 27 cubic feet of water per minute, through a one-inch nozzle, to a height of over 100 feet. This engine was taken to the Continent and demonstrated in numerous towns in France and Russia where it is reported that it performed well.

To Liverpool goes the honour of being the first town in Britain to acquire a steam fire engine. Theirs had double horizontal cylinders and three pumps that were driven by gearing from the crankshaft of the engine so as to reduce the speed at which the pump operated. In addition to its fire fighting duties it was stationed in the docks were it pumped fresh water onto ships berthed there.

The ‘Comet’, Braithwaite and Ericsson fourth steam fire engine, was purchased by the King of Prussian 1832. He used it for the protecting the public buildings of Berlin. For this Braithwaite was made honary member of the Berlin Institute. Their fifth and final engine, an experimental one, was constructed in 1833.

With little success with his fire engines Ericsson turned his fertile mind to nautical matters. In this branch of engineering he found new and lasting fame when, in 1838, he invented the screw propeller. These were fitted on the first vessels constructed to provide a regular steamship service to America. It was a route taken by Ericsson in 1839 when the partnership split up and he left British shores forever, taking up residency in New York.

For his part Braithwaite also gave up steam fire engines and instead embraced the steam locomotive. It was an aspect of engineering, then also in its infancy, that he went into wholeheartedly and successfully. He was for many years engineer-in-chief to the Eastern Counties Railway as well as co-founding and editing the Railway Times. He died in 1870 aged 73.

America provided Ericsson with one final attempt to make his mark in fire fighting circles. As a result of a large number of fires in newly adopted city a gold medal had been offered by the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen for the most practical design for a steam fire engine. Not surprisingly Ericsson’s entered this competition. His winning plan was for “an engine weighing less than two and a half tons, that, with the lowest speed, has the power of 108 men, and will throw 3,000 pounds of water to a height of 105 feet, through a one and one half inch nozzle.” But in a city where councilors were dependent on the votes of firemen, who would have lost their jobs if it was built, the plans were much praised but never used.

His fame in America, however, is best known for the design and construction of the USS Monitor, the first ironclad warship, which made such a huge contribution to the Union side during the American Civil War. As a result of this he was made a member in The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences (Krigsvetenskapsakademien), in 1863, awarded for his exceptional advances and contribution to the Civil War.

Ericsson had married in 1836,whilst still in England, and brought his 22 year old wife to the States with him. But he was a renowned workaholic, which caused them to spend long periods apart, so three years later they agreed that she should return to England to wait for him to finish his business. Sadly he never did. In 1848 he was granted American cityzenship, and although he corresponded and continued to provide financial support for her he passed away in 1889, fifty years later, without ever seeing her again. He was 86.

With great deference his body was taken back to Sweden aboard an American cruiser, the US Baltimore. On its arrival at Stockholm an impressive handing over ceremony took place involving senior officials of both countries attended by a military guard of honour. The formalities over Ericsson’s body was placed on a train and taken to his birthplace for interment. It is recorded that thousands of people gathered to witness the event. A fitting tribute to a man of many skills and one who had left behind a lasting legacy wherever he lived.

Recognition of Ericsson continued long after his death and as we have seen it was included in a memorial in Washington as well the issue of a postage stamp. In 1907, in his home city, a society was founded called the ‘John Ericsson Society of New York’. The prime objective of it being to “..perpetuate and honor the memory of Captain John Captain John Ericsson, advance the profession of engineering and work for cooperation between the members of his profession in all countries with special recognition of those branches of engineering wherein Captain John Ericsson’s principal achievements were attained“.

Another New York testament to him, a statue, is to be found in Battery Park. The city of Philadelphia also has a permanent reminder of the great inventor. Here the American Swedish Historical Society has a building with two John Ericsson rooms in it holding a permanent display of his life and work.

More recently an organisation in Sweden, the Varmland Fire Historical Club, has set out to construct a replica of one of Ericsson’s steamer. When complete it will be a unique machine as their project is to construct the unbuilt 1841 engine he designed for New York. Plans have been drawn up and the group has made contact with a firm able to carry out the specialist work. In January 1999 they began to raise money to have a set of drawing made so as to build a 1:3 scale model.

This then is a short history of a man who left an indelible mark in the pages of fire service history. Nor just in Britain but on several continents.