Father of the Monitor

Where in Washington, DC—a city not known for its ancient fanciful mythology, except of the political kind—can you find an outdoor sculpture of Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Norse legend?


If you are zipping along in a car, you’ll miss it. But if you are traveling by foot or bicycle, you can take a break on a small green island (which I discovered by accident on a family bike ride, and returned to sketch) at the intersection of Ohio Drive and Independence Avenue, along the Potomac River. There at the foot of Yggdrasil sits John Ericsson (1803-1889), whose birthday it is today.

Ericsson, born in a Swedish village and son of a mining engineer, was a precocious child who demonstrated early an aptitude for all things mechanical. At five he created a working windmill from clock parts and household utensils. There is no historical record of his mother’s reaction to the missing tableware. At eight his education included informal instruction from his father’s engineering colleagues, and eventually he joined the team (although still too small to reach all the equipment), drawing up plans and supervising crews. During a period in the army he worked on designs for steam and fume-propelled engines, but finding no funding he took himself to England (leaving behind an out-of-wedlock son to be raised by his mother), which was then the hub of the Industrial Revolution and a showcase for new canals, railways, factories, and every sort of engine and mechanical device.

But despite his innovations in locomotive and marine engine designs, and his best-known creation, the screw propellor—which rendered vessels far more efficient and whose descendants are still in use worldwide—the English were unresponsive, perhaps because of Ericsson’s reputedly uncompromising nature, or perhaps because of his foreign origins. So Ericsson (leaving behind an English wife) betook himself to the young United States, with its energetic, ambitious entrepreneurs, and settled in New York, where pretty much everyone had (as today) foreign origins.

Here Ericsson sought supporters within the Navy and private industry for his screw-propellor vessel designs. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to interest the French Emperor, then engaged in the Crimean War, in a new rather peculiar-looking design for an iron-clad vessel (iron-clad ships having shown their effectiveness against the traditional wooden model).

But it was the American Civil War that delivered his opportunity. When the Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861, taking with them the Navy Yard at Norfolk and the USS Merrimac, which the Confederacy began to sheath with iron, it became obvious that the U.S. needed its own ironclad ship to protect the Northern coastal blockade. Ericsson’s industrial business contacts, who saw war as a terrific opportunity to increase their fortunes patriotically, used their influence within Congress and the U.S. Navy to advocate the implementation of Ericsson’s ingenious design, negotiate a contract, and launch construction of a vessel, in an unbelievably short period.

Ericsson’s ironclad ship (named the Monitor by Ericsson, as it was intended to monitor the coastline), with its iron sheath extending below the water line, its revolving turret that permitted it to fire in all directions, and its screw propellor, kept iron works, foundries, rolling mills, and manufacturers busily employed for months. For the sake of speed, some of its innovations (such as the underwater torpedo) were set aside, to be adopted later. Some were ignored, to the ship’s peril, as we will see.

Because the strange new vessel was untested, its crew was composed primarily of volunteers. Some observers (untutored in the laws of physics) predicted she would sink instantly when launched on March 6, 1862, headed for Norfolk. However, although the Monitor endured rough weather (and leaks, due to the  Navy’s having ignored Ericsson’s instructions for the turret’s sealing), she arrived safely in Hampton Roads on March 8th, to find disaster: two ships already destroyed by the Confederacy’s Merrimac, and two others run aground awaiting their own coups de grâce.

For, during the past few months, the Confederacy had been hurriedly adapting the Merrimac (which they renamed the Virginia), preparing it to ram and sink the Yankee ships at Hampton Roads, to break the blockade and enable the resumption of Southern trade. Because the Union and the Confederacy were both riddled with spies, each knew something of the other’s ship-building progress, so perhaps it is not simply an amazing coincidence that the two vessels were completed and launched only a couple of days apart. In any case, news of the Merrimac’s success ran through the telegraph lines, thrilling the South and alarming the North, who feared that the Merrimac would next turn northward to destroy its coastal cities. This was impossible; the Merrimac was clumsy, leaky, and barely seaworthy enough to have made it across Hampton Roads. But the North didn’t know that.

When the Merrimac returned to finish off the last two vessels, it found a small, oddly shaped object—the Monitor—pluckily barring its way. At first the Merrimac’s crew believed the Monitor to be a supply barge, until it fired upon them. Battle between the two ironclads continued for several hours, with each trying to inflict damage upon the other, the Merrimac attempting simultaneously yet unsuccessfully to attack the nearby remaining Northern ships. The Monitor, small, nimble, and quick, protected the ships from further damage, and eventually the Merrimac retired leaking to its port.

Both sides (naturally) declared victory in the battle, but the ultimate outcome was a contract between John Ericsson and the U.S. Navy for a fleet of ironclads, and the successful blockade of the South. The poor Monitor, however, caught in a storm at sea later that year (the Navy still ignoring Ericsson’s instructions on the proper sealing of its turret), went down with sixteen hands off the coast of Cape Hatteras. (Some of her artifacts have since been recovered and conserved.)

Ericsson, who had had a number of professional disappointments, was now vindicated and rewarded, and went on to work in maritime and naval technology and experiment with various sources of power—steam, electric, solar. Three Navy ships have been named after him, and in 1926 the monument pictured above, created by sculptor James Earle Fraser, was dedicated to him. There sits Ericsson (curiously, looking inland rather than out over the Potomac) beneath the Norse World Tree, with Vision standing behind him, flanked by Labor and a Viking warrior. It’s one of your more surprising Washington, DC sculptures. Go have a look.

Although Ericsson regularly sent funds for the support of that son and wife back in Sweden and England, his true passion was engineering, and neither ever joined him in the New World. Thus his days and nights were uninterrupted by the distracting joys and troubles of family life. Ericsson had a reputation for being stubborn, imperious, and single-minded, and perhaps these qualities do not a family man make… but they might enable one to overcome opposition and discouragement and press forward undespairing. Happy Birthday, husband and father of the Monitor.


CakeRedRosesBonnie Rose


Eat Your Peas


Today is the birthday of Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), whose study of the humble pea led him to deduce the existence of what he called dominant and recessive traits, thereby perplexing and confusing his fellow scientists with a concept we all take for granted today. For his story, and pictures, please see Peas of Mind.


Peas of Mind Part II

(Continued from Peas of Mind Part I, July 20)


Speculation on this subject probably dates from prehistory, when nomadic peoples discovered that fallen seed produced new grain, and that it was handier to domesticate sheep than to chase after them in the wild. Selective breeding of plants and animals is thousands of years old.

But how did it all work? Why did sheep vary in color, size, and wool quality? For that matter, why did sheep give birth to lambs instead of, say, lentils? Was it all an unchanging predetermined system, set in motion by a Creator? Was variation due to inner mechanisms, or to external factors, like environmental requirements, or supernatural forces? Did new species generate spontaneously, from water, mud, cheese, and old rags? Was there an underlying material explanation for the workings of the Great Chain of Being?

Every people has had its explanation for the workings of existence. From mythology to religion to philosophy, theories abound. And as the world has shrunk and human consciousness evolves, explanations are increasingly shared, expanded, and abandoned.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, the Western world was seized with a new fever of questioning in all areas of natural science. By the 19th, scientists working independently in diverse fields were moving inexorably from childlike faith in mythology and magic toward a secular, observation-based, material Explanation For Everything. It was the early adolescence of Western thought: Ha! You don’t know everything, God, so I’m going to search for the truth myself! And maybe I’ll find out you’re not even there! Questioners sought to discover universal underlying principles of existence, revealing that they retained a desire for Oneness through science that would replace loss of faith. But that’s another post…

So back to Mendel and his peas. (I realize this is my SECOND post about a monk this month! but that is pure coincidence.)

Pea plants are self-pollinating, but Mendel controlled pollination by removing stamens from selected plants and pollinating specific generations by hand, controlling for one characteristic at a time and keeping detailed mathematical records of the results. His experiments revealed consistently that, although the offspring of a first generation of peas always resembled the parents, the offspring of two crossed generations resembled only ONE parent—and, most surprising, that among the offspring of the hybrids, three out of four peas displayed one parental trait and the fourth pea displayed the other.

Other scientists had previously studied cross-pollination, but without coming to final conclusions or developing laws of inheritance. But Mendel, after growing thirty thousand plants over eight years, deduced the existence of what he called dominant and recessive traits, controlled by elements within the egg cell and the pollen of plants (later called genes). He also concluded that each parent carries half the elements passed on to offspring, and that these individual elements remain present and distinct, controlling specific characteristics like eye and hair color. (We’re no longer talking about peas here, except for unusual, Pixar-type peas.) This was in contrast to others, including Charles Darwin, who thought that characteristics from parents blended within the offspring.

In 1865 Mendel presented his findings to the Natural Sciences Society of Brünn, and later mailed printed copies throughout the scientific community (Darwin got one), but he received little response. Some fellow scientists were confused by his mathematical approach and his talk of distinct inherited traits. And what did peas have to do with people? Mendel was disappointed, but shortly thereafter he was elected abbot of the monastery, and although he continued gardening and beekeeping, his duties left no time for further experimentation. His position, however, now made possible financial assistance for his sister’s children (and a fire house for his home village).

Upon Mendel’s death, his successor burned his papers. (Horrors! I bet there’s a secret story in that.) Fortunately, the papers Mendel had mailed abroad survived. But it wasn’t until the early 1900s that his work was rediscovered by several scientists working independently of one another in Holland, Germany, England, and the United States, taking them by surprise. His work was challenged and his theories modified, but he had grasped certain basic principles of heredity fifty years ahead of anyone else, and terminology was developed for the field of study Mendel had initiated and the mechanisms and processes he had described.

Even though middle school was a LONG time ago, I cannot see peas in a garden without thinking of dear Gregor. Sigh. Including these delicious sugar-snaps growing in our friend Susan’s Vermont garden, which my daughter and I sketched for our Botany block. We picked and ate plenty of them, too. That was for our Gastronomy block.

Peas of Mind Part I


When I was in 8th grade, I had a crush on Gregor Mendel. No, he was not a Czechoslovakian exchange student. He was a 19th-century scientist whose birthday it is today. And what red-blooded schoolgirl would not fall for a man who was fascinated with plant and animal heredity and grew thousands of peas to test a hypothesis, thereby becoming the father of modern genetics? (Well, probably there are a few. But it’s a pattern: in third grade my admiring glances fell upon the boy who won all the class math competitions; and my hubby, a man of diverse talents like sculpture, electrical wiring, and the infant football-carry, is also no slouch in the brains department.)

Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884) was born into a farming family in the tiny village of Heinzendorf in what was then the Austrian empire and is now the Czech Republic. A bright boy, curious about the many growing things he observed in his rural world, he quickly outgrew the village grammar school. His parents, though not well-off, paid what they could for him to attend school in the next town—which was tuition plus only half his meals, so Gregor often went hungry.

Funding ended abruptly when Mendel was 16 and a back injury prevented his father from farming. Although he always helped with the farm work, Mendel, the only son, was more interested in studying plants and sheep than in raising them. So eventually the farm was sold to provide for living expenses and daughters’ dowries. Mendel took on tutoring work to continue paying for classes and books. And Mendel’s younger sister used her dowry to help her big brother finish high school. Now THAT is a loving sister.

But university education couldn’t be paid for with tutoring. One teacher suggested a solution: if Mendel didn’t mind giving up the possibility of marriage and family, he could enter an abbey. Friars followed a range of paths. They didn’t spend all their time praying and preaching—they were farmers, beekeepers, bakers, teachers, mathematicians, philosophers, scientists. For centuries this had been the road to education for many bright but poor boys (undoubtedly many of them without a genuine vocation).

So Mendel entered the Augustinian Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno, known for its intellectual pursuits and its enormous library, to continue his education. The abbot, recognizing Mendel’s gifts, sent him on to the University of Vienna to study with leading scientists (one of them Christian Doppler, of Doppler effect fame). When he returned, he taught science at the monastery-run high school, for which he apparently had a natural gift, teaching with refreshing clarity and humor. At the same time he continued his own studies in astronomy, meteorology, zoology, and botany.

Interested in the mysteries of heredity since his farming childhood, he wished to investigate its laws. He began breeding mice of different colors to study the pattern of color inheritance, but the bishop thought the study of mouse-breeding was messy and unsuitable for a monk. So Mendel switched to garden peas, which are better-smelling and less shocking in their reproductive habits (although the subject of plant reproduction had certainly shocked the colleagues of Carolus Linnaeus in the previous century).

Mendel received a garden plot in the monastery’s botanical garden and began to experiment with thirty-four varieties of peas: tall, short, yellow, green, wrinkled, smooth, white blossoms, purple blossoms, grey seed, white seed. His goal was to determine what principles governed heredity. Clearly offspring shared some traits with their parents—but which ones, and why? How were characteristics passed from one generation to the next?

TO BE CONTINUED! See July 21st.

Prince of Binomial Nomenclature: Part 2

Continued from Prince of Binomial Nomenclature: Part 1, May 23rd


Longing to expand his perspective, Linnaeus applied for and received a grant for a field expedition to Lapland, a rugged region above the Arctic Circle, where he expected to find many unrecorded species. Linnaeus spent five months exploring and studying rocks, plants, insects, animals, and people, and returned with thousands of specimens (no people though), filled with excitement. He returned to lecturing, and planned a series of books cataloguing species according to his new system.

Linnaeus DID actually long for a reproductive life of his own. He paid court to a young lady whose father, not taking a wandering botanist very seriously, insisted that Linnaeus wait three years and meanwhile establish some means of supporting a family. So Linnaeus went off to Holland, whose universities were better equipped than those of Sweden, to complete his medical degree. He also found work there managing and classifying the contents of Dutch zoological and botanical gardens.

THEN, in 1735, while still in Holland, he published his book Systema Naturae, which explained his concept of classification. Linnaeus grouped plants and animals into genera—groups whose members have something in common, usually structural or related to reproduction. (Linnaeus was the first to classify whales as mammals.) Then he subdivided each group into species. (His complete heirarchy, as you may recall from high school, is Kingdom, Class, Order, Genus, and Species.) And then he gave each member a two-part name based on these divisions, replacing all previously-used cumbersome lengthy descriptions. These two-part names were in Latin, which was, and still is, the universal language of science. I told you those Latin classes would come in handy.

Systema Naturae hit the botanical world like a bolt of lightning. The notion that PLANTS (seemingly so innocent!) had a Sexual Life, by which Linnaeus partly categorized them, was outrageous and horrifying to some naturalists, and Linnaeus was criticized for “nomenclatural wantonness.” But, despite objections on both theological and moral grounds, Linnaeus’ achievement launched him from obscurity to fame. A binomial concept had been proposed by Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin in 1623 but was never widely used. When Linnaeus combined it with his new categorization methods, the idea spread rapidly. Here was a practical tool: reasonable, memorable, universally applicable. Not only could scientists from different countries know they were communicating about the same species; it was even easy for amateurs to use, and it sparked a more widespread interest in natural history. Such is the effect of nomenclatural wantonness.

Now back in Sweden as an established botany professor, Linnaeus was able to marry his fiancée, although he spent so much time away on expeditions that she might have been happier with one of her other suitors. He lectured, wrote many works on botany, corresponded with other naturalists, revised and expanded Systema Naturae many times throughout his life (it eventually reached 2,300 pages), led collecting expeditions, and inspired his students to travel throughout the world as botanical and zoological explorers. One circumnavigated the world with Captain Cook. Others went to North America, Japan, China, and Southeast Asia, returning with specimens (or occasionally dying in a distant land; collecting could be dangerous work). Eventually he was knighted for his contributions to science and became Carl von Linné. So there, Mom and Dad.

Linnaeus himself gave scientific names to 4,200 animals and 7,700 plants, generally choosing names to reflect physical qualities, but occasionally to honor a friend or colleague, or, with a particularly ugly or toxic specimen, to insult someone who had annoyed him. Be wary of affronting a botanist. They are still lurking out there today…naming species.

With some modifications due to our modern understanding of evolution, Linnaeus’ system is still in use today, and pretty much taken for granted. But whenever you say Homo sapiens, or Boa constrictor, perhaps now you will think of Carolus Linnaeus, who made it possible, and you will celebrate his birthday every May 23rd. If you weren’t doing so already.

Throughout his life Linnaeus was a deeply religious fellow. He saw his work as clarifying for the world the underlying connections among living things and confirming the intelligence of a great Creator. Ironically, however, because his work made possible far greater understanding and communication among naturalists everywhere, it led to observations of surprising patterns and eventually to the shocking speculation by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace that species, instead of having been from their Day of Creation exactly as we know them now, had perhaps changed over time. Over a long, long time. We do not know the ultimate consequences of our life’s work.