Warship Wednesday, March 22, 2023: Herr Ericsson’s Original Tin Can

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, March 22, 2023: Herr Ericsson’s Original Tin Can

Naval History and Heritage Command Photo NH 52307

Above we see the circa 1892 image of John Ericsson’s experimental war vessel, “Destroyer” testing her “submarine artillery” by the firing of an inert shell into the flooded drydock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to be recovered later.

The Swedish-born inventor and mechanical engineer had just passed on to the great drawing board in the sky the previous March, aged 85, and is best known for the U.S. Navy’s first screw-propelled steam-frigate USS Princeton in 1843 and the Civil War-era USS Monitor— the world’s first armored ship with a rotating turret, with his penultimate warship, Destroyer, most often falling through the cracks of history.

John Ericsson (1803-1889). Photographed by the Matthew Brady studios, 1862 & 1863. Naval History and Heritage Command: NH 305 & NH 482

Ericsson spent the last 12 years of his life working on Destroyer, which he envisioned would be the ideal harbor defense vessel, particularly for his beloved New York.

A compact iron-hulled beast of some 130 feet in length with a narrow 17-foot beam and the ability to float in just 11 feet of water, she carried a 70-foot “wrought iron breastwork of great strength near the bow” as a defense to allow for bow-on close-in attacks with a sort of innovative albeit not effective centerline underwater cannon. She could be built for about the cost of a small gunboat and crewed by as few as a dozen men.

Ericsson’s Destroyer. View of this experimental ship showing submarine gun projectiles on deck. Taken at the New York Navy Yard, circa 1890. USS Maine of Spanish-American War fame is fitting out in the left background. Detriot Bain News Service image LOC LC-D4-20348

The Destroyer’s “submarine gun” was a whopper.

With a 16-inch diameter bore and a 30-foot barrel that was eight feet below the waterline, it fired a 26-foot long projectile crafted of spruce and pine timbers and sheathed with thin metal. In all, it weighed 1,500 pounds of which 300 was gun cotton payload. Alternatively, a smaller, 10-foot-long projectile was designed as well.

Ericsson’s Destroyer plan of submarine gun for this experimental ship, dated 7 October 1890. NH 54252

John Ericsson’s “Destroyer” Longitudinal section of the ship’s bow, showing the underwater gun and its projectile torpedo, circa 1881. Note the “inflated air bags” in the bow and original pneumatic feeder tubes for the gun. NH 84476

It was thought by Ericsson that the gun could be fired at a target from some 500 feet away. To keep the projectiles on a level course, they were fitted with “hydrostatic bellows” in the center along with two horizontal rudders.

The method of the launch was originally to be via a piston that would be actuated by a steam line but this was eventually changed to a 40-pound explosive (black powder) charge. The energy produced by such a projectile at damaging speeds was estimated to be something on the order of 2,000,000 foot-pounds.

The idea was Destroyer’s hull would be ballasted down when operational to have as low a freeboard as possible, only exposing the armored plate iron deck house. Voids were to be filled with blocks of cork and inflated rubber airbags to allow for buoyancy even with a penetrated hull.

Ericsson’s Destroyer interior view showing the submarine gun and pneumatic loading mechanism, taken circa 1890. NH 54251

Ericsson’s Destroyer interior view shows the breech mechanism of the submarine gun. Taken about 1890. NH 54248

Ericsson’s Destroyer interior view shows the breech mechanism of the submarine gun. Taken about 1890. NH 54249

Uncrated projectile and body. NH 52494

In an initial low-pressure light load test in April 1886, Ericsson himself declared that “the submarine gun has proved a perfect success” after its inert projectile ran 300 feet into a suspended net in less than three seconds, a speed of about 59 knots. “The effect produced by exploding a loaded projectile remains to be ascertained, but this trial an individual is not permitted to make, hence I now desire to hand the Destroyer over to the Government.”

Built on spec with $150,000 ($5 million in today’s dollars) coughed up by foundry owner and Ericsson friend Cornelius Henry DeLamater (who also died in 1889)– and was the guy who built the steam boilers and machinery for both USS Princeton and USS Monitor— Ericsson proposed in 1886 to sell the vessel and its patents to the Navy for “modest sum” of $220,000. Not much of a profit although there would presumably be royalties involved as well should the patents be utilized on a wide scale. 

In the end, it turned out that Destroyer and her related submarine artillery still needed another $30,000 in funds from the Navy to be made ready for a firing trial after the death of both Ericsson and DeLamater. At the time, that was about the cost of a harbor tug (four were ordered that year at a cost of $35K each).

By this stage, the prototype warship and her gun were the assets of the independent Ericsson Coast Defense Company.

The thing is, other, more proven, locomotive torpedoes had already far surpassed Destroyer’s gun and the world was awash in small, steam-driven, torpedo boats that used Mr. Whitehead’s deadly and economical devices.

They had even been proven in warfare already, with the Ottoman ship Intibah sunk in 1878 by Russian torpedo boats carrying Whiteheads. Even the U.S. Navy had ordered one, USS Cushing (Torpedo Boat No. 1), from Herreshoff in Rhode Island in 1886, and the 140-foot craft was undergoing experiments by 1890 at the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport.

USS Cushing torpedo boat experiments, ca. 1890, DeGolyer Library, SMU.

The E.W. Bliss Company of Brooklyn had stood up the same year, and, using Whitehead’s patents under license, had won a 100-unit contract for American-made 18-inch (diameter) torpedoes.

The number of torpedo boats in service or building around the globe topped 1,000 in 1889-90, from a Navy Department report published in the NYT. Of course, many of these were very small coastal steam launches with no overnight/rough weather/blue water capability, but they could still carry a “fish.”

Argentinian sailors with a Whitehead torpedo, Fiume, Austria, 1888. At the time this picture was taken, torpedo boats were in all of the world’s major– and many minor– fleets.

Meanwhile, Ericsson’s body was repatriated to his native Sweden, carried on the deck of a modern new U.S. Navy cruiser that was very much the descendant of his USS Princeton and USS Monitor.

“The White Squadron’s Farewell Salute to the Body of John Ericsson, New York Bay, August 23, 1890”. Oil on canvas, 36″ by 54″, by Edward Moran (1829-1901), signed and dated by the artist, 1898. It depicts USS Baltimore (Cruiser # 3) departing New York Harbor to return the remains of John Ericsson to his native Sweden. Note the Swedish ensign flying from the ship’s foremast. Painting in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection. Gift of Paul E. Sutro, 1940. Official U.S. Navy Photograph. National Archives photograph, KN-10851 (Color).

Subaquatic Shooting

The Government Torpedo Board then embarked on a series of experiments in the Spring and Summer of 1892 with the late Mr. Ericsson’s Destroyer. The board, who watched the trials from the vessels’ deck, consisted of Commander George Albert Converse (USNA 1861, later RADM) and lieutenants T.C. McLean and C.A. Bradbury. Each shot was triggered at the drop of CDR Converse’s handkerchief.

Initial tests were done in March in Brooklyn’s Erie Basin, with a few inert rounds fired into a net with a modest 20-pound charge of black powder.

The May-June 1892 tests at the Brooklyn Navy Yard saw Destroyer moored off the mouth of the Simpson wooden dry dock, which was flooded, and its gates locked opened. Inside the dock was a series of six 40×20-foot nets, at 100-foot intervals. The nets were made of 1/4-inch manila cordage. At each net stood a team of bluejackets who, holding an attached rope to gauge the vibration of the projectile hitting the net, stood ready with a chronograph in hand to be used to help calculate velocity through the docks.

The below images described as “circa 1890” were actually in May-June 1892.

View during tests of her submarine gun at New York Navy Yard circa 1890. The projectile is shown. NH 52495

Projectile body. NH 52496

View during tests of her submarine gun at New York Navy Yard circa 1890. Assembly of warhead and projectile body. NH 52497

Ericsson’s Destroyer interior view shows the breech mechanism of the submarine gun open and the shell ready to load. Note the net slicers on the tip. Taken about 1892. NH 54246

Ericsson’s Destroyer interior view showing shop facilities and a projectile for the submarine gun, taken circa 1890. Note the projectile along the bulkhead. It was thought the vessel could carry up to 15 shells. NH 54250

View during tests of her submarine gun at New York Navy Yard, circa 1890. The firing of a shell. NH 52305

NH 52306

View during tests of her submarine gun at New York Navy Yard, circa 1890. Firing of a shell into the drydock to be recovered later. NH 52311

Ericsson’s Destroyer. View during tests of her submarine gun at New York Navy Yard, circa 1890. The projectile is in a drained drydock. NH 52313

Firing 20 inert cigar-shaped projectiles, with charges not exceeding 25-30 pounds of black powder, tests were conducted from as close as 100 feet off the dock to as far as 600 feet away, with the latter showing a lateral spread of 22 feet on average. The warheads, carrying equivalent ballast rather than guncotton, were topped with four razor-sharp net cutters. It was thought able to penetrate at least one steel mesh net, as in most tests the wooden bolts zipped through at least five of the six of the manila nets.

Muzzle velocity was estimated by the board to be around 300 feet per second, which translates to about 204 mph. At the 1,200-pound test weight, that’s kinetic energy of something like 2,097,963 ft./lbs.– remarkably close to Mr. Ericsson’s estimates.

There were some glaring failures, including projectiles that sank after they filled with water, some that nosedived just after launch, and others that decelerated rapidly and were caught in the first couple of nets, or came too fast and broached over the nets.

As noted by the New York Times, “Of the 20 shots fired, 15, at the maximum range of 600 feet, were sufficiently accurate in flight to have sunk the underwater hull of an average-sized vessel.”

The craft was taken into Naval custody, although not formally purchased, then tugged for more experiments at the Newport Naval Torpedo Station, where CDR Converse’s team would continue to keep Destroyer into late 1893. This involved testing anti-torpedo nets constructed by the Washington Gun Foundry and a series of nine live submarine gun shells fabricated by the Continental Iron Works of Brooklyn.

This came after a public outcry when “the majority of foreign warships present in the World Columbian Naval Review fleet carried torpedo nets” while no American ship was fitted with one.

Sale and overseas service

In October 1893, Flint Co. of New York City bought Destroyer from the Ericsson Coast Defense Company for resale to Brazil, where a civil war/revolution that included a naval aspect was afoot. Converse dutifully handed the vessel back to ECDC president Ericsson F. Bushnell (the son of Cornelius Scranton Bushnell of USS Monitor and Intelligent Whale fame) later that month and she was towed back to NYC by the tug Scandinavia.

Seafaring adventurer Joshua Slocum, soon after to be the first person to sail single-handedly around the world, accepted the job to take Destroyer to Brazil with a scratch crew that included a Royal Marine officer on furlough who was never without his Colt revolver and sword, a Brazilian “count” whose only redeeming quality “was a good judge of a hotel,” and a handful of other hardy souls.

Supported by the freighter Santuit, Slocum was “navigator in command” and set out on 7 December, arriving at Pernambuco on 20 January 1894, with a weeklong layover in Martinique to make repairs following a hairy incident during a storm in which the vessel was nearly lost at sea.

Destroyer never made it into much active service with the Brazilians, and Slocum, recalling in a self-published pamphlet on the trip, would say:

Concerning the last days of my worthy old ship, there is little more to say. The upland navigators at the Arsenal at Bahia, having observed the New York crew put the Destroyer in the basin and out again with dispatch, undertook, like some tropical quadrupeds, to do the “trick” themselves. Whether from pure cussedness or not this time, I can’t say, but they stove a great hole in her bottom, having grounded her on a rock, “accidentally,” they said.

Alas! for all our hardships and perils! The latest account that I heard said that the Destroyer lay undone in the basin. The tide ebbing and flowing through her broken hull–a rendezvous for eels and crawfish–and now those high and dry sailors say they had a “narrow escape.”

In handwritten notes to a copy found in 1997, Slocum would also detail:

When I returned to Brazil, later, in the Spray [the 36-foot sailboat he rounded the globe in] and inquired about a balance of wages due me from the Destroyer some $600 or more: The officer I addressed said “Captain so far as we are concerned we would give you the ship and if you care to accept it we will send an officer to show you where she is – I know very well where she was, as I have already said at the bottom of the sea.”


While Ericsson’s Destroyer was borrowed by the Navy for about 20 months in 1892-93, she was never commissioned as USS Destroyer, nor given a crew. The Navy did, however, name its second torpedo boat (TB-2), USS Ericsson, after the late inventor in 1897. Later, a Great War-era O’Brien-class torpedo boat destroyer (DD-56) and a WWII-era Gleaves-class destroyer (DD-440) would carry the same name.

USS Ericsson, (TB-2) alongside USS Cushing (TB-1), November 1900. Catalog #: 19-N-14-24-10

USS Ericsson (DD-56) circa 1916. NH 77909

The third USS Ericsson (DD-440), a Gleaves-class destroyer, was pretty enough to star on a 1941 Naval Reserve poster by Matt Murphey. UNT World War Poster Collection

Sadly, today the name of this titan of naval technology rides on an MSC-manned Kaiser-class oiler, USNS John Ericsson (T-AO-194), which has been in service since 1991. If ever a destroyer should be named for a man, it is Mr. Ericsson. 

170718-N-OY799-016. CORAL SEA (July 18, 2017) The Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS John Ericsson (T-AO 194) is underway alongside the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), as part of a replenishment-at-sea during Talisman Saber 2017. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth Abbate/Released)

Since Ericsson’s Destroyer, the Navy has commissioned no less than 1,087 destroyer (DD/DDR/DL/DLG/DDG) series vessels and another 588 destroyer escort (DE) types spanning from USS Bainbridge, laid down on 15 August 1899, by Neafie and Levy Ship and Engine Building Company at their shipyard in Philadelphia, to the next set to come to life, the future guided-missile destroyer USS Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee (DDG 123) accepted from Ingalls shipbuilding last November.

She is scheduled to be commissioned, Saturday, May 13 in Key West Florida.

USS Bainbridge (DD-1) was the first ship commissioned as a destroyer in the United States Navy, authorized on May 4, 1898, three days after the commencement of the Spanish-American War. She served most of her active life in the Asiatic Station. In World War I she was based at Gibraltar, where she served as an escort ship for Allied shipping out of the Mediterranean Sea. Bainbridge was decommissioned at the end of the war in 1919 and sold. Lithograph by C. F. Kenney; C. 1950. NHHC 07-572-A

PCU USS Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee (DDG 123) during sea trials. HII photo

Ships are more than steel
and wood
And heart of burning coal,
For those who sail upon
them know
That some ships have a

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