John Ericsson

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John Ericsson
John Ericsson 2.jpg
Johan Ericsson

(1803-07-31)July 31, 1803
DiedMarch 8, 1889(1889-03-08) (aged 85)
NationalitySwedish, American
CitizenshipSweden; United States (1848–1889)
Occupation(s) Engineer, inventor, innovator
John Ericsson signature.svg

John Ericsson (born Johan Ericsson; July 31, 1803 – March 8, 1889) was a Swedish-American [1] inventor. [2] He was active in England and the United States.


Ericsson collaborated on the design of the railroad steam locomotive Novelty, which competed in the Rainhill Trials on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which were won by inventor George Stephenson's (1781–1848), Rocket. In North America, he designed the United States Navy's first screw-propelled steam-frigate USS Princeton, in partnership with Captain (later Commodore) Robert F. Stockton (1795–1866), who unjustly blamed him for the fatal accident of that new vessel. A new partnership with Cornelius H. DeLamater (1821–1889), of the DeLamater Iron Works in New York City resulted in the first armoured ironclad warship equipped with a rotating gun turret, USS Monitor, which dramatically saved the U.S. (Union Navy) naval blockading squadron from destruction by an ironclad Confederate States naval vessel, CSS Virginia, at the famous Battle of Hampton Roads at the southern mouth of Chesapeake Bay (with the James River) in March 1862, during the American Civil War.

Early career

John Ericsson John Ericsson from Hildebrand Sveriges historia.jpg
John Ericsson

Johan Ericsson was born at Långban in Filipstad Municipality, Värmland, Sweden. He was the younger brother of Nils Ericson (1802–1870), a distinguished canal and railway builder in Sweden. Their father Olaf Ericsson (1778–1818) had worked as the supervisor for a mine in Värmland. He had lost money in speculation and had to move his family to Forsvik in 1810. There he worked as a director of blastings during the excavation of the Swedish Göta Canal. [3] [4] [5]

The extraordinary skills of the two Ericsson brothers were discovered by Baltzar von Platen (1766–1829), the architect of Göta Canal. They were dubbed 'cadets of mechanics' of the Swedish Royal Navy, and engaged as trainees at the canal enterprise. At the age of fourteen, John was already working independently as a surveyor. His assistant had to carry a footstool for him to reach the instruments during surveying work. At the age of seventeen he joined the Swedish army in Jämtland, serving in the Jämtland Ranger Regiment, as a Second Lieutenant, but was soon promoted to Lieutenant. He was sent to northern Sweden to do surveying, and in his spare time he constructed a heat engine which used the fumes from the fire instead of steam as a propellant. His skill and interest in mechanics made him resign from the army and move to England in 1826. However, his heat engine was not a success, as his prototype was designed to burn birchwood and would not work well with coal (the main fuel used in England). [6]

Novelty, Braithwaite and Ericsson's entry for the Rainhill Trials. Illustration from The Mechanics Magazine, 1829. Novelty locomotive.jpg
Novelty , Braithwaite and Ericsson's entry for the Rainhill Trials. Illustration from The Mechanics Magazine, 1829.
German drawing (1833) of the steam locomotive Wilhelm IV with scale in feet, built by "Braithwaite und Ericsson". DampfwagenWilhelmDerIV.JPG
German drawing (1833) of the steam locomotive Wilhelm IV with scale in feet, built by "Braithwaite und Ericsson".

Notwithstanding the disappointment, he invented several other mechanisms instead based on steam, improving the heating process by incorporating bellows to increase oxygen supply to the fire bed. In 1829 he and English engineer John Braithwaite (1797–1870) built Novelty for the Rainhill Trials arranged by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. It was widely praised but suffered recurring boiler problems, and the competition was won by English engineers George and Robert Stephenson with Rocket. [7]

Two further engines were built by Braithwaite and Ericsson, named William IV and Queen Adelaide after the new king and queen. These were generally larger and more robust than Novelty and differed in several details (for example it is thought that a different design of blower was used which was an 'Induced Draught' type, sucking the gases from the fire). The pair ran trials on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway but the railway declined to purchase the new designs.

Their innovative steam fire engine proved an outstanding technical success by helping to quell the memorable Argyll Rooms fire [8] on February 5, 1830 [9] (where it worked for five hours when the other engines were frozen up), [10] [5] but was met with resistance from London's established 'Fire Laddies' and municipal authorities. An engine Braithwaite and Ericsson constructed for Sir John Ross's 1829 Arctic expedition failed and was dumped on the shores of Prince Regent Inlet. At this stage of Ericsson's career the most successful and enduring of his inventions was the surface condenser, which allowed a steamer to recover fresh water for its boilers while at sea. His 'deep sea lead,' a pressure-activated fathometer was another minor, but enduring success.

The commercial failure and development costs of some of the machines devised and built by Ericsson during this period put him into debtors' prison for an interval. At this time he also married 19-year-old Amelia Byam, a disastrous match that ended in the couple's separation until Amelia's death.

He was elected as a member to the American Philosophical Society in 1877. [11]


His only formal education was a basic officer's education and training during his time in the Swedish Army. On March 27, 1822, John passed a surveyor's examination in Stockholm. As a child he was taught to be a miner and surveyor by his father. [12]

Propeller design

He then improved ship design with two screw-propellers rotating in opposite directions (as opposed to earlier tests with this technology, which used a single screw). However, the Admiralty disapproved of the invention, which led to the fortunate contact with the American captain Robert Stockton who had Ericsson design a propeller steamer for him and invited him to bring his invention to the United States of America, as it would supposedly be more welcomed in that place. As a result, Ericsson moved to New York in 1839. Stockton's plan was for Ericsson to oversee the development of a new class of frigate with Stockton using his considerable political connections to grease the wheels. Finally, after the succession to the Presidency by John Tyler, funds were allocated for a new design. However, they only received funding for a 700-ton sloop instead of a frigate. The sloop eventually became USS Princeton, named after Stockton's hometown.

The ship took about three years to complete and was perhaps the most advanced warship of its time. In addition to twin screw propellers, it was originally designed to mount a 12-inch muzzle-loading gun on a revolving pedestal. The gun had also been designed by Ericsson and used hoop construction to pre-tension the breech, adding to its strength and allowing safe use of a larger charge. Other innovations on the ship design included a collapsible funnel and an improved recoil system.

The relations between Ericsson and Stockton had grown tense over time and, approaching the completion of the ship, Stockton began working to force Ericsson out of the project. Stockton carefully avoided letting outsiders know that Ericsson was the primary inventor.[ citation needed ] Stockton attempted to claim as much credit for himself as possible, even designing a second 12 in (300 mm) gun to be mounted in Princeton. Unfortunately, because Stockton did not understand the design of the first gun (originally named "The Orator", renamed "The Oregon" by Stockton), the second gun was fatally flawed.

When launched, Princeton was an enormous success. On October 20, 1843, she won a speed trial against the paddle steamer SS Great Western, until then considered the fastest steamer afloat. Unfortunately, during a firing demonstration of Stockton's gun, the breech ruptured, killing Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas Walker Gilmer, as well as six others. Stockton attempted to deflect the blame onto Ericsson,[ citation needed ] with moderate success, despite the fact Ericsson's gun was sound and it was Stockton's gun that had failed. Stockton also refused to pay Ericsson, and by using his political connections, Stockton blocked the Navy from paying him.

Friendship with Cornelius H. DeLamater

When Ericsson arrived from England and settled in New York City, he was persuaded by Samuel Risley of Greenwich Village to give his work to the Phoenix Foundry. There he met industrialist Cornelius H. DeLamater (1821–1889) and soon a mutual attachment developed between the two. Rarely thereafter did Ericsson or DeLamater enter upon a business venture without first consulting the other." [13] Personally, their friendship never faltered, though strained by the pressures of business and Ericsson's quick temper, DeLamater called Ericsson "John" and Ericsson called DeLamater by his middle nickname "Harry", intimacies almost unknown in Ericsson's other relationships. [14] In time, the DeLamater Iron Works became known as the Asylum where Capt Ericsson had free rein to experiment and attempt new feats. The Iron Witch was next constructed, the first iron steamboat. [15] The first hot-air invention of Capt Ericsson was first introduced in the ship Ericsson, [16] built entirely by DeLamater. The DeLamater Iron Works also launched the first submarine boat, first self-propelled torpedo, and first torpedo boat. [17] When DeLamater died on February 2, 1889, Ericsson could not be consoled. Ericsson's death one month later was not surprising to his close friends and acquaintances." [18]

Hot air engine

Ericsson then proceeded to invent independently the caloric, or hot air, engine in the 1820s which used hot air, caloric in the scientific parlance of the day, instead of steam as a working fluid. A similar device had been patented in 1816 by the Reverend Robert Stirling, [19] whose technical priority of invention provides the usual term 'Stirling Engine' for the device. Ericsson's engine was not initially successful due to the differences in combustion temperatures between Swedish wood and British coal. In spite of his setbacks, Ericsson was awarded the Rumford Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1862 for his invention. [20]

In 1830 Ericsson patented his second engine, [21] that can work either with steam, air or water. This rotative engine objective is to reduce the engine within more convenient limits without any corresponding loss of power.

In 1833 Ericsson built his third engine, [22] a hot air engine (or caloric engine) that is exhibited in London: "the engine will prove the most important mechanical invention ever conceived by the human mind, and one that will confer greater benefits on civilized life than any that has ever preceded it" (John O. Sargent). This engine included a regenerator that would inspire many other hot air engine inventors.[ citation needed ]

Caloric ship Ericsson, 2,200 tons burthen, built for John B Kitching and Associates, A B Lowber, Commander Caloric Ship Ericsson, burthen 2200 tons, Built for John B Kitching and Associates, A B Lowber, Commander RMG PU6745.jpg
Caloric ship Ericsson, 2,200 tons burthen, built for John B Kitching and Associates, A B Lowber, Commander

The caloric ship, powered by the 4th Ericsson engine was built in 1852. [23]

A group of New York merchants and financiers headed by John B Kitching, Edward Dunham, President of the Corn Exchange Bank, and G.B. Lamar, president of the Bank of the Republic, backed the project and in April, 1852, the keel of the ship was laid at the yard of Perine, Patterson, and Stack in Williamsburgh. At about the same time the construction of the engine was commenced by Messrs Hogg and Delamater. Hull and machinery were built in the greatest possible secrecy, both Ericsson and his financial backers being convinced that their ship would revolutionize ocean transport by its economy and safety, and that competitors would if possible copy the design of at least the engine. On September 15, 1852, the ship was launched and in November the engine was turned over at the dock under its own power. It will be a failure. Smaller experimental engines based on the same patent design and built before the caloric ship will prove to be working efficiently.

In his later years, the caloric engine would render Ericsson comfortably wealthy, as its boilerless design made it a much safer and more practical means of power for small industry than steam engines. Ericsson's incorporation of a 'regenerator' heat sink for his engine made it tremendously fuel-efficient. Apparently in the post Civil War era some time before or around 1882, from the publishing date, a ship was purchased by a Captain Charles L. Dingley called the Ericsson with a weight of 1,645 tons that was built by John Ericsson (Although the above section on John Ericsson's Friendship with Cornelius H. DeLamater says that the ship known as the Ericsson was built by the DeLamater Iron Works) to try out the hot air engine as a motive power in open ocean navigation. [24]

In 1883 John Ericsson built a solar air engine [25] of 1 HP. The leading feature of the sun motor is that of concentrating the radiant heat by means of a rectangular trough having a curved bottom lined on the inside with polished plates, so arranged that they reflect the sun's rays toward a cylindrical heater placed longitudinally above the trough. This heater, it is scarcely necessary to state, contains the acting medium, steam or air, employed to transfer the solar energy to the motor; the transfer being effected by means of cylinders provided' with pistons and valves resembling those of motive engines of the ordinary type. Practical engineers, as well as scientists, have demonstrated that solar energy cannot be rendered available for producing motive power, in consequence of the feebleness of solar radiation.

Ship design

On September 26, 1854, Ericsson presented Napoleon III of France with drawings of iron-clad armored battleships with a dome-shaped gun tower, and even though the French emperor praised this particular plan of an invention, he did nothing to bring it to practical application. In 1851 he designed the Caloric ship Ericsson.

USS Monitor

Replica of USS Monitor Monitor model2.jpg
Replica of USS Monitor

Shortly after the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the Confederacy began constructing an ironclad ram upon the hull of USS Merrimack which had been partially burned and then sunk by Federal troops before it was captured by forces loyal to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Nearly concurrently, the United States Congress had recommended in August 1861 that armored ships be built for the American Navy. Ericsson still had a dislike for the U.S. Navy, but he was nevertheless convinced by Lincoln's hard-working Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and Cornelius Scranton Bushnell to submit an ironclad ship design to them. Ericsson later presented drawings of USS Monitor, a novel design of armored ship which included a rotating turret housing a pair of large cannons. Despite controversy over the unique design, based on Swedish lumber rafts, [26] the keel was eventually laid down and the ironclad was launched on March 6, 1862. The ship went from plans to launch in approximately 100 days, an amazing achievement.

On March 8, the former USS Merrimack, rechristened CSS Virginia, was wreaking havoc on the wooden Union Blockading Squadron in Virginia, sinking USS Congress and USS Cumberland. Monitor appeared the next day, initiating the first battle between ironclad warships on March 9, 1862, at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The battle ended in a tactical stalemate between the two ironclad warships, neither of which appeared capable of sinking the other, but strategically saved the remaining Union fleet from defeat. [27] After this, numerous monitors were built for the Union, including twin turret versions, and contributed greatly to the naval victory of the Union over the rebellious states. Despite their low draft and subsequent problems in navigating in high seas, many basic design elements of the Monitor class were copied in future warships by other designers and navies. The rotating turret in particular is considered one of the greatest technological advances in naval history, still found on warships today.

Later designs

Later Ericsson designed other naval vessels and weapons, including a type of torpedo and a destroyer, a torpedo boat that could fire a cannon from an underwater port. He also provided some technical support for John Philip Holland in his early submarine experiments. In the book Contributions to the Centennial Exhibition (1877, reprinted 1976) he presented his "sun engines", which collected solar heat for a hot air engine. One of these designs earned Ericsson additional income after being converted to work as a methane gas engine.

Death and ensuing controversy

The White Squadron's Farewell Salute to the Body of John Ericsson, New York Bay, August 23, 1890 The White Squadron's Farewell Salute to the Body of John Ericsson, New York Bay, August 23, 1890.jpg
The White Squadron's Farewell Salute to the Body of John Ericsson, New York Bay, August 23, 1890

Ericsson died on March 8, 1889, the anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, in which his Monitor famously played a central role. [28] His wish to be buried in his native land sparked a series of articles in the New York Times alleging that, by selecting the third-rate USS Essex (1874) to transport his remains, the US Navy was not paying proper respect to Ericsson. [29] The Navy responded and sent the remains on the USS Baltimore, escorted by other ships such as USS Nantucket. On August 23, 1890, the fleet departed with a twenty-one gun salute and the Swedish flag hoisted on every ship of the squadron. [30] [31] Around 100,000 people turned out for the funeral procession and departure ceremonies, including several veterans of the USS Monitor. [32]

His final resting place is at Filipstad in Värmland, Sweden.



Monuments and memorials

John Ericsson commemorative stamp, issue of 1926.jpg
1926 US Commemorative Stamp
Statue in Battery Park, New York City

The stamp commemorating John Ericsson on April 20, 1926, coincided with the unveiling of the Ericsson Memorial in West Potomac Park, Washington, DC directly south of the Lincoln Memorial. The stamp pictures the memorial design by J. H. Frazer. The seated figure of Ericsson has the figures above and behind him of Vision, Labor and Adventure. [33]

Monuments in honor of John Ericsson have been erected at:

Ships named in his honor:


Mount Ericsson, a mountain summit located in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, is named in his honor.

Ericsson is a major character in Harry Harrison's novels of alternate history, the Stars and Stripes trilogy .

See also

Related Research Articles

CSS <i>Virginia</i> Civil War Confederate ironclad

CSS Virginia was the first steam-powered ironclad warship built by the Confederate States Navy during the first year of the American Civil War; she was constructed as a casemate ironclad using the razéed original lower hull and engines of the scuttled steam frigate USS Merrimack. Virginia was one of the participants in the Battle of Hampton Roads, opposing the Union's USS Monitor in March 1862. The battle is chiefly significant in naval history as the first battle between ironclads.

USS <i>Monitor</i> First ironclad of the US Navy, 1861–1862

USS Monitor was an ironclad warship built for the United States Navy during the American Civil War and completed in early 1862, the first such ship commissioned by the Navy. Monitor played a central role in the Battle of Hampton Roads on 9 March under the command of Lieutenant John L. Worden, where she fought the casemate ironclad CSS Virginia to a stalemate. The design of the ship was distinguished by its revolving turret, which was designed by American inventor Theodore Timby; it was quickly duplicated and established the monitor class and type of armored warship built for the American Navy over the next several decades.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Monitor (warship)</span> Small ironclad warship with large guns

A monitor is a relatively small warship that is neither fast nor strongly armored but carries disproportionately large guns. They were used by some navies from the 1860s, during the First World War and with limited use in the Second World War.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Battle of Hampton Roads</span> 1862 naval battle in the American Civil War, the first between ironclads

The Battle of Hampton Roads, also referred to as the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack or the Battle of Ironclads, was a naval battle during the American Civil War.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ironclad warship</span> Steam-propelled warship protected by armor plates

An ironclad was a steam-propelled warship protected by steel or iron armor constructed from 1859 to the early 1890s. The ironclad was developed as a result of the vulnerability of wooden warships to explosive or incendiary shells. The first ironclad battleship, Gloire, was launched by the French Navy in November 1859, narrowly preempting the British Royal Navy. However, Britain built the first completely iron-hulled warships.

USS <i>Galena</i> (1862) American military ship

USS Galena was a wooden-hulled broadside ironclad built for the United States Navy during the American Civil War. The ship was initially assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and supported Union forces during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. She was damaged during the Battle of Drewry's Bluff because her armor was too thin to prevent Confederate shots from penetrating. Widely regarded as a failure, Galena was reconstructed without most of her armor in 1863 and transferred to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron in 1864. The ship participated in the Battle of Mobile Bay and the subsequent Siege of Fort Morgan in August. She was briefly transferred to the East Gulf Blockading Squadron in September before she was sent to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for repairs in November.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ericsson cycle</span> Type of thermodynamic cycle

The Ericsson cycle is named after inventor John Ericsson who designed and built many unique heat engines based on various thermodynamic cycles. He is credited with inventing two unique heat engine cycles and developing practical engines based on these cycles. His first cycle is now known as the closed Brayton cycle, while his second cycle is what is now called the Ericsson cycle. Ericsson is one of the few who built open-cycle engines, but he also built closed-cycle ones.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Turret ship</span> 19th century warship type

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USS <i>Princeton</i> (1843) American warship

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hot air engine</span> External combustion engine using air as the working fluid

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USS <i>Puritan</i> (1864) American Ironclad monitors

USS Puritan was one of two ocean-going ironclad monitors designed by John Ericsson during the American Civil War of 1861–1865. Launched in mid-1864, construction was suspended sometime in 1865. The Navy Department had specified two twin-gun turrets over Ericsson's protests, but finally agreed to delete the second turret in late 1865. The Navy Department evaded the Congressional refusal to order new ships in 1874 by claiming that the Civil War-era ship was being repaired while building a new monitor of the same name.

<i>Casco</i>-class monitor American Civil War ironclad monitor class

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Theodore Timby</span> American inventor (1819–1909)

Theodore Ruggles Timby is credited as the inventor of the revolving gun turret that was used on the USS Monitor, the ironclad warship that fought in the American Civil War. He was born in Dutchess County, New York on April 5, 1819. Early in life, living in Cato Four Corners, at the age of 16, he invented a method for raising ships out of the water for repairs by sinking a water-filled box beneath it, then forcing the water out through pumps in order to raise the ship.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cornelius H. DeLamater</span> Historic house in New York, United States

Cornelius Henry DeLamater was an industrialist who owned DeLamater Iron Works in New York City. The steam boilers and machinery for the ironclad USS Monitor were built in DeLamater's foundry during the Civil War. Swedish marine engineer and inventor John Ericsson considered DeLamater his closest, most intimate friend.

<i>John Ericsson</i>-class monitor Royal Swedish Navys and Royal Norwegian Navys John Ericsson-class monitors

The John Ericsson-class monitors were a group of five iron-hulled monitors; four were built for the Royal Swedish Navy and one for the Royal Norwegian Navy in the mid to late 1860s. They were designed under the supervision of the Swedish-born inventor, John Ericsson, and built in Sweden. Generally, the monitors were kept in reserve for the majority of the year and were only commissioned for several during the year. The ships made one foreign visit to Russia in 1867 but remained in Swedish or Norwegian waters for the rest of their careers. Two of the monitors, Thordon and Mjølner, ran aground, but were salvaged and repaired. Most of the monitors were reconstructed between 1892 and 1905 with more modern guns, but one was scrapped instead as it was not thought cost-effective to rebuild such an old ship. The surviving ships were mobilized during World War I and sold for scrap afterwards.

HSwMS <i>John Ericsson</i> Swedish lead ship of John Ericsson-class

HSwMS John Ericsson was the lead ship of the John Ericsson-class monitors built for the Royal Swedish Navy in the mid-1860s. She was designed under the supervision of the Swedish-born inventor, John Ericsson, and built in Sweden. John Ericsson made one foreign visit to Russia in 1867, but remained in Swedish or Norwegian waters for the rest of her career. The ship was reconstructed between 1892 and 1895, but generally remained in reserve. She was mobilized during World War I and sold in 1919 for conversion to a barge.

HSwMS Thordön was the second ship of the John Ericsson-class monitors built for the Royal Swedish Navy in the mid-1860s. She was designed under the supervision of the Swedish-born inventor, John Ericsson, and built in Sweden. Thordön made one foreign visit to Russia in 1867, but remained in Swedish or Norwegian waters for the rest of her career. The ship was reconstructed between 1903 and 1905, but generally remained in reserve. She was mobilized during World War I, and sold in 1922 for conversion to a barge.

HSwMS Tirfing was the third ship of the John Ericsson-class monitors built for the Royal Swedish Navy in the mid-1860s. She was designed under the supervision of the Swedish-born inventor John Ericsson, and built in Sweden. Tirfing made one foreign visit to Russia in 1867, but remained in Swedish or Norwegian waters for the rest of her career. The ship was reconstructed between 1903 and 1905, but generally remained in reserve. She was mobilized during World War I and sold in 1922 for conversion to a barge.

HSwMS <i>Loke</i> (1869) Swedish John Ericsson-class monitor

HSwMS Loke was the fourth, and last, ship of the John Ericsson-class monitors built for the Royal Swedish Navy in the late-1860s. Completed in 1871 she only made seven short cruises before she was permanently placed in reserve in late 1880. Funds were requested to reconstruct her in line with the other monitors, but were denied. She was listed for sale in 1908, but nothing is known of her fate.

HNoMS <i>Mjølner</i> (1868) Norwegian John Ericsson-class vessel

HNoMS Mjølner, named after the hammer of the god Thor, was the fourth of five ships of the John Ericsson-class monitors built for the Royal Swedish Navy and the Royal Norwegian Navy in the mid-1860s. Influenced by the use of ironclads during the American Civil War, the design was based on that of USS Monitor. They were designed under the supervision of the Swedish-born inventor John Ericsson—coincidentally designer of Monitor—and built in Sweden. Mjølner was delivered in 1868. She ran aground the following year, without serious damage, and reconstructed in 1897 with later breech-loading guns. Mjølner was sold for scrap in 1909.


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