In a private home in Lund there’s a desk with a story. A desk that was allegedly owned and used by John Ericsson (1803-1889), the famous inventor, who constructed propellers, warships, locomotives and solar machines. This desk is known as the Ericssonian desk.
John Ericsson played a crucial part in the American Civil War (1861-1865). His creation, the warship Monitor, was used by the Union States, and in 1862 she won a duel against the Confederate ship Merrimac on the James River of Hampton Roads. The victory meant that the Confederate States found it increasingly difficult to bring food and ammunition to the troops in Virginia. One Confederate general after another was forced to retire south with his troops. And this was the beginning of the end of the American Civil War. John Ericsson was at once famous all over the world.
John Ericsson had moved to 95 Franklin Street in New York in 1843, but with the Monitor’s success, his financial situation greatly improved and he bought a house on 36 Beach Street in New York. In 1864, he and his domestic staff moved into his aesthetically furnished house. Ericsson lived there isolated from almost all social life. His only outlet was his frequent correspondence with relatives, friends and other scientists.
One of those with whom he often exchanged letters was Nils Ericson (1802-1870), his only brother. Nils Ericson had become a famous man in Sweden, and during his life he managed to become a great canal builder: the Trollhätte Canal, the Dalsland Canal, the Håverud Aqueduct, and the Saimaa Canal in what was then Swedish Finland, all bear his signature. Nils also became the Swedish railway’s father. When he was knighted in 1854, he lost one “s” in his last name. He was elevated in his nobility to “baron” in the year 1860.
The brothers exchanged many a confidential letter. John sometimes felt lonely in America, and he was emotionally close to Nils. They had grown up in a simple but warm and stimulating household and continued to be confidants from childhood. John wrote about his disappointments and his plans for the future. They wrote about their homes, about their mother and sister, and about old friends. Nils had also visited John during his many months in a London debtors’ prison; they even celebrated Christmas together there. Another piece of incontestable proof of how close they were is that Nils helped take care of John’s son Hjalmar (1824-1887).
To John Ericsson, the tabletop on which he had drawn his famous work—the Monitor—was especially valuable. He was proud of what he had achieved, and decided to give the tabletop to his brother as a gift, as he felt it was important to keep in the family. The table has been examined by experts who say it seems to originate in the U.S., made sometime in the early 1800s to around 1850.
The Ericson family sold the Nygård Mansion on the southern tip of Lake Vänern in 1879, nine years after Nils Ericson’s death, at an auction arranged on the premises. It was during this auction that the Ericssonian desk was also sold. It was acquired by the landowner Henning Montén (1845-1918), whose father had been a district judge. He had bought Lunde, another farm near Nygård, the year before and his oldest son Göran took over the farm.
The old manor house building was torn down after a few years—a chronicler has written about the building, describing it as magnificent and romantic and white in color. He described in detail how the rooms were furnished. In Henning Montén’s private chamber was a bed, a sofa and dresser, and at one of the windows, a desk with the tabletop Ericsson had owned. This desk was the one bought at the 1879 auction. There was also another table, a smaller one, by the other window. On the wall was a huge portrait featuring Montén’s wife, painted by her cousin. This cousin’s son Göran Montén, sold the farm later on, and moved in with his son Gerhard Montén. He brought the table with him. At Monten’s death, the table was passed on to his daughter Sigrid. Later on it ended up with Sigrid’s daughter Agneta, who again passed it on, at her death, to my oldest son Jonas Frii.
As early as June 19, 1888, in a telegram to Skansen founder Arthur Hazelius, John Ericsson wrote that he was not interested in leaving his belonging to museums. In the same telegram, he thanked Hazelius for the great honor, but compared keeping relics from previous generations to barbarism and ignorance. “Do not keep any space for any object of mine, because I will leave nothing that can show how imperfect my skills were.”
John Ericsson’s things from the house on Beach Street remained almost a year in America, only to be returned in mid-September 1890, according to his wishes, to the country he had left behind 64 years earlier. In some sort of historic falsification, the management at the Nordic Museum still claimed that Ericsson’s remains had been shown during an exhibition at Framnäs in the summer of 1890, remains the museum had received as a donation that same year. The Nordic Museum had then during many years suffered from dire financial resources and could therefore not manage the donation.
Lennart Frii, b. 1942, a former judge of appeal and advisor to the Swedish Minsistry of Finance (hovrättsråd och rådgivare i finansdepartementet) has authored several books and published poetry collections.
A visit to Battery Park and the John Ericsson statue in 2009, the John Ericsson biography and his eldest son’s inheritance of the desk featured in the article awoke his interest in the Swedish engineer and inventor. He is presently working on a book about John Ericsson.

Lennart Frii