The Story of Ericsson's Caloric Ship - Part 2

Source: The Life of John Ericsson, Vol I, p. 195
Author: William Conant Church, Editor of the Army and Navy Journal
Date: New York, Charles Scribners's Sons - 1906

After the caloric ship returned to New York from Washington, it was decided to make changes in her engines to increase their efficiency and correct defects revealing themselves in actual practice. Ericsson seems to have counted too confidently on his regenerator, and the heating power was insufficient. Blowers were therefore added to force the draft and make good the deficiency in the area of grate surface.

The Ericsson was finally made ready for another trial, and took a trip down New York Bay on March 15, 1854. A second trip followed on April 27th, and the next day Ericsson wrote to Mr. Sargent, concerning the results as follows :

At the very moment of success of brilliant success fate has dealt me the severest blow I ever received. We yesterday went out on a private preparatory trial of the caloric ship, during which all our anticipations were realized. We attained a speed of from twelve to thirteen turns of our paddle-wheels, equal to full eleven miles an hour, without putting forth anything like our maximum power.

All went on magnificently until within a mile or two of the city (on our return from Sandy Hook), when our beautiful ship was struck by a terrific tornado on our larboard quarter, careening the hull so far as to put completely under water the lower starboard ports, which unfortunately the men on the freight deck had opened to clear out some rubbish, the day being very fine. The men, so far as we can learn, became terrified and ran on deck without closing the ports, and the hold filled so rapidly as to sink the ship in a few minutes.

I need not tell you what my feelings were as I watched the destructive element entering the fireplaces of the engines, and as the noble fabric, yielding under my feet, disappeared inch by inch. A more sudden transition from gladness and exultation to disappointment and regret is scarcely on record. Two years of anxious labor had been brought to a successful close, the finest and strongest ship perhaps ever built was gliding on the placid surface of the finest harbor in the world and within a few cable lengths of her anchorage ; yet, with such solid grounds for exultation, and with such perfect security from danger, a freak of the elements effected utter annihilation in the space of a few minutes.

As it was impossible under these circumstances to demonstrate the capacity of the vessel, a certificate of her performance on the trip that ended thus disastrously was prepared and signed by five persons who witnessed it. They united in saying that the engines of the vessel were worked up to " twelve turns per minute against quite a smart breeze."

An average pressure of seventeen and one-half pounds was carried in both furnaces, and a mean pressure at the time of closing the cut-off valve of twelve and one-half pounds per square inch. This gave eleven miles an hour through the water, the wheels being thirty-two feet in diameter. The excursion being merely preparatory to a regular trial trip, the consumption of fuel was not ascertained. These witnesses estimated it at a little less than nine tons for twenty-four hours.

In response to Sargent's letter of condolence, Ericsson said:

You are quite right in thinking that it takes something more to kill me than the sinking of a ship, though it carried down the results of twenty years of labor. I am in abundant pinmoney, having brought out some small inventions kept back by the absorbing caloric.

The same day, May 1st, he wrote :

The ship is up, much to the sorrow of numerous wise men who predicted that the thing could not be done. Pray present my warm thanks to Commodore Smith for the prompt manner in which he ordered his officers to put the ship on the Government Dock. Gentlemen are so confoundedly scarce in these diggings that it is quite refreshing to me to come in contact with the officers of the Navy now and then.

This was Commodore Joseph E. Smith, Chief of the Naval Bureau of Yards and Docks from 1846 to 1869. Of him we shall hear more in connection with Ericsson's work. After examining the caloric ship, Ericsson reported on the 19th of May that twelve thousand dollars would be required to put her machinery in order. It was finally decided to take out her caloric engines and convert her into a steamer.

Though the economy of fuel in hot-air engines was very considerable, it was accompanied by too great a sacrifice of space, and too great an outlay of machinery, to permit competition with the steamengine at its best estate. Each of the four " regenerators " of the engines on the caloric ship contained fifty disks of one sixteenth inch wire netting, each disk measuring six by four or twenty-four square feet. As the open spaces in each disk measured one-half this, or twelve square feet, there was no appreciable resistance to the passage of the air to and from the cylinders, Ericsson tells us.

But the expansion of the air in the supply-cylinders, resulting from the great volume of the vessels containing the wires through which the air passed, seriously diminished the effect from the working cylinders. After her transformation into a steamer, the Ericsson was chartered, in 1858, to carry the Seventh New York Regiment to Richmond, Va., on the occasion of transferring to Hollywood Cemetery the remains of James Monroe, Ex-President of the United States.

She was subsequently used during the Civil War as a Government transport, and with her four small smokestacks was conspicuous in the picturesque group of vessels assembled at the capture of Port Royal, S. C., by Commodore S. F. Du Pont. After serving as a transport for a time she was fitted up with a battery of small guns and sent cruising after a Confederate vessel. She was finally converted into a sailer and employed by the British Government in carrying coal to one of their stations in the Pacific.

In his Centennial volume (p. 438) Ericsson says of this vessel :

The average speed at sea proving insufficient for commercial purposes, the owners, with regret, acceded to my proposition to remove the costly machinery, although it had proved perfect as a mechanical combination. The resources of modern engineering having been exhausted in producing the motors of the caloric ship, the important question has forever been set at rest: Can heated air as a motor compete on a large scale with steam ? The commercial world is indebted to American enterprise to New York enterprise, for having settled a question of such vital importance. The marine engineer has thus been encouraged to renew his efforts to perfect the steamengine, without fear of rivalry from a motor depending on the dilatation of atmospheric air by heat.

Though Ericsson was able in after years to speak so philosophically concerning his defeat in the matter of the caloric ship, we may be sure that the experience at the time was most bitter and humiliating. Nothing better illustrates his energy and force of character, and his unfailing confidence in his own mechanical conceptions, than the fact that he still continued his labors upon his caloric engine.

The triumphant assertion of his friends that " the age of steam had closed ; that of caloric had opened," was falsified. He was compelled to submit to the gibes of his enemies and the laughter of a world that takes no account of efforts whose results are for the future : but he was not discouraged. When told that the name of his friend and associate in the caloric enterprise, Mr. John B. Kitching, stood very low in Lombard Street in consequence of his connection with this invention, Ericsson indignantly replied that the caloric was

a boon to humanity, and was another step in the progress of man ordained by God.

On April 23, 1853, in a letter to the London Builder, he had said :

The caloric engine is destined ere long, its opponents notwithstanding, to be the great motor for manufacturing and domestic purposes, because of its entire freedom from danger alone. It is destined assuredly to effect much in dispensing with physical toil with the laborer.
The artisan of moderate means may place it in his room, where it will serve as a stove while turning his lathe, at the same time purifying the atmosphere by pumping out the impure air and passing it off into the chimney. In fine, it will heat, toil, ventilate, and always remain harmless. All this will soon be exhibited in practice and save critics from racking their brains to discover theoretical mistakes and practical imperfections.

The caloric engine was finally made available for many commercial purposes, but its inventor was obliged to postpone further attempts to supersede steam. The radical vice of all airengines employing a cylinder and piston, is the necessity for using very large engines and very high heat in order to secure the necessary difference of temperature between the two sides of the piston.

This speedily burns out the machine, as iron becomes red hot at 650 C. Lubricants are decomposed, packing destroyed, and, by the expansion of the metal, joints are loosened and the whole structure weakened. But partial success came only at the end of efforts and struggles on the part of Ericsson such as would have discouraged anyone but an inventor.

What he endured is told in this letter addressed by him to his associates in the caloric enterprise, Messrs. Stoughton, Tyler, and Bloodgood, January 16, 1855.

You will not be surprised to learn that for want of means I have, after prolonged struggles, at last been compelled to abandon the prosecution of the invention which formed the subject of our several agreements four years ago. Whilst I refrain from dwelling on the painful disappointment I experience in being thus forced to abandon the grand idea of the wire system which, together with that peculiarly simple arrangement of inverted cylinders, formed the principle of the improved caloric engine which you joined me in prosecuting, I feel bound emphatically to state my conviction that this extraordinary system of obtaining motive power will some day be perfected.

I repeat now what I stated to you at our first interview, that on the principle of the improved caloric engine under consideration more motive power may be obtained from a mess of metallic wires of two feet cube than from a whole mountain of coal, as applied in the present steam-engine. Every experimental trial made has more than realized my anticipations as regards the rapidity and certainty of depositing and returning the caloric on this remarkable system. The practical adaptation alone has presented difficulties. In justice to myself, allow me here to remind you that I have had no funds at my disposal for making experiments.

The large test engine intended for the London Exhibition was built in all essential features like my original thirty-inch cylinder engine, that being deemed complete, the difference being mainly the application of two pairs of cylinders.

The engine of the caloric ship, again, was a perfect copy of the large test-engine, differing only in size and in having four instead of two pairs of cylinders. The magnitude of the ship and the consequent heavy responsibility forbade the slightest deviation from the engine which had been found to work satisfactorily. Accordingly, and most unfortunately, not a single point was gained by these undertakings, not a step was made in advance. The small engine built at Springfield indeed established an important fact. It corroborated my opinion that the inverted single-acting cylinders were indispensable to practical success.

It has naturally been supposed by the public that I have had ample enormous funds at my disposal for making experiments, and hence that the resources of the very principle of the new motor have been exhausted. How utterly at variance with fact are these suppositions ! Except as stated in the small Springfield engine, no funds have been expended experimentally, and therefore the improved caloric engine, with its inverted cylinders and wire regenerator, this day stands where it did when you first witnessed the operation four years ago. But though unavailable for practical purposes it yet rests on immutable physical laws which by money, labor, and patience will assuredly secure a great boon to mankind.

There can be little doubt that $50,000, about ten per cent, of the cost of the caloric ship, expended in experiments would teach the proper practical application of the wire system to obtain that available force which so far has not been properly realized. Truth and candor compel me now to notice that during the four years in which I have labored unceasingly in a common cause, for a joint benefit, I have been left wholly unsupported by those holding the largest interest in the patent.

I have during that period defrayed expenses and incurred liabilities exceeding $30,000 in the prosecution of the patents in which I hold very little more than one-fourth interest. I desire to be distinctly understood not to abandon the invention in which we are mutually interested. I only stop for want of funds without money I can do nothing, and my only capital is my intellect and my time. Try what you can do. I am ready to work with all my energies.

Only furnish funds, and we will show practically that bundles of wires are capable of exerting more force than ship-loads of coal. In the mean time I find myself on the verge of ruin. I must do something to obtain bread and vindicate to some extent my assumed position as the opponent of steam. Accordingly I have determined to return to my original caloric engine. The plan is less brilliant less startling but as it proved to yield power practically twenty years ago, so it will again.

At any rate, it cannot fail to be sufficiently useful to save its author from starving. I am sanguine, you know, and I therefore expect confidently to succeed on my old field. If so, I may yet take up the invention in which you have an interest, on the principle which compels metallic threads to yield more force than mountains of coal. Thus I may once more devote individual means and exertions to a common in

Thus, with many heartburnings, Ericsson, through force of sheer necessity, abandoned his efforts to further develop his caloric system as a universal motor to supersede steam. The spirit of prophecy was upon him, but he prophesied to deaf ears. He believed then, as he had believed for a quarter of a century at least, what is now generally accepted, that the displacement of the steam-engine is essential to future industrial progress.

To the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Sir Frederick Bramwell declared, in 1888, that those who should attend the centenary of the Association in 1931

would see the present steam-engines in museums, treated as things to be respected and of antiquarian interest, by the engineers of those days, such as were the open-topped steam cylinders of Newcomen and of Smeaton to ourselves, and that the heat engine of the future will probably be one independent of the vapor of water.

Ericsson had not lost the confidence of his friends, not even of those whose money had been spent in his caloric ventures thus far, and in the end those who continued to assist him had no reason to regret their confidence. "With their help he built four little engines with 15-inch cylinders, costing $500 or $600 apiece, and intended for lecture-room models ; an engine of 16inch cylinder, sent to France, and one of thirty inches intended for the Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York. Eight other models and test engines were built at a cost altogether of $18,400, and patents for improvements were issued dated July 31, 1855, and December 14, 1858. The engines of the steamer were covered by a patent issued in 1851.

Within three years of his announcement to his associates, in January, 1855, of his determination to make the caloric engine a source of profit, Ericsson's manufacturers were able to report that the

caloric engine is no longer a subject of experiment, but exists as a perfect, practical machine, daily at work in manufactures and diversified uses.

By the end of 1857 the work of introducing the perfected engine had begun with domestic motors of 6 and 8-inch cylinders, and seven large establishments were at work upon their construction. Next came the 12-inch engine. This was an excellent pumper and could do light rotary work. It was succeeded by the 18-inch cylinder engine with power sufficient to drive two or three printing presses. This was followed by the 24-inch cylinder, capable of doing most hoisting work and exhibiting an increase of power in excess of the increased consumption of fuel.
Finally, before the end of 1858, an engine with a cylinder of thirty-two inches in diameter was built and set up in one of the Government warehouses in New York for hoisting work.

Five years before (1853) Ericsson had agreed to build a caloric engine of sixty horse-power for the Washington Navy Yard, but he does not appear to have been called upon to do so. Still earlier than this, in 1848, Mr. Sargent had suggested that he should build a fifty horse-power engine for exhibition in Washington.

To this suggestion he replied :

I must observe in regard to the caloric that if I had any confidence in justice at Washington I would not hesitate to build the fifty horse-power engine, but I well know that I am as likely to be cheated as patronized there you know that too.

A thousand caloric engines were sold within two years, and soon more than three thousand were engaged in working printing presses, and hoisting-gear for warehouses, docks, and ships ; in mines and mills ; for pumping, irrigating land, and supplying villages with water ; in various operations on farms and plantations, and in numerous other mechanical employments.

If it was found inadequate to move a great ocean steamer with sufficient speed, it was satisfactorily tested in the propulsion of boats and pleasure yachts ; in short, wherever a limited, economical, safe, independent, and self-managed motive-power was required, Ericsson's caloric engine was in demand.

The Fitchburg Railroad of Massachusetts reported that a caloric engine belonging to them had pumped in one year 1,600,000 gallons of water at an expense of $25 for fuel and oil, and $25 for the time of an engineer. The New York Central Railroad, which had forty-eight of the engines in use, reported that they performed an "incredible amount" of labor for the "small quantity of fuel consumed." One engine, at an expense of eleven cents a day, was doing the work of five men who received $125 a month, or $5 a day.
An attempt was made to substitute the caloric engine for the horses then used in drawing their cars through the city of New York. The New York Evening Post, the Hartford Times, the Dutch Reform Messenger', and forty newspapers altogether, employed this motor and sounded its praises the country over.

Stimulated by the interest in caloric, a little paper called The Ericsson, and having for its motto "Improve on Improvements," was started in 1853, in Fond du Lac, Wis., then a place of two or three thousand inhabitants.

Caloric engines were also in extensive use on the sugar plantations in Cuba and in the Southern United States ; they were at work abroad in England and Ireland, and especially in Sweden, several establishments in this last country having engaged engines under license, the inventor with characteristic generosity making over the proceeds of his royalties in Sweden to his sister living there. At the agricultural fair of Ostergothland, the most important province of Sweden, the first prize was awarded, in January, 1859, to an Ericsson caloric engine.

The Swedish journals particularly noticed that this engine, in its present efficient form, differed altogether from that of the " caloric ship," and that it resembled in essential features the engines elaborated and built by Captain Ericsson in London, between the years 1827 and 1833. A working model of one of these engines was carried from London to Stockholm in the spring of 1833, by Colonel Nils Ericsson, brother of the inventor. It was pointed out as a remarkable instance of the correctness of first conceptions that

Captain Ericsson, after spending thirty years of intense labor, should find himself just where he started. The striking feature of the new engine, aside from the novel principle involved, was the mode by which the supply-air was introduced into the machine, and in this it was identical with the model engine alluded to. The singular achievement, recognized by engineers, of effecting the very dissimilar requisite movements of supply and working pistons by one crank-pin dates back to 1833, and the idea of placing the fire within the cylinder was practically exemplified by Captain Ericsson in London, as long ago as 1827. The distinguishing merits of the engine were its economy, portability, simplicity, and non- liability to explosion.

Added to this, is the superior advantage, in certain localities, of requiring no water. In Texas and California it was used for purposes, of irrigation ; in Louisiana for the operation of cottongins, on account of the diminished risk of fire and freedom from explosion. One caloric engine is reported to have exploded in Cuba, but the exact cause of the explosion was never ascertained. The hot air engine was found of special value in lighthouses. It required no water, and water is liable to freeze in exposed situations and to fail altogether in others. Its freedom from the danger of explosion, the ease with which it could be managed by the ordinary light-keeper, and the service it rendered in heating his quarters also commended it to favor, though it was more bulky than the steam-engine, and cost fifty per cent, more.

Ericsson examined carefully into the question of applying it to canal boats, but decided that it had too little power in proportion to its bulk and weight. For similar reasons his plans for using it as a motor for horse-cars were not carried out. Its most ingenious application was to the work of compressing air so that it could be conveyed from a reservoir wherever it was needed. It was applied in this way by an establishment in New York employing five or six hundred hands with sewing-machines. Ericsson was very much amused by his experience with a handsome factory girl who invited him to a competition.

She ran her sewing machine with her foot, against the caloric engine, and " - me," said he, in telling the story, "if she didn't beat me to fits." But as his engine could run all day and all night her defeat was certain in the end. I find no evidence that Ericsson ever gave attention to the study of electricity, though he did invent, in 1859, an " improvement in actuating and regulating the speed of telegraphic instruments" by compressed air, conveyed to the telegraphic instruments in different rooms of a building, from a central motor.

In a letter to one of his Swedish friends, Ericsson said:

Allow me to remind you, that I am an engineer and designer rather than an inventor. Is the capacity for construction gained during the experience of a lifetime, an invention? Edison, in his ignorance, discovers or invents ; Ericsson, acquainted with physical laws, constructs."

This was not said in any spirit of disparagement toward Edison, for whose talents and accomplishments Ericsson had the highest respect.

Aside from marine motors, Ericsson expended altogether about $60,000 upon twenty-five test machines while perfecting the caloric engine. His accounts show that more than one-half of this sum was returned in patent fees in a single year, after the invention was on the full tide of success.

He had parted with interests in it from time to time until at length he retained only one-half, but his books record the receipt of $16,555.21 from this half in 1860, after deducting payments for the cost of collecting. This shows a total receipt of $35,000 for patent fees during the year, and the price received previous to this for partial interests indicates that the patent-right as a whole was valued at $100,000.

In a letter to Mrs. Stoughton, dated October 31, 1870, Ericsson said : " Edwin [Mr. Stoughton], during conversation when he last called at 36, did me the great injustice of hinting that I i never complete anything.' The fact is that I never leave an invention while anything can be done to it within my power (or within the power of man ?).

Since he advised me to abandon the caloric engine I have perfected fifty-six inventions, all carried into practice. Upward of three thousand caloric engines have been built in the meantime, the patent having yielded more than $100,000. Do me the favor to impress all this on the mind of my unjust friend.

The attempt to apply the hot-air engine to the purpose of navigation was economically a failure, but as a means of education to Ericsson it was worth far more than it cost, as the sequel will show. Even after this failure was recorded, Robert Hunt, F.R.S., in his " Supplement to lire's Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines," declared that " we may, notwithstanding this result, safely predict, from the investigations of Messrs. Thomson & Joule, that the expansion of air by heat will eventually, in some conditions, take the place of steam as a motive power.