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The Monitor

USS Monitor, a 987-ton armored turret gunboat, was built at New York to the design of John Ericsson. She was the first of what became a large number of "monitors" in the United States and other navies.

The exact combination of inspiration, heredity, and environment which serves to produce genius will perhaps ever be a problem beyond the skill of human intelligence. When the rare elements do combine, however, the result is always worthy of most careful study, both because great achievements furnish a healthy stimulus to emulation, and because some glimpse may be gained of Nature's working in the formation of her rarest products. Few lives better illustrate these remarks than that of Swedish engineer John Ericsson.

The two pieces of work which perhaps will be most permanently linked with the name of Ericsson are the screw-propeller as a means of marine propulsion, and the "Monitor" as a type of warship. In addition to these, however, his life-work was rich in results which bore direct relation to many other improvements in the broad field of marine engineering and naval architecture. Of these a few of the more important may be mentioned, such as the surface condenser, distiller, and evaporator, forced draft for combustion, placing machinery of warships below the water-line, and their protection by coal, ventilation by fan-blowers, together with a vast variety of items involved in the conception and design of the "Monitor" as a whole, and in his other naval designs.

The thought of a floating battery, which should be small in size, but impregnable to the heaviest guns known and yet heavily armed herself, had long occupied his thoughts in connection with the problem of the defence of Sweden. Ericsson never forgot his native land, and gave to her political troubles and to the question of her defence against her more powerful neighbors much serious thought. As a result of this study, he had produced as early as 1854 a design embodying all the essential features of the "Monitor," and this design, shown by a model, was in that year sent to Napoleon III., who was then at war with Russia. This was in the hope that he might in this way contribute to the overthrow of the latter, the hereditary enemy of his native land.

The design, however, was not adopted, and after it was returned was laid aside to collect the dust of his office, until the experiences of the Civil War brought it again to the light. The plan in all its main features had therefore long been matured, and it only remained to proceed rapidly with the details and with the realization of the idea in the most suitable materials to be obtained.

In August 1861 Ericsson forwarded to President Lincoln a communication in which he offered to construct a vessel "for the destruction of the Rebel fleet at Norfolk and for scouring the Southern rivers and inlets of all craft protected by Rebel batteries." For one reason or another this communication does not seem to have produced any immediate result.

USS Monitor's construction resulted from a study of ironclad warships mandated by the Congress in July 1861, as the Civil War moved rapidly from crisis to serious armed conflict. During August and September the study board's members, Commodores Joseph Smith and Hiram Paulding and Commander Charles H. Davis, reviewed seventeen proposals and selected three for construction. When the Board made its report dated September 16, they registered the opinion that the present demand called for "vessels invulnerable to shot, of light draft of water, before going into a more perfect system of large iron-clad seagoing vessels of war." In pursuance of this idea they recommended the construction of three vessels. Two were relatively conventional designs and became USS New Ironsides and USS Galena. The third, unconventional in virtually every way, became the Monitor.

Ericsson was personally responsible for Monitor's conception and the details of her design. What emerged was well-suited for the Civil War's inshore fighting: a relatively shallow-draft iron hull, topped by an armored raft that provided good protection against ramming and cannon fire. The Monitor was constructed with inner (lower) and exterior (upper) iron hulls. The upper hull was 174 feet long, 41 feet wide, and five feet deep. Together with the lower hull and reinforcing oak walls and iron plates, the ship's walls were nearly three feet thick.

Sitting low in the water with only two feet of freeboard, the Monitor's exposure to hostile fire was minimized. Freeboard was less than two feet, sufficient for coastal requirements, though a real problem when the ship went to sea. The projecting ends of the upper hull protected the anchor, propeller, and rudder. The ship's deck was flush with the top of the hull. Only two structures, the pilot house and turret, rose above the deck. These, too, were heavily fortified with iron plating.

It broke with the past in every way. It reduced the number of guns from many to few, two or at most four; it reduced the freeboard from the lofty topsides of the old ship-of-the-line to an insignificant two or three feet, and thus made of the target a circular fort and a low-lying strip of armor. It placed the guns in this circular fort and covered it with armor thick enough to insure safety against any guns then afloat, and thus, as perfectly as the engineering means of the day would permit, insured the combination of offensive and defensive features in maximum degree. It cleared away at one stroke masts, sails, and all the lofty top-hamper which since time immemorial had seemed as much an essential feature of the fighting ship as the guns themselves. It transformed the design of the fighting ship from the older ideals expressed in the American frigate "Constitution," or the English "Victory," to the simplest terms of offence, defence, and steam motive-power. It made of the man-of-war a machine rather than a ship, an engine of destruction to be operated by engineers rather than by officers of the ancient and traditional type.

The monitor type represented simply the solution of the problem of naval warfare worked out by a man untrammelled by the traditions of the past and determined only on reducing such a ship to the simplest terms of offence and defence as expressed by the engineering materials and possibilities of the day. Judged from this standpoint, the vessel seems beyond criticism. She filled perfectly the ideal set before himself by her designer, and represents as a complete and harmonious whole what must still be recognized as the most perfect solution of the problem in terms of the possibilities of those days.

The most stunning innovation, on a ship whose design was dominated by innovations, was the method of carrying her guns: a thickly-armored round turret, twenty-feet in diameter. It looked like a cheese box on a raft. The turret rotated by steam power to permit nearly all-around fire from a pair of eleven-inch Dahlgren smoothbore shell guns, the heaviest weapons then available. The turret had two circular port-holes just large enough for the muzzles of its two guns. The turreted gun mounts protected its crew and allowed the ship to fire without the need to maneuver a vessel into precise firing position. Monitor's revolving turret revolutionized naval warfare, eliminating the cumbersome and time-consuming process of manuevering a vessel into firing position which had for centuries been the essential element of war at sea.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, as large groups of sail-powered warships met in battle, their dominant armament was cannon, most of which were mounted to fire athwartship. To clear their own fields of fire, line-ahead battle formations, wherein one ship followed another, became the norm for fleets. These ships were optimized to sail downwind (square-rigged) and therefore they performed very poorly as they sailed with their bows pointed closer into the wind. Fleets maneuvered strenuously to gain an upwind positional advantage over their opponents from which they could sail down to accept combat or remain upwind to decline it: their adversaries could not effectively sail up to reach them. Ideally, starting from the upwind position, admirals would try to "cross the T" of their foes with their line of battle, bringing the broad-side weight of their ships'guns to bear, putting an unanswerable raking fire on the exposed ends of the enemy ships. More often, neither side crossed the T and the lines of battle converged until one side was destroyed or broke and fled. Such simple tactics and maneuvers were a necessity with these older, clumsier sailing ships.

Theodore R. Timby was also an inventor of the turret and of the monitor idea as expressed thereby. Timby between 1840 and 1850 conceived the idea of a revolving fort of iron mounted with numerous guns and intended to take the place of the masonry or earth-structures in common use for such purposes. He seems also to have conceived of a similar structure for use on a ship of low freeboard, and a model showing such a design was constructed. In 1843 he filed a caveat for the invention of the revolving turret.

After the battle between the "Monitor" and "Merrimac," when he took out a patent which was dated July 8, 1862, covering "a revolving tower for defensive and offensive warfare, whether on land or water." Ericsson's associates in the business of building monitors for the Government acquired these patents of Timby, presumably as shrewd business men, in order to quiet any claim on his part, and to have the plan available for land forts, should the opportunity arise to push the business in this direction. There is no question but that Ericsson was antedated by Timby in the suggestion of a revolving turret, at least in so far as public notice is concerned. Ericsson frankly admitted this, and stated that he made no claim to absolute originality in this respect. He further stated what is undoubtedly true, that the main idea in the turret, that of a circular revolving fort, antedates the Nineteenth Century as a whole, and its origin is lost in the uncertainties of early tradition.

Ericsson's claim for recognition rests not on any priority of idea regarding the use of a circular fort, but rather upon the actual "Monitor" as she was built and as she crushed at one blow the sea-power of the South, and representing as it did a completely and carefully designed whole, dating back to the earlier dealings with Napoleon III. in 1854.

Several other features of the Monitor foreshadowed the future of naval technology. Its double-hulled, rolled-iron armor plates and a high-velocity cannon made wooden-hulled warships obsolete. Its steam-powered screw propellers made it faster and more maneuverable than sail power. Engine power was modest, but again sufficient to the need, and a Navy requirement for masts and sails was quite appropriately ignored. The prime contract for construction of Monitor was awarded to her designer John Ericsson on 4 October 1861. Mr. C.S. Bushnell, who was instrumental in bringing Ericsson's plans actually before the Board, later associated with himself and Ericsson in the project two gentlemen of means, and large manufacturers of iron plate, Mr. John A. Griswold and Mr. John F. Winslow, who advanced most of the money needed, Mr. Bushnell supplying the remainder. Construction of her hull was subcontracted to the Continental Iron Works at Green Point, Long Island; fabrication of her engines was delegated to Delamater & Co., New York City; and the building of her turret, composed of eight layers of 1-inch iron plates, was assigned to Novelty Iron Works, also of New York City. The keel was laid Oct. 25, 1861, and the "Monitor," as she was named by Ericsson, was launched Jan. 30, 1862, and was turned over to the Government Feb. 19, 1862. The unusual warship-the first ironclad in the U.S. Navy-was commissioned 25 February, Lt. John L. Worden in command.

This brief record of construction leaves untold all history of the ceaseless struggle against time and of the superb organization and distribution of the work which made possible the completion of such a piece of work in the period of one hundred working days.

Ericsson, as an experimenter and pioneer, was by some considered as a dreamer, and before the "Monitor" was completed there was no lack of croakers who prophesied failure or who openly ridiculed the idea. This condition was of course natural. In many ways Ericsson was ahead of his age; and, again, it must not be supposed that he avoided mistakes or that all of his work fully realized the expectations which were based upon it. Furthermore, Ericsson's spirit was proud, and he was little disposed to accept criticism from those whom he felt to be unqualified to pass adequate judgment on his work, while he was especially impatient under the system by which government work was done.

He was therefore but little disposed to pleasantly submit to the exasperating delays and interferences with his work which arose from the methods of doing public business, and it is no more than the simple truth to say that during the preceding years the relations between Ericsson and the officials of the Navy Department had often become seriously strained, and they were seldom in cordial accord regarding the various questions which arose in connection with his public work.

The result of the battle between the "Monitor" and the "Merrimac" in Hampton Roads is a part of history. The relentless devastation which the latter had begun on the old wooden ships of the American Navy at Hampton Roads was stayed, and the wild fears at the North concerning the destruction which she might cause to the shipping and to the seaboard cities was calmed. The "Merrimac" met her master, and retired from the conflict crippled and shorn of power for further evil. A short time later she sank beneath the waters of the Chesapeake, and is now remembered only as the antagonist of the "Monitor."

With the demonstration made by the "Monitor," however, the attitude of the public changed in a moment, and Ericsson was hailed on every hand as a public benefactor. He received the thanks of Congress on March 28, 1862, and of the Legislature of the State of New York a little later. Besides these, he was the recipient of numbers of memorials and mementoes, and of such praise in every form as might well have disturbed the equilibrium of a mind less well balanced.

Professionally he felt that to him had been granted a larger measure of insight than to others into the mysteries of nature as expressed in the laws of mechanics, and he was therefore little disposed to listen to the advice or criticism of those about him. This was undoubtedly one of Ericsson's most pronounced professional faults.

So little disposed was he to thus use the work of others that a given device or idea which had been in previous use was often rejected and search made for another, different and original, even though it might involve only some relatively trivial part of the work. He was simply unwilling to follow in the lead of others. He must lead or have none of it, and thus the fact that a device or expedient was in common use would furnish an argument against rather than for its adoption. His natural mode of work was utterly to disregard precedent and to seek for fundamental solutions of his problems, having only in view the conditions to be fulfilled, the laws of mechanics, and the engineering materials of construction. This habit of independence and of seclusion within the narrow circle of his own work so grew upon him in later years that mechanical science made many advances of which he took little or no note.

A large measure of this independence of character is necessary to the performance of the work which Ericsson did. Had he been ever ready to listen to the views of others, and to modify his ideas in accordance with them, his greatest achievements would never have been accomplished. In Ericsson, however, this characteristic was carried to an undue extreme, and he might unquestionably have accomplished more had he been able to co-operate with others and to accept and use freely the best work of contemporaries in his own field.

The officers of the navy were accustomed to the old type of wooden ship, and were slow to realize that naval war was, after all, an engineering problem, and that the ideas of the engineer must now be substituted for those which had been sanctified by long ages of past experience. Still, the demonstration was too convincing to admit of serious question, and Ericsson and his associates in business were busily occupied during the remainder of the war in the design and construction of a numerous fleet of vessels of the monitor type.

Ericsson's work during this period was enormous. One design followed another in quick succession, while work of supervision and inspection and cares of a business nature all combined to make a burden which would have broken down a nature less determined and self-centred, and a body less inured to physical endurance and sustained nervous tension.

This prodigious load was not so much but that he found time to devote to the needs of other nations, and in 1862 he offered to construct for the Chilian government a monitor similar to those under construction for the United States, while later a similar offer was made to the Peruvian Government. With the close of the Civil War Ericsson found still further time to devote to the introduction of this type of vessel into foreign navies, and a considerable part of his time seems to have been occupied with projects of this character, and more particularly with the question of the naval defence of his native land.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:40:35 ZULU