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John Ericsson

The Boy of the Goeta Canal: 1803-1889

Among the Swedish country people there still lingers a primitive half belief in witches and goblins, and nymphs and elves of the forests and the sea. Many a simple mountaineer, returning home from some lonely trip, tells tales of prophetic voices he heard whispering in the wind or of gnomes who interrupted his slumbers in the woods. One such legend runs as follows.

A wealthy farmer named Ericsson, who owned many acres in the Swedish province of Vermland, had in his service a crippled lad whose business it was to tend the sheep. This work kept him away from people much of the time, and led him through the pine woods, beside the little tarns, or hidden inland lakes, and up and down the wild mountains where the fairy people dwell. He grew quite accustomed to meeting wood or lake nymphs in his wanderings, and became so friendly with them that they often gave him good advice, such as when to expect a storm, or where he might find the best grazing for his flock.

One day he was caught in the rain and when he found shelter in a deserted barn he was so wet and exhausted that he fell into a troubled sleep. While he slept a pixie came to him and whispered in his ear that in time to come a house should be built on that part of farmer Ericsson’s land, and that two boys should be born there who should make the name of Ericsson known round the world.

The shepherd was much excited by the news, and as soon as he reached the Ericsson house he told the fairy’s prophecy. The family were very much concerned and wrote the prophecy down in the family Bible, and also spread the story through the province. That was in the seventeenth century.

Near the end of the eighteenth century young Olof Ericsson married, and built him a home on that part of the family land where the old barn had stood. He had three children, a daughter named Caroline, and two sons, named Nils and John. One day the mother heard the old legend and identified the place with her husband’s house, and so became convinced that her boys were to become world famous. They came of very good stock, and the family traced their ancestry back to the great Leif Ericsson, son of Eric the Red, who had been the Norse discoverer of America.

Olof and his wife Brita were devoted to their children. Olof was part owner of a mine at the town of Langsbaushyttan near which they lived. The children had a governess for a time, and father and mother taught them what they could, but the most of their days were spent playing in the thick pine woods along the shore of the little Lake Hytt which lay in front of their house. Sometimes Olof took the two boys with him to the mine, and from almost the first visit a perfect passion for machinery took possession of the younger boy John. After that he was always playing with pencils and paper, with bits of wood and metal, and spent hours drawing figures in the sand on the beach of the lake.

At about this period hard times befell Sweden. The small Northern country, half the size of Texas, with fewer people than the single city of London, never very rich, had trouble keeping her independence from Russia. Her king was a weakling, and lost part of his land. Then a gentleman of fortune, a man who had been a French lawyer’s apprentice, and had risen to be a marshal, one whose sword had helped to carve out an empire for Napoleon, suddenly was elected King of Sweden. He brought the little country French support and better times, but meantime Olof Ericsson had lost his property and found that he must seek work at once to keep his family from starving.

Olof had lost his share in the mine and had been living in the depths of the pine forest choosing lumber for builders. He had encouraged his son John’s talent for machinery, and now began to believe that the old prophecy might really come true. He had seen John, only ten years old, build a miniature sawmill and pumping engine at the mine, and had been as much astonished as any of the men there when his son proudly showed them the designs he had drawn for a new kind of pump to drain the mines of water.

Even when the little family had left the mining town and were living in the deep woods the boy continued working out his own inventions. He made tools for himself, using sharp pine needles for the points of a drawing compass he fashioned out of sticks, begging his mother for a few hairs from her fur coat to make paint brushes, and actually devising a ball and socket joint for a small windmill he was building. Everything he could lay his hands on he turned to some mechanical use, and all his thoughts seemed bent in that one direction.

The new King of Sweden was now planning to build a great ship canal at Goeta to unite the Baltic and the North Seas, a scheme which had for a long time appealed to Swedish patriots as a protection against their great grasping neighbor, the Russian Bear. Through the influence of a friend, Count Platen, Olof Ericsson was given work in connection with the canal, and moved his family with him to a town called Forsvik. Here a great many soldiers were at work, for the canal was in charge of the army, and many skilled engineers were gathered to superintend the building.

Almost at the same time when Olof reported for work Count Platen and the other officers were surprised to see a small boy, not more than thirteen years old, come every day to watch the digging, to study the machinery, and to ask questions of every one in the place. He was a handsome boy, well built, with light, close-cut, curling hair, fair as Swedish boys almost always are, with clear blue eyes, and a very firm mouth and chin. While other boys of his age were at school or playing he would stand on the bank of the canal, studying by the hour some piece of machinery. Then on another day he would come with a pad of paper, some crude home-made drawing tools, and pencils, and perching himself on a pile of rocks or of lumber would draw the machinery as a skilled draughtsman might, and then work over his sketch, apparently adding to it or altering it to suit ideas of his own.

Count Platen watched the boy for several days, and then one morning went up to him. “May I see what you’re doing?” he asked.

The boy, who had been absolutely absorbed in his work, looked up. “It’s the sketch of a new pump to drain the canal,” said he. “I made one for father’s mine in Vermland, and I don’t see why the same plan can’t be used here. It’ll do the work more quickly.”

Count Platen looked at the drawing on the boy’s lap, and listened intently while the young inventor explained how the machine should work. He was astounded at the knowledge the boy had of engineering.

“You’re Olof Ericsson’s son, aren’t you?” he asked finally.

The boy nodded. “Yes, I’m John Ericsson; I’ve an older brother Nils, who’s fifteen.”

“Is Nils as much of an engineer as you are?”

“He knows a good deal about it. Father taught us both, but I don’t think he’s as fond of machines as I am.”

The Count laughed. It sounded strange to him to hear a small boy talk of machinery so eagerly. He could not doubt the boy’s earnestness, however. He had watched him for several days and had just examined his plans. The boy evidently meant what he said.

“Well, John, you’re certainly a remarkable lad. I shouldn’t wonder if you’d the making of a genius in you.” He considered a few minutes, and then went on. “We need some engineers here to show these stupid soldiers what to do. How’d you like to try such a job?”

The boy jumped from his seat in his excitement. “I’d like it very much, sir. Do you mean to tell the men what to do, and to have real tools to work with?”

Count Platen smiled. “Yes, to have entire charge of a part of the work. That’s what I mean. I really think you could do it. How old are you, John?”

“I’ll be fourteen very soon.”

Hm,” mused the Count, “It seems absurd to put a boy of fourteen in charge of six hundred soldiers. And yet if he has the skill to do the work, why not? And there’s small doubt that he has. Well, John, I’ll see what can be done. Meet me here to-morrow morning.”

The next day Count Platen found John anxiously awaiting him. He told the boy at once that his plan had proved successful, and that both John and Nils were to be enrolled as cadets in the mechanical corps of the Swedish navy, and that John was to be put in charge of part of the canal building. The boy was highly delighted; he knew that now he should have a chance to try in actual working some of the inventions he had planned on paper. As soon as he had thanked his kind friend the Count he ran home to tell his mother the news of Nils’ and his good fortune.

It was a curious sight when the officer in command of the troops placed six hundred soldiers in charge of young John Ericsson. They were too well trained to laugh, but they were tremendously surprised when they saw that their future orders were to come from this small, curly-haired lad just barely turned fourteen. Olof Ericsson himself was scarcely less surprised than the men; he knew his son’s great mechanical ability, but he could hardly believe that others had come to realize it so soon.

A few days of actual work on the canal, however proved that Count Platen had made no mistake. John knew what ought to be done, and he could show the soldiers new and better ways of getting results, although he was actually too small to reach the eyepiece of his leveling instrument without the aid of a camp-stool which he carried about with him. He brought out some of the mechanical drawings he had worked over, and had machinery made after them, and whenever his inventions were tried they met with success.

For several years John commanded his six hundred men at the Goeta Canal, and then he decided to enter the army. He had grown tall, and was noted for his great strength and skill in feats of arms. At seventeen he was made an Ensign in the Rifle Corps, and soon after Lieutenant in the Royal Chasseurs. He was fond of the life of the army, but he saw there was no great future in it for him, and he could not give up his passion for science and invention. He procured an appointment as surveyor for the district of Jemtland, and found himself free again to work on his own lines.

Sweden is a rugged country, its northern part serried by great fiords, its mountains steep and often desolate, its forests thick and many. The young surveyor was in his element roughing it through the wild country, with an eye to improving it for cultivation and for defense, making elaborate maps of its hills and valleys, and charts of its fiords and bays. He had a genius for such work, and the drawings he sent back to Stockholm were invaluable for the development of Sweden. The surveyors were paid according to the work they did, but John Ericsson worked so rapidly that the officials were afraid it would cause a scandal if it were known how much money he was receiving, and so they carried him on their account-books as two different men and paid him for two men’s work.

In his spare hours in Jemtland and Norrland John was busy with inventions. As a boy he had been delighted to watch his father make a vacuum in a tube by means of fire. Now he worked over uses to which he could put that idea, and finally invented a flame engine based largely on that principle. That success led him to study engines more deeply, and had much to do with deciding his later career.

Sweden had shown the world much that was new in the building of the Goeta Canal, and many of the improvements had been due to the boy cadet Ericsson. He was now persuaded to write a book on “Canals,” explaining his inventions and describing the Swedish plans. In such a scientific book the drawings of diagrams were as important as the writing. As soon as John realized that, he could not resist the temptation to try his hand at inventing a machine which should properly engrave the plates he was drawing. It was pure delight to him to exercise his wits on such a problem, and as a result in a short time he had made a machine for engraving plates which was used successfully in preparing the illustrations for his book on “Canals.”

The youth had now won wide recognition throughout Sweden for his inventive skill. But his own country offered him small opportunities, devoted though he was to the land and the people. There was more chance for such a man in a country like England, and there he now went. Stephenson was working then on his steam-engine, and Ericsson studied the same subject, and built an engine which in many ways was superior to the Englishman’s. In whatever direction he turned his mind he was able to find new ideas for improving on old methods.

Ericsson soon built a locomotive for the directors of the railway between Liverpool and Birmingham which was the lightest and fastest yet constructed, starting off at the rate of fifty miles an hour. He could not find the opportunities he wished, however, in England, and went to Germany, and from there came to the United States.

It was in America that Ericsson won his greatest triumphs. He had invented a screw propeller for boats, and found a splendid market for this type of machinery. He built the steamship Princeton, the first screw steamer with her machinery under the water line. This was a great improvement on the old top-heavy style of steamboats, but how great was only to be known when war showed that ironclads with machinery safely sunk beneath the water line and so out of reach of the enemy’s guns were to revolutionize naval warfare.

By the time of the American Civil War men in all countries were experimenting with these new ideas for ships which Ericsson had launched upon the world. News came to Washington that the Confederate government had an all-iron boat, low in the water, which could ram the high-riding wooden ships of the Union navy, and would furnish little target for their fire. The Union was in great alarm, for it looked as though this small iron floating battery could do untold damage to the Union shipping. There was only one man to appeal to if the North were to offset this Southern ship, which had been christened the Merrimac. John Ericsson was the man, and he agreed to build an ironclad which should be superior to the Merrimac, and to build her in one hundred days.

On March 8, 1862, the Merrimac steamed into Hampton Roads, fully expecting to destroy the Union fleet there. But instead, to the great amazement of her officers and men a little iron boat, so small that she looked like a tiny pill-box on a plank, steamed out to meet her. She was so tiny it was almost impossible to hit her; she was almost entirely under water, and her gun turret was built to revolve so that she could fire in any direction. It was like a battle between David and Goliath, and when the day was over David had won, and the Merrimac had to bow to the iron “pill-box” which had been named the Monitor. Proud was John Ericsson then, and rightly so, for he had invented an entirely new kind of ship, and one which was to give its name of Monitor to all ships of its kind.

The building of the Monitor for its successful battle with the Merrimac was the most dramatic incident in Ericsson’s career as an inventor, but his whole life showed a series of wonderful inventions which for value and wide range can probably only be compared with those of Edison. The prophecy which the fairy had made to the shepherd in Sweden had come true, the name of Ericsson was known throughout the world. And in addition to John, the older brother Nils had won great renown in Sweden. He was made Director of Canals there, and created a nobleman for his great services to science and to his native land.

On the Battery in New York City, overlooking the wonderful harbor that is filled with ships of every country, stands the statue of a tall, handsome man, somewhat of the type of those Norsemen who were the great adventurers of the Atlantic seas. The statue is of the man who built the Monitor, and who brought to the new world the genius for invention which he had first shown on the hills and in the woods of Sweden in the days when, a boy of fourteen, he had taught men how to build the great canal at Goeta.