Born in Scotland, Erskine was an inventor and engineer of some renown in his native land. He attended the University of Edinburgh and started a failed business in his youth. He invented the "Continual Stream Pump" and "Platometer", a centrifugal hydraulic engine, and experimented with other hydraulic systems. He became active in civic issues and increasingly gained the respect of his community. In 1771, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, a prestigious appointment in the scientific community.
In 1771, the owners of the ironworks near Ringwood, New Jersey, tapped Erskine to replace Peter Hasenclever as iromaster after Hasenclever's profligate spending nearly bankrupted the operation.
Erskine immediately set about trying to make the operation profitable. His efforts were cut short by the American Revolutionary War. Erskine was sympathetic to the American cause, but worried that might he lose his workers to the army. He organized them into a militia and was appointed a militia captain in August 1775.
Once the war broke out in earnest, there was concern among the rebels that the British warships would use the Hudson river to attack northern forts and separate New England from the rest of the colonies. Erskine, ever the engineer, designed a tetrahedron-shaped marine Chevaux-de-Frise—essentially a barrier that would keep warships from moving upriver.
George Washington was impressed with Erskine from the moment they met and appointed him to the post of Geographer and Surveyor General of the Continental Army in 1777. Following his appointment, Erskine drew upwards of 275 maps covering the northern sector of the war. His maps of the region, showing roads, buildings, and other details, were of much use to Gen. Washington and remain historically valuable today. Many of these maps can be found in the Erskine Dewitt Map Collection at the New York Historical Society.
Erskine also kept the ironworks in operation supplying critical munitions and materials to Washington's army.
While out on a map making expedition, Erskine contracted a cold and died on October 2, 1780, probably of pneumonia. He is buried at Ringwood Manor in Ringwood State Park in New Jersey.
Erskine Lake, as well as Robert Erskine Elementary School, both in Ringwood, New Jersey, are named after him.
- "Department of the Geographer to the Army, 1777-1783". http://www.armygeographer.org/. Retrieved 2010-11-07.
- "New York Historical Society". http://www.nyhistory.org/. Retrieved 2010-11-07.
- Witness to the Early American Experience Contains digital copies of many of Robert Erskine's maps.
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