Few lives better illustrate these remarks than that of John Ericsson. Born of middle-class parentage and with no apparent source of heredity from which to draw the stores of genius which he displayed throughout his life, and with surroundings in boyhood but little calculated to awaken and inspire the life-work which later made him famous, from this beginning and with these early surroundings John Ericsson became unquestionably the greatest of the engineers of the age in which he lived and of the century which witnessed such mighty advances along all engineering lines. The imprint left by Ericsson’s life on the engineering practice of his age was deep and lasting, and if one may dare look into the future, the day is far removed when engineers will have passed beyond their dependence on his life and labors.
It is perhaps not amiss that, before looking more closely at the achievements of Ericsson’s life and activity, note should be taken of the large dependence of our present civilization and mode of life on the engineer and his work.
In different ages of the world’s history each has received its name, appropriate or fanciful as the case may have been. For the modern age no name is perhaps more adequately descriptive than the “Age of Energy,” the age in which our entire fabric of civilization rests upon the utilization of the energies of nature for the needs of humanity, and to an extent little appreciated by those who have not considered the matter from this point of view. If we consider the various elements which enter into our modern civilization,—the items which enter into the daily life of the average man or woman; the items which we have come to consider as necessities and those which we may consider as luxuries; the items which go to make up our needs as expressed in terms of shelter, food, intercommunication between man and his fellow, and pleasure,—the most casual consideration of such will serve to show distributed throughout almost the entire fabric of our civilization dependence at some point on the power of the steam-engine, the water-wheel, or windmill, the subtle electric current, or the heat-energy of coal, petroleum oil, or natural gas. The harnessing and efficient utilization of these great natural energies is the direct function of the engineer, or more especially of the dynamic engineer, and in this noble guild of workers, Ericsson carved for himself an enduring place and left behind a record which should serve as an inspiration to all who are following the same pathway in later years.
No one feature perhaps better differentiates our modern civilization from that of earlier times, four hundred years ago, or even one hundred, than that of intercommunication between man and his fellow. Compare the opportunities for such intercommunication in the present with those in the time of Queen Elizabeth, Sir Isaac Newton, George Washington, or Napoleon I. We now have our steamships, steam and electric railroads, cable, telegraph, and telephone. A few years ago not a single one was known. The modern age is one which demands the utmost in the possibility of communication between man and his kind, and in this respect the wide world is now smaller than the confines of an English county a century ago.