Skip to content
USS Monitor series: Designer, Navy forge unlikely alliance
Swedish-American engineer John Ericsson was born with a rare mechanical skill and even rarer ambition.
At 16, he drew the plans for a 30-mile-long canal - as well as all the machinery and tools used in its construction. At 26, he designed the Novelty, an advanced steam locomotive that set a new land speed record of 67 miles per hour.
Less than a decade later, the talented inventor produced the first practical screw propeller boat, nicknamed "The Flying Devil," and exceeded the then-unheard-of speed of 10 knots on his first trial run. But his greatest innovation, the USS Monitor, might never have been built because of his rocky relationship with the U.S. Navy.
In 1841, Ericsson designed the service's first screw-powered warship - the USS Princeton - producing a vessel that literally ran circles around the fastest paddlewheel competition. But when one of its guns accidentally exploded in a demonstration, killing the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Navy and several other bystanders, the Swedish engineer unfairly received much of the blame for a weapon he didn't design.
Neither side really wanted to work together when, in September 1861, they assembled for the historic meeting that led to the construction of the Monitor.
"Ericsson had a bad attitude. He had a bad temper," says historian Jeff Johnston of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.
"He was an eccentric genius stuck in his own world - and he had a serious love-hate relationship with the Navy."
Fortunately for the service and the Union cause, the difficult engineer had a near-visionary gift for invention. He also could become an electrifying presence when it came to explaining and selling his pioneering designs.
Though the Navy's conservative "ironclad board" had previously rejected his plans for an armored ship, its members answered in detail when Ericsson - who had been misled about their disapproval - put his anger aside and asked them to list their objections. Then he proceeded to make a presentation of such detail and genius that it left the entire room stunned.
"He thrilled every person present in the room with his vivid description of what the little boat would be and what she could do," wrote Cornelius S. Bushnell, the Connecticut businessman who had arranged the meeting.
"[He became] a full electric battery in himself."
Ericsson left the room with such confidence that he began working on the project even before he received the Navy's approval.
He labored arduously both on paper and in the yard, struggling to meet a demanding 120-day construction schedule.
Constant skepticism and questions from the Navy hindered him greatly, forcing him, at one point, to write the following letter to the chief of the bureau of yards and docks: "... it is an unpleasant task continually to contradict the opinions you express. The vessel is nevertheless the strongest one I have ever built."
Ridicule from the press, which described the strange iron ship as "Ericsson's Folly," added to the strain in which the inventor worked. New York residents even placed bets on whether the "iron coffin" would float when it was launched.
In defiance, Ericsson took his place on the deck of the ship as it slid down into the East River on Jan. 30, 1862. To the amazement of everyone except him, the vessel floated within 3 inches of the waterline he had predicted.
"It's amazing how simple his construction methods were when you look at them," Johnston says.
"The genius came in how he put the parts together."
Ericsson's attention extended to the smallest details, including the appointments in the officers' and crew's quarters. His efforts showed both his pride in the ship and his concern for its men.
The stateroom and captain's cabin featured diamond-tucked upholstered couches, for example, while other areas of the ship were outfitted with both tongue-in-groove and louvered paneling. Ericsson also ordered patterned drapes for the sleeping areas and oil cloths for the floors, hoping to ease the burden of life below the waterline of the vessel.
An embroidered wool tablecloth he may have had made for the ship can now be seen in the collection of the Virginia War Museum in Newport News.
"Captain Ericsson fitted our rooms up at his own expense and has been very liberal," wrote Monitor paymaster William F. Keeler.
"I have been on board of nearly all the vessels that have been here and have seen no room as handsomely fitted up as ours."