The Story of Ericsson's Caloric Ship - Part 1

Source: The Life of John Ericsson, Vol I, p. 184
Author: William Conant Church, Editor of the Army and Navy Journal
Date: New York, Charles Scribners's Sons - 1906

The studies into the nature and application of heat as a mechanical force, begun by Ericsson at the time of his youthful invention of the flame-engine, were continued at intervals for three score years and ten, or until the end of his active and useful life.

At a very early date he discovered the fallacy of the conclusions concerning high temperatures resulting from the use of Wedgewood's method of measuring these by gauging the dimensions of a Cylinder of clay before and after heating it in a furnace. This measurement gave 21,637 degrees as the temperature of iron melted in cupola furnaces. Ericsson satisfied himself that this was at least six times too great, and the actual temperature proved to be 2,786 degrees. The invention of the pyrometer was one result of these studies.

Ericsson's method of measuring high artificial temperatures by the expansion of confined gases has since been shown to be one of the most reliable of the dozen different methods tested, and he was a pioneer in this field of investigation, as in so many others. Of the others none have been superior, except perhaps Siemens's method, recently adopted, of measuring temperatures by changes in resistance to electricity.

After his removal to the United States in 1839, Ericsson continued his experiments with hot air as a motor, building eight caloric engines for experiment between 1840 and 1850. Seven of these cost together $9,400 and the eighth $7,000.

He gradually enlarged the dimensions of these experimental engines from the fourteen inches of his original model to sixteen inches and then to thirty. Into these engines he introduced the principle of " regeneration," as he called it, or transfer of the heat from the outgoing to the incoming air by passing the currents alternately through a metal box or chest filled with wire meshes.

He said:

Theory clearly indicates that, owing to the small capacity for heat of atmospheric air that beneficial property which the Great Mechanician gives to it as a fit medium for animated warm beings to live in and, in consequence, also, of the almost infinite subdivision among the wires, the temperature of the circulating air in passing through the regenerator of the caloric engine must be greatly changed.

Practice has fully realized all that theory predicted, for the temperatures at x and s (that is, at the points of entrance to and exit from the regenerator) have never varied during the trials less than 350 degrees, when the engine has been in full operation ; indeed it has been found impossible to obtain a differential temperature of less magnitude with sufficient fires in the furnaces.

The great number of disks, their isolated character, and the distribution of the air in such a vast number of minute cells, readily explain the surprising fall and increase of temperature of the opposite currents passing the regenerator, and which constitutes the grand feature of the caloric engine, effecting, as it does, such an extraordinary saving of fuel by rendering the caloric not converted into work active over and over again. (Contributions to the Centennial Exhibition. p. 429)

Letters from Ericsson show that he was at work upon his caloric engine in 1847. Early in December of that year a model engine was sent from the factory and set up in his room at No. 95 Franklin Street for experiment. On December 23d, lie wrote to Sargent :

The caloric is very nearly finished. It will beyond all question succeed. I never felt so sure in my life.

Six weeks later, January 14, 1848, he wrote:

I am at this moment under lock and key with Harrison, who is engaged in the secret operation of stuffing the guts of the regenerator of the caloric, which is in all other respects ready for trial. I have had pressure, and all is tight. The thing must go.

But not yet, for January 20th he wrote again, saying:

The caloric is not yet completed ; a deposit of water, occasioned by the pressure of atmospheric air within the machine, has given me trouble, great trouble. The steam, formed from this water has produced inflammation in the stomach of the regenerator. Cold applications have been resorted to without reducing the undue temperature. All that medical skill can effect will be done, and no fears need be apprehended as to the safety of the patient.

On the principle that troubles never come singly, Ericsson at this time, as he wrote another correspondent:

suffered the pains of the damned

having been obliged to lose three of his strongest back teeth, to cure the toothache. A few days later, January 27th, he reported concerning the ailing one, for whom he himself served as physician, that:

the patient is yet laboring under his intestine complaints, caused by water in the stomach, but his physician entertains strong hopes, of a complete cure.

On February 2, 1848, he wrote:

I fear the unexpected difficulty cannot be got over without a material change in the apparatus. ' Take nothing for granted' is an excellent precept in all mechanical combinations where the physical agents are called upon to cooperate. Understand me, I have not discovered anything wrong in the principle of the motive engine, practical difficulties alone have presented themselves in a new quarter. Bent as I am on doing something great in my line, I thank God that I have the vast steam engine improvement to fall back upon, scarcely inferior in importance, whilst more readily convertible into dollars. So don't be alarmed, we shall still go to London together.

This indicates a purpose of visiting England, which was never realized. Five days elapsed and again, on February 7, 1848, Ericsson wrote:

I have, after serious reflection, decided on making the requisite alteration in the caloric, the new parts are all on hand and probably in two weeks I start again. The new difficulty I met with took me aback for a day or two, but I feel now as warm and confident as ever now, don't laugh at me when I tell you 'next time' the thing will go off without a screw to alter. I can hardly be mistaken in supposing that I now see all the difficulties that can have any material bearing on the operation of the great principle in practice. I am shocked to think that for a single moment I should have contemplated relinquishing my gigantic scheme.

February 15th:

the alteration of the caloric was more than half completed

and the inventor was

in fine spirits and full of confidence.

In another fortnight he was able to announce that all difficulties had been overcome and the caloric engine was ready for trial. March 3d he reported, saying:

I wrote last Saturday that the caloric was ready for trial. So it was, excepting some hard ingredients for its stomach which it does not take five minutes to cram in. Kow these ingredients, however simple, the manufacturer did not let me have until last night confound him! On starting the affair this morning everything went straight off, as I had calculated, and, as you suppose, the thing does everything but talk. I am writing under the click-clack of the machine, and have not time to go into particulars now.

We may be sure that this " click-clack " was music in the ears of Ericsson, and these letters indicate the intense delight he took in his chosen work of mechanical creation.

Caloric does work,

he wrote, on March 8th,

and not a single practical detail remains to be removed.

The engine here alluded to was followed by others, as we have seen, and finally, in 1851, the work of developing this new motor had advanced to the production of a ninth experimental engine, this costing $17,000, having two feet stroke and two compressing cylinders of forty-eight inches diameter.

The regenerator of this engine contained an aggregate of 13,520,000 meshes for each working cylinder, the two thus distributing the air through more than twenty-seven million minute cells, there being, necessarily, as many small spaces between the disks as there are meshes. As there were 228,000 feet, or forty-one and one-half miles of wire in each regenerator, the metallic surface presented was equivalent to that of four boilers, each forty feet long and four feet in diameter.

The regenerator occupied but two cubic feet and the boilers would fill 1,920 times that amount of space. After putting a moderate quantity of fuel into the furnace, the engine worked for three hours without fresh fuel, and it frequently worked for one hour after the fires had been drawn. But eleven ounces of fuel were consumed per horsepower per hour. It was estimated that nine ounces were required to make good the loss of radiation into the air in contact with the exterior of the machine, only two ounces being lost in the process of transferring the heat to and from the regenerator.

1851 was one of Ericsson's prosperous years. He had entered upon 1850 with some sarcastic reflections concerning the very unsatisfactory showing of $132.32 to his credit at the Manhattan Bank, but by January, 1851, his balance had increased to $8,690.10. More than that, his improved caloric engine was regarded as a success, and there is an entry in his accounts recording the receipt of ten thousand dollars from William Bloodgood and Dr. C. Bellinger for ten per cent, interest in the foreign patents.

Previous to this he had disposed of interests in his American patents to Edwin W. Stoughton, subsequently United States Minister to Eussia, and to Messrs. Tyler and J. Bloodgood, the entries indicating the sale of two tenths interests to the two gentlemen last named for $11,000.

In January, 1852, the King of Sweden sent to Ericsson his sincere congratulations on the success of his test caloric

Ericsson says:

The regularity of action and perfect working of every part of the experimental thirty-inch engine, completed in 1851, and above all its apparent great economy of fuel, inclined some enterprising merchants of New York in the latter part of 1851 to accept my proposition to construct a ship for navigating the ocean, propelled by paddle-wheels actuated by the caloric engine. This work was commenced forthwith, and pushed with such vigor that within nine months from commencing the construction of the machinery, and within seven months of the laying of the keel, the paddle-wheels of the caloric ship Ericsson turned around at the dock.

In view of the fact that the engines consisted of four working cylinders of one hundred and sixty-eight inches diameter, six feet stroke, and four air-compressing cylinders of 137 inches diameter, and six feet stroke, it may be claimed that, in point of magnitude and rapidity of construction, the motive machinery of the caloric ship stands unrivalled in the annals of marine engineering. The principal engineers of New York all expressed the opinion that a better specimen of workmanship than that presented by the huge engines of the caloric ship had not been produced by our artisans at that time. (Contributions to the Centennial Exhibition. p. 432)

The Ericsson was certainly a singularly bold undertaking, and it shows the confidence her designer inspired in business men that he should have been able to obtain the money to build her. Her principal owner was Mr. John B. Kitching, a young man of wealth and enterprise.

Another gentleman interested was Mr. Edward Dunham, president of the Corn Exchange Bank of New York. The cost of the vessel was about half a million dollars, her engines costing $130,000. Her length was 260 feet, breadth 40 feet, and draught 17 feet, tonnage nearly 2,200.

The keel was laid in April, 1852, she was launched five months later, September 15, 1852, and went on her trial trip January 4, 1853. Thus in nine months, or half the time ordinarily required at that date for completing a vessel of her class, Ericsson had pushed to completion this vessel of novel design and including so many new and untried problems of construction. It is a remarkable illustration, not alone of his industry, energy, and skill in management, but of the completeness of his preliminary preparation in the way of designing and planning.

He could carry in his head every detail of the most complicated construction, and when his drawings were completed every bolt was in place, every screw where it should be, and he was able to keep several establishments busied on different parts of his mechanism with the certainty that when the several parts were brought together, they would fall into adjustment without change provided his working drawings had been strictly followed. He was most exacting in his requirements and he thoroughly understood what good work was.

So if the work upon the Ericsson was hurried, it was in no respect slighted. Up to that time no finer or stronger ship had been built in the United States. Indeed, the agreement with the builders required that the vessel should be " the strongest ever built in New York," and Ericsson was not the man to let such a stipulation become a dead letter enactment. The Scientific American totally condemned the principle of the caloric ship, and persistently predicted its failure, but in fairness it said:

We heartily wish success to Captain Ericsson and his compatriots, for patriots they certainly are. The caloric ship Ericsson is a marvel of faith and enterprise, their energy and spirit deserve success and the praise of the whole world. The caloric ship has new and very excellent features about it. The designer and constructor of its machinery have shown themselves to have long heads and skilful hands. We have seen nothing to compare with the castings. It is safe and comfortable for passengers, and it saves the firemen from the pandemonium of our steamship.

If these had been the days of forced draught with fire-rooms at 180, this comparison would have been still stronger. Comfort, as well as safety, was involved in Ericsson's grand scheme for substituting hot air for steam at sea. A week after her trial trip, on February 11, 1853, " the representatives of the Press " and others were invited to take a trip on the Ericsson, and the papers of the day following contained glowing accounts of her success arid most confident predictions of a coming revolution in locomotion.

During the trip the gentlemen present appointed a committee to draft appropriate resolutions, and these were adopted with enthusiasm. The members of the Committee were Richard Grant White, Professor James J. Mapes, and Freeman Hunt, all gentlemen then and since well known in New York.

One of these resolutions declared,

that the peculiar adaptability to sea vessels of the new motor presented to the world by Captain Ericsson, is now fully established and it is likely to prove superior to steam for such purposes.

In a speech on this occasion Professor Mapes said:

I consider there were but two epochs of science the one marked by Newton, the other by Ericsson." " The inventor to whom this unwholesome flattery was paid," says his critic of the Scientific American, "rebuked the speaker with manly modesty.

Some years later (July 20, 1875) Ericsson wrote to this paper saying:

After having completed the general design of the motive engines of the caloric ship, and finding that in proportion to the power exerted by the 72-inch trial engine, a speed of five miles an hour called for cylinders of 168 inches diameter, 6 feet stroke, I hesitated in undertaking the construction. But for the encouragement received from some of our leading commercial men who were consulted on the subject, the caloric ship would not have been built. Let me add, that all united in the opinion that if a speed of seven miles could be produced, the work ought to proceed.

Francis B. Cutting, the eminent patent lawyer, who took a greater interest in the scheme than probably anyone else, stated emphatically during a conversation at the Union Club, that if I felt sure of being able to produce a rate of. five miles an hour, I ought not to hesitate, reminding me of Fulton and hisfirst attempt. I have never before communicated the above facts to anyone, excepting a few intimate friends ; nothing short of my integrity having been assailed in your columns would have induced me to make a statement which I had reserved as an accompaniment to my account of the world's first and last big air-engine.

I abstained, in my letter of Saturday, from adverting to your editorial reference to " the Ericsson hot-air stock-jobbers," confident that you had inadvertently made the damaging remark.

Replying in the same month (July 7, 1875), to a complimentary letter from his associate in the caloric ship enterprise, Mr. J. B. Kitching, Ericsson said:

Your remark about the caloric ship gratifies me more than I can express. There was more engineering in that ship than in ten Monitors. I regard the hot-air ship as by far my best work, it was simply a mechanical marvel. The four 168-inch working cylinders and four air-compressing cylinders of 137-inch diameter, sink the Great Eastern machinery into insignificance.

The Scientific American seems to have struck the only jarring note in the general chorus of approval and prophecy, and to this Ericsson made no objection, but the suggestion that he was a party to a stock-jobbing operation, or that the gentlemen associated with him could have any other motive for investing so much money in a new venture than the obvious one, could not pass without notice.

It is, of course, impossible to prove a negative, but such a charge was not only opposed to the facts and probabilities of the case, but it is contradicted by the whole course and tenor of a life as absolutely free in its way from any suggestion of the kind as that of Simon Stylites ; for Ericsson, if he did not dwell on a pillar apart, was equally removed from the ordinary currents of sordid calculation by his devotion to

The age of steam is closed,

declared one of the admirers of the caloric ship the next day,

the age of caloric opens. Fulton and Watt belong to the past. Ericsson is the great mechanical genius of the present and the future.

Somewhat too enthusiastic as to the ship, but not so far wrong as to her designer.

The Baltic and the Pacific, two vessels of the Collins line at that time offering themselves for comparison, each used fifty-eight tons of coal in twenty-four hours ; the four furnaces of the Ericsson consumed six tons in the same time. With this amount eight pounds pressure per square inch was obtained, and a regular speed of seven miles per hour, with a possible eight. Critics declared that the difference in the coal consumption was due to the difference of speed.

Ericsson replied that the consumption of coal was nearly all due to radiation, that increased power and speed would not result in corresponding increase in coal consumption, and that on a large scale, much of this radiation would be prevented. The question was never tested. Difficulties innumerable assailed an engine working at a temperature of 444 and constantly subject in all of its parts to the destructive influence of dry heat, burning out its lubricants, loosening its joints, and rapidly destroying its working members by oxidation.

After being thrown open to curious visitors for a day or two the Ericsson started on a trip to Washington, February 16, 1853, arriving there in safety after a stormy passage, and without injury to her machinery, which was so utterly unlike anything before seen on board ship as to invite the distrust of all properly constituted sailors. Her four huge working cylinders were arranged in pairs along the centre of the vessel, two forward and two aft of the midship section, and each 14 feet, or 168 inches in diameter.

Instead of resting in the usual manner on the keelsons these cylinders, each of 924 feet, or 691 gallons cubical contents, were suspended, like enormous campkettles, over the furnace fires. Above the working cylinders were an equal number of supply cylinders or single acting pumps, 11 5/12 feet, 137 inches, in diameter. Eight piston-rods, each 14 feet long, connected the mammoth pistons of each set of cylinders, and these pistons had a total area of 43 cubic feet.

Though the pistons, with their connecting-rods, weighed upward of fifty tons, so perfect was the frame-work supporting this weight and that of the cylinders that Captain Sands of the navy, who, with Ericsson, accompanied the ship to Washington, was able to report to the Secretary of the Navy that not the slightest movement was observed in any part, even when the vessel was passing through a gale and rolling very heavily.

Ericsson expected to attain a pressure of twelve pounds with his engine, and calculated that this would give a speed of ten or even twelve miles an hour, but it was found impossible to exceed eight miles. Still, this was all that had been promised, and the failure in speed alone would not have secured the condemnation of the vessel if there had been sufficient prospect of increasing it.

Considering the time, no bolder feat of marine engineering has ever been accomplished ; so that it was truly said that the caloric ship was at the same time a commercial failure and one of the greatest mechanical triumphs of the day. An effort was made to secure an appropriation from Congress for building such a vessel, but it met with no success.

Soon after his arrival in Washington with the vessel, Ericsson issued this invitation :

Captain Ericsson requests the pleasure of the Company of the members of the Virginia Legislature on board the new caloric ship Ericsson for the purpose of inspecting the improvements made by this new mode of propelling vessels, which will afford facilities to commerce by reducing the rates of running ships with motive-power even to that of sailing vessels.
For the purpose of enabling the members of the Legislature to visit the vessel with least possible loss of time, Captain Ericsson will cause her to be at Acquia Creek either on Monday or Tuesday morning as may be most convenient to them, and he will therefore be obliged by answer in time to enable him to move the ship from Alexandria to Acquia Creek.
J. COOK, Clerk.

The Virginia legislators were entertained by a speech from the inventor, for he could be eloquent on occasion with the eloquence of earnest conviction and assured mastery of the particular subject he discussed. He was not a man of varied knowledge, or of culture in that sense, but what he did know he knew thoroughly, and as the stream of a given volume gains additional power by running in a narrow channel, so did the concentration of his thought give added force to Ericsson's vigorous personality.
He was accustomed to great intensity of expression, he had exceedingly clear and positive conceptions concerning matters he understood, and was indifferent to everything else.

In return for the courtesy shown them, the Virginia Legislators invited Ericsson to dine with them, but he had left Washington before the invitation reached him. He did dine, however, at the capital with Washington Irving, who was then engaged in researches connected with his work upon the life of Washington.