View unanswered posts | View active topics It is currently Wed Sep 26, 2018 12:53 am



Reply to topic  [ 3 posts ] 
 Robert Fulton 
Author Message
Moderator
User avatar

Joined: Tue Apr 12, 2005 9:34 am
Posts: 1471
Location: Virginia, USA
Post Robert Fulton
"The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream" by Kirkpatrick Sale

I read this book primarily to learn about Robert Fulton’s war-business relationship with Napoleon and his attempts to sell his early designs for torpedoes and submarines. Please note that what Fulton called a "torpedo" is what we call a "mine" today since Fulton’s floating torpedo was not self-propelled but depended on being moved by the tide or currents.

France was initially cool toward Fulton but did eventually promise support for Fulton’s construction of the "Nautilus" (tested June 1800) and floating torpedoes. Fulton actually participated in an unsuccessful attack on British ships. Napoleon is supposed to have met once with Fulton but no documents exist of what exactly was discussed. Since Fulton was completely unsuccessful in France, Napoleon’s support disappeared. Napoleon eventually considered him a charlatan. Next, Fulton went to England and sold these same ideas to be used against the French navy. Several unsuccessful attacks on French ports were conducted. British support evaporated. Fulton attempted to blackmail the British government by threatening to publish his designs. Finally, Fulton returned home and convinced the United States that these same weapons should be used against the British navy during the War of 1812. Fulton was never successful with either of these weapons. Note: The first submarine and floating mines were built by David Bushnell and unsuccessfully used against the British navy in the Revolutionary War in the mid 1770’s.

Fulton did build a massive steam driven frigate to be used as a defense against the British navy in New York harbor. The war ended before it could be used.

Of course, by reading this book, one must be exposed to the steamboat phase of Fulton’s life. I was shocked to discover some new (at least to me) facts. I grew up believing that Robert Fulton invented the steamboat and the first was named the "Clermont." Early biographies of his life and schoolbooks in America used those exact words. He never invented the steamboat and the first he built was named the "North River."

I guess I shouldn’t have been totally surprised about the steamboat since the few AoS books that mention Fulton, give accounts of him watching some steamboat trials in England prior to his attempt to build one in America. It is difficult to "invent" something that others are building and demonstrating. The first attempt to marry steam and ships was by a Frenchman nearly 24 years before Fulton. There were at least 30 steamboats prior to Fulton’s. Six builders actually started transportation businesses, none successfully.

The one positive thing that can be said about Fulton is that he started the first successful steamboat transportation company and this commercial business fundamentally changed the United States, for good and, especially for the American Indians, for bad. For Fulton, this business made him rich. His success was aided by his partner getting a monopoly granted to the enterprise. No competition equals success. Fulton eventually had a dozen steamboats in the water during the 1812-1815 period.

Sale’s book exposes Fulton as an unabashed self-promoter motivated, at times, by money - probably driven by childhood poverty. His only patents were either stolen from other inventors ( the "panorama" and a rope-making machine were copied from English inventors and patented in France) or plainly would not work. He lied, committed fraud, attempted blackmail, and lived the most scandalous personal life. Reading this book reveals a very complex person, hard working, obsessive, flawed. He had no original ideas. His submarine could not maneuver while submerged and his "torpedoes" had only a minuscule chance of damaging a ship. Once alerted, the enemy could easily stop mines from approaching their ships. His steamboat was cobbled together from other’s ideas.

Don


Mon Feb 20, 2006 4:03 pm
Profile
Lieutenant
User avatar

Joined: Sat May 28, 2005 2:40 pm
Posts: 127
Location: Rochester, NY
Post Re: Fulton
Don,
I think you should remember that Kirkpatrick Sale is a social critic and his interest in Fulton is colored by this preoccupation. Not to say that this is bad, just pertinent. I too was taught that Fulton 'invented' the steamboat, but have for some time know about John Fitch and some of the earlier experiments. I believe that the notion of a steamboat was in the air at the time, much like the personal computer was in the 1970s. Also, Leonardo Da Vinci sketched out a kind of 'submarine' during the Renaissance, another idea that had a long genesis.
I would quibble with one small point of Sale's narrative. He says that the steam frigate was built by Adam and Neal Browne. Adam and Noah Brown were shipbuilders in the early American republic and had a shipyard on the East River in New York. They and their workmen built some of the ships of the American navy in the AoS, including some of the major ships in the Battles of Lake Erie and Lake Champlain. They were responsible for the brigs Niagara and Lawrence and the sloop-of-war Saratoga. They built the steam frigate.
PT


Mon Feb 20, 2006 6:48 pm
Profile
Moderator
User avatar

Joined: Tue Apr 12, 2005 9:34 am
Posts: 1471
Location: Virginia, USA
Post Re: Fulton
PT wrote:
Don,
I think you should remember that Kirkpatrick Sale is a social critic and his interest in Fulton is colored by this preoccupation. Not to say that this is bad, just pertinent.

I agree with PT that this book is full of social comments. I read Sale's remarks in that area but pretty much ignored them since I was more interested in the facts about Fulton's naval weapons rather than Sale's opinions of the effects on society of Fulton's steamboat. However, if other readers would like to know what Sale felt about the rapid opening up of the US West and the devastating impact on the American Indian, this would an interesting book for them to read. I believe that this particular biography had more "opinion" than any other biography I have ever read.

In addition, there are some sections that probably could have been left out without damage to the book. A good example would be the "baby talk" used by member's of Fulton's "menage a trois," -- printing such lines as "Toot, tate dood tare of nitten wifey" and then translating it. Frankly, I could have lived without that.

Don


Mon Feb 20, 2006 8:15 pm
Profile
Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Reply to topic   [ 3 posts ] 

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 0 guests


You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum

Search for:
Jump to:  
cron
Powered by phpBB © 2000, 2002, 2005, 2007 phpBB Group.
Designed by STSoftware for PTF.