When I was a boy, John Ericsson (1803–1889) was an almost iconic figure—streets and buildings bore his name, and monuments and statues lauded him as a famous inventor. But it took me a while to discover him, because my favorite inventor was Thomas Alva Edison.
I grew up in the small Swedish village of Torsång on Dalälven (the Dal River), and steamboats and floating timber were part of my boyhood. Over time I witnessed the planned and careful transformation of a waterway of floating timber and waste into a clean river with abundant fish and a hospitable environment for birds and humans seeking recreation. It made me aware of how large-scale projects can impact everyday life, and the importance of innovation and change.
Many years later I worked for the European Union and the Swedish Industry Fund, evaluating business plans and applications for funding. This work heightened my interest in the context and process of innovation, and this was when Lennart Sundström helped focus my attention on John Ericsson. Sundström had written many “hobby books” about the construction of models, as well as two handbooks for inventors, and was deeply immersed in research about Ericsson at Lund University. Unfortunately he did not complete his research due to a terminal illness.
The John Ericsson I at last “met” was that rare scientist and engineer whose inventions transformed an entire industry, forever changing its principal product and stimulating the development of technology. As an inventor he had an eye for the “possibility of direct application to the purposes of human industry.” His inventions marked a turning point in shipbuilding and transformed the maritime industry. His research and innovations in propeller design, hot air engines and solar energy are relevant to the 21st century.
Ericsson studied solar energy for over 50 years. While living in England in 1833, he patented a caloric engine (which used the power from air that expands when heated) and explored how solar energy could be collected and used for heating. He thought the sun would be a prime energy source in the future when mankind ran out of fossil fuels (coal, in his 19th-century world). Ericsson maintained his interest in solar energy after settling in America, where he produced some of his best-known inventions, including the USS Monitor, an ironclad ship that played a crucial role in the Civil War. Later he began a systematic inquiry into the characteristics of solar radiation, questioning the prevailing theories of the sun’s temperature. He resolved to measure for himself “the intensity of that big fire which is hot enough to work engines at a distance of 90,000,000 miles.” He also wrote, “I cannot omit adverting to the insignificance the dynamic energy which the entire exhaustion of our coal field would produce, compared with the incalculable amount of force at our command, if we avail ourselves of the concentrated heat of the sun’s rays.” Thus he set to work “to awaken to new life the regions of the earth now parched with solar heat, so that the desert might blossom abundantly.”
In January 2008, Kevin Desmond published the book Planet Savers: 301 Extraordinary Environmentalists, which includes short biographies of Carl Linnaeus, Charles Darwin, Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Al Gore. Twenty-fifth on the list is John Ericsson, who is recognized for his research on solar energy and the invention of a solar-powered motor and hot air engines (the caloric engine).
Global warming, environmental degradation, increased demand for fossil fuel along with concern about diminishing reserves are all hot topics that make me reflect on Ericsson’s investigations of the sun as an energy resource. The craftsmanship of the engineer, “creating what never was,” permitted him to design the instruments he needed for his research when none existed. With 21st century means, and his unfettered approach to problem solving, he would serve us well as a role model when we search for green energy solutions.