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Lot 0080
Ericsson John

John Ericsson, inventor of the "U.S.S Monitor", Considers Exporting His Caloric Engine to Argentina

JOHN ERICSSON, Autograph Letter Signed, to [John B. Kitching], July 27, 1860. 2 pp., 7.75" x 10". Expected folds, some chipping on edges affecting two words.

Complete Transcript

July 27th 1860

My dear Sir

Two weeks ago I should hardly have thought it worth the trouble to entertain the Buenos Aires water work question, but now I would have not the slightest hesitation in actually [commence?] building.

4,000,000 in 24 hours demands an engine that can run nearly 2800 gallons a minute which happens to be a litte less than the engine I am now building for [Pisands?] new boat. It would not at all answer however to run so close to calculation and here I would propose two such engines with separate pumps. Each engine with pumps complete for putting up would cost here (to make a handsome thing to ourselves) $20,000—together $40,000. The advantage of having two separate engies with separate pumps, each set nearly powerful enough to furnish the 4,000,000 gallon per diem Mr Hopkins will understand. The quantity of coal for 24 hours will be under 3½ tons of anthracite to raise the full supply of 4,000,000. One fire man on duty all the time, say 3 for the 24 hours and one engineer with an assistant to take his watch, will be all the assistance which caloric power would demand cheap enough, all [?] certainly.

Six months for constructing the whole, ready for delivery, would be ample to enable us to do the thing well.

As the big engine, which I propose to copy, will be in operation before you can obtain an order there will be no harm in stating that both power and consumption of fuel will be practically demonstrated to serve as a guaranty.

The caloric engine cannot be adapted for candle manufacturing as the purifying the tallow demands steam, but air not answering the purpose at all.

Yours truly,

J. Ericsson

Historical Background

John Ericsson became intrigued with the idea of a caloric engine at a young age. The caloric engine worked on the basic principle of power by hot air, with no need for steam. Expanding warm air drove the piston, fly wheel, and shaft. Ericsson began designing caloric engines in the 1820s and continued to modify the designs until his death. His primary investor in the United States was New York merchant John B. Kitching, who became the principal owner of the ocean-going caloric ship Ericsson, constructed in 1852 at a cost of $500,000. Although the initial reaction of the press and engineers was positive and the ship was a mechanical triumph, it proved to be a commercial failure. His smaller caloric engines, however, achieved a moderate degree of success and brought him considerable financial rewards.

Pastor Obligado (1818-1870), governor of the province of Buenos Aires from 1853 to 1858, initiated an ambitious public works program, bringing gas lamps and running water to the city for the first time. After the province of Buenos Aires abandoned its attempt to become a separate state late in 1859, Bartolomé Mitre (1821-1906) became the governor of Buenos Aires in March 1860 within a united Argentinian Confederation, and he opened Buenos Aires to further development and foreign investment. Two and a half years later, he became president of Argentina, a position he held until 1868. Irish engineer John Coghlan (1824-1890) designed the first waterworks for Buenos Aires around 1860, and this letter may have been a response to a call by Coghlan for machinery to operate the works. There is, however, no evidence that Ericsson’s caloric engines were used in Buenos Aires.

In August 1861, Congress recommended the construction of armored ships for the navy. Ericsson submitted a novel design for an armored ship with a rotating turret based on Swedish lumber rafts. The USS Monitor was constructed in approximately one hundred days, an incredible achievement, and launched on March 6, 1862. Three days later, the USS Monitor confronted the CSS Virginia (the former USS Merrimack) at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in the first battle between ironclad warships. Although the battle ended as a tactical stalemate, the Monitor effectively checked the Virginia’s assault on the Union fleet. Dozens of additional monitors contributed to the success of the Union Navy for the remainder of the war.


John Ericsson (1803-1889) was born in Sweden and began working independently as a surveyor at the age of fourteen. He joined the Swedish army in 1820 and completed surveys in northern Sweden. In his spare time, he constructed a heat engine that used hot air instead of steam as a propellant. He moved to England in 1826, but his engine that worked well with Swedish wood as fuel fared poorly with English coal. By 1836, Ericsson had patented a design for a screw propeller. After designing an improved twin-propeller steamer, Ericsson moved to New York in 1839, and became a naturalized citizen in 1848. He built a screw-propelled warship for the U.S. Navy, but one of the guns on the USS Princeton exploding during trials in 1844, killing several dignitaries, including the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy. The Navy sought to blame Ericsson, and he turned to civilian pursuits. Ericsson continued to develop his caloric engine, for which he won the Rumford Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1862. In 1854, Ericsson presented French Emperor Napoleon III a plan for an iron-clad armored battle ship, but France did not build it. Ericsson submitted a novel design for an armored warship to the U.S. Navy in 1861, and the USS Monitor was built in time to confront the first Confederate ironclad. He continued to work on naval inventions, including a torpedo, a destroyer, and a torpedo boat, until his death

John B. Kitching (1813-1887) was born in England and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1824. He married Maria Bradner, and they had six children. One of his sons, John Howard Kitching, became a brigadier general in the Union Army and died from wounds received at the Battle of Cedar Creek in October 1864. John B. Kitching became a prominent New York merchant. He supported Samuel Morse in his telegraphic inventions and helped finance the first transatlantic cable. He also supported John Ericsson’s development of caloric engines. In 1860, Kitching authored Ericsson’s Caloric Engine, an illustrated 48-page pamphlet promoting the caloric engine and including many testimonials to its quality and utility.

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.

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John Ericsson, Inventor of the "U.S.S Monitor",

Estimate $400 - $500Oct 02
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Westport , CT, USA
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