John Ericsson was born in Varmland, Sweden, in 1803. As a young boy he developed an interest in engineering and at the age of 13 produced technical drawings for the Gota Canal. Her served as an officer in the Swedish Army (1816-26) before moving to England to seek sponsorship for a new type of heat engine he had invented, which used the expansion of superheated air as the driving force.
Ericsson lived in London where he formed a partnership with John Braithwaite. In 1829 the two men produced Novelty, one of the entries for the Rainhill Trials. The design was based on road steam carriages being built at that time. Built in six weeks the locomotive had not been tried out before the competition organised by the Liverpool & Manchester Railway took place in October, 1829.
Weighing only 2 tons 3 cwt, the Novelty was much smaller than the other entries. It was also the quickest and reached speeds of 28 mph during the trials that took place on the first day. This was 4 mph faster than the Rocket managed during the opening session. On the second day the boiler pipe became overheated and was damaged. To reach it for repairs, Ericsson and Braithwaite had to partially dismantle the boiler. The steam-tight joints had to be made with a cement which normally took a week to harden. Braithwaite and Ericsson had to go out the next day and not surprisingly when the locomotive reached 15 mph the joints started to blow. The damage was considerable and they forced to retire from the competition.
After the Rainhill Trials Ericsson turned to building ships and in 1836 he developed a successful screw-propeller. Disappointed with the support he was getting in England, he emigrated to the United States in 1839. He continued to experiment and in 1849 he designed Princeton, the first metal-hulled, screw-propelled warship and the first to have its engines below the waterline.
On the outbreak of the Civil War President Abraham Lincoln ordered the United States Navy to build a ship that could help defeat the Confederates. Several leading engineers, including Ericsson, were asked to contribute possible designs for a new ship. When Ericsson's proposal, the Monitor, was rejected by the navy, he managed to obtain a special meeting with the president. Lincoln was impressed with Ericsson's ideas and was granted the contract.
Construction of the Monitor began in October 1861. Completed in just 118 days, it was built at a cost of only $275,000. The ship, almost entirely made of iron, had an armoured revolving turret that held two cannon. This two-gun warship with its 57 man crew was used to successfully blockade the Confederate coast.
Ericsson's inventions revolutionized navigation and the construction of warships including his ship The Destroyer (1878), which could launch submarine torpedoes. He also explored the possibility of using solar energy and gravitation and tidal forces as sources of power. John Ericsson died in 1889.