Author and Historian Richard Snow, discusses his newest book Iron Dawn: The Monitor, the Merrimack, and the Civil War Sea Battle that Changed History, with a focus on the Swedish inventor who designed a ship unlike any ever before built.   

 No single sea battle has had more far-reaching consequences than the one fought in the harbor at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in March 1862. The Confederacy, with no fleet of its own, built an iron fort containing ten heavy guns on the hull of a captured Union frigate named the Merrimack. The North got word of the project when it was already well along, and, in desperation, commissioned an eccentric Swedish-born inventor named John Ericsson to build the Monitor, an entirely revolutionary iron warship—at the time, the single most complicated machine ever made. Abraham Lincoln himself was closely involved in the ship’s design.


But what is of most immediate interest is the book’s hero, Swedish-American John Ericsson. He is a puzzling figure in the pantheon of American inventors. He turned the course of a whole war, wrote about what he was doing with spirited precision, and he had a career filled with the highs and lows that we like to ascribe to our struggling geniuses, and the technologies he developed had an immediate impact on his century, and the next. Yet he is not remembered as being in the front rank of nineteenth-century innovators.

Ericsson was born in 1803 in a Swedish mining town, and was such a prodigy that he was surveying the route of a canal across the country while he was still so small he had to sand on a box to reach the eyepiece of his transit. He was still in his teens when he embarked on an unusually complex personal life by impregnating the daughter of a Swedish nobleman, and the consequences sent him first to England and then to America. There he became embroiled in a quarrel with the U.S. Navy and at first was reluctant to help when his skills were sought. But help he did, putting his formidable abilities into designing a ship unlike any ever before built. He was a man of extraordinary abilities, an inventor on par with Edison and Bell, and although he is far from forgotten, it is a shame he is not better known.

About Richard Snow

Richard Snow was born in New York City and he graduated with a B.A. from Columbia College in 1970. He worked at American Heritage magazine for nearly four decades and was its editor-in-chief for seventeen years. He is the author of several books, among them two novels and a volume of poetry.

Snow has served as a consultant for historical motion pictures—among them Glory—and has written for documentaries, including the Burns brothers’ Civil War, and Ric Burns’s award-winning PBS film Coney Island, whose screenplay he wrote. Most recently, he served as a consultant on Ken Burns’s World War II series, The War.



Images courtesy of Richard Snow

TUE—1-24-2017—7 PM, free