Casebook: The War of 1812  
 Press Reports 
 Message Boards 
 Games & Diversions 
 About the Casebook 

Casebook: The War of 1812
  home > articles > robert fulton and the secret war of 1812
show all pages
  Go to: 1 

Robert Fulton and the Secret War of 1812
Montgomery Phair

Robert Fulton (1765-1815)
American inventor Robert Fulton is probably best known as the inventor of the steamboat and for his contributions to canal engineering. He would remain noteworthy for the success of his steamboat Clermont (1807) if that was his only claim to fame. What is less commonly known is that prior to and during the War of 1812, Fulton successfully developed a number of revolutionary naval vessels and weapons that were generations ahead of their time.

Robert Fulton was born November 14, 1765 in New Britain, a small town about 30 miles southeast of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He came from a Scots family with a strong commitment to hard work and craftsmanship. The boy proved very bright and energetic. In many directions, he was driven to create—though some might say “To destroy.” In his early adult years, Fulton had aspirations to be a painter. In 1787, at age 22, he sailed to England to study in London under the great American-born painter Benjamin West, renowned for his 1771 oil painting The Death of Wolfe. By 1791, Fulton had a few oil paintings exhibited in the Royal Academy. This was an auspicious beginning for any young man.

For Fulton, the artist’s life was not enough. Perhaps due to his inquisitive nature and his work with oil and water-- he became very interested in ships, submersibles, and everything related to buoyancy. He turned his energies away from art, and like a modern Leonardo da Vinci, steered toward inventing new devices. While living in England, he was a keen observer of the Industrial Revolution and the newest innovations of English technology. He learned first hand about the workings of Isaac Watt's steam engine, and the construction of English canals. He soon wanted a Watt steam engine for his own experiments as shown by the following letter:

Manchester, Nov. 4, 1794

Messrs. Boulton & Watt,

I shall esteem it a favour to be informed of the Expences of a Steam Engine with a Rotative movement of the purchase of 3 or 4 horses (power), which is designed to be placed in a Boat. You Will be so good as to mention what sized boat it would occupy, as I wish to have it in as little space as Possible, and what you consive [sic] will be the Expence when finished Compleat in the Boat.

Whether you have one ready of the dimensions specified or how soon one might be finished. With weight of Coals which it will consume in 12 hours, and what Quantity of purchase you allow to each horse (power), as I am anxious to supply some Engines of the above dimensions as soon as Possible. Your Emediate Answer will much oblige.

Your Most obedient and very humble Servant,
Robt. Fulton.
Bridgewater Arms, Manchester

Fulton was an ardent republican. Following the excesses of the French Revolution of 1789, he was still in agreement with the anti-aristocracy sentiment prevalent in the United States and France. He was both horrified and simmering with anger over the unchecked abuses of the British Royal Navy on the open seas. He was firmly of the opinion that the seizure of merchant vessels and the impressment of men and sailors into the Royal Navy was a reprehensible and indefensible practice.

As early as December 1797, Fulton, together with poet and diplomat Joel Barlow, experimented with "a machine designed to impart motion under water to carcasses of gunpowder." It would be an elongated and oval device, forced underwater, and at a calculated time, exploded.

Fulton's earliest experiments and his final project both involved the development of revolutionary combat vessels and weapons of destruction. Fulton's driving obsession was the equalization of sea power and the sinking of British men-of-war by nations which lacked the means to build large navies. Towards this end, he began work on the development of both the torpedo and the submarine during the years 1797-1806.

Following is the majority of a letter Fulton wrote to Paul Barras, the French Director of Marine (counterpart to the US Secretary of the Navy):
Citizen Director: From the report of the Commissioner named by the Minister of the Marine, it would seem that the machine and the means by which I have proposed to destroy the English Fleet, are pronounced to be practicable,--Permit me then to recall to your consideration the consequences which should result from the success of this enterprise. The enormous commerce of England, no less than its monstrous government, depends upon its military marine. However if their vessels of war are destroyed by means so novel, so hidden and so incalculable, the confidence of the sailors will be destroyed, and the fleet rendered useless in the first moment of its terror. In such a state of affairs the Republicans in England would rise to facilitate a descent of the French, or would change their government of themselves without shedding much blood and without any expense to France. With England Republicanized [sic], the seas will be free. The liberty of the seas would become a guarantee of the perpetual peace to all maritime nations…. If at first glance, the means I propose seem revolting, it is only because they are extraordinary. They are anything but inhuman; it is certainly the most powerful and least bloody mode that the philosopher could imagine to overturn the system of plunder and perpetual war, which has always vexed the maritime nations: To give, at least, peace to the earth, and to restore men to their natural industries, and to a happiness, until now, unknown. I salute you with respect,
Robert Fulton
6 Brumaire [27 October], An. 7 (1799)

The French showed enthusiasm for Fulton's ideas, and they invited him to France. By spring 1801, the inventor had established a working relationship with the French government. In a letter of March 7, 1801, Minister of Marine P. A. L. Forfait, writing on behalf of the new First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, gave the details of a proposition relative to Fulton’s experimental submarine, the Nautilus. Forfait stated in part:
You will have seen by that letter that you will, as a consequence, be credited with the sum of 10,000 francs to repair this Machine, construct the auxiliaries, and to convey, at your own expense, the Nautilus to Brest.
It has been decreed that you will be allowed for the destruction of the Enemy's boats, according to their strength, as follows:
400,000 francs for those of more than 30 cannon.
200,000 francs for those of more than 20 cannon up to 30 cannon.
150,000 francs for those of from 12 to 20 cannon.
60,000 francs for those of 10 cannon.
This force is the minimum, below which you will have no power to return claim. . . .
There exist several means of determining in an authentic manner the destruction of the enemy's boats. The attestations, the declarations, and the interrogations put in legal form by competent authorities, will serve you as title to reclaim the payment of the sums which may ultimately be due you.
The navigation which you are about to undertake being absolutely different from others, also the style of war which the Nautilus is destined to make upon the enemy, it is not possible to indicate in advance a fixed method of affirming the truth of the facts. But it will be supplied by the information of the Commissary of the Government of England, and to the Maritime Prefects, every time it becomes necessary.

Fulton was soon experimenting with his "plunging boat", but like many inventors, wished to maintain a degree of secrecy so that the device would not be copied without permission and with potentially dire consequences. His reply to the French was not long in forthcoming. On September 9, 1801, he wrote in part to Citizens Monge, La Place, and Volney, the “Commissionaries appointed by the First Consul to promote the Invention of Submarine Navigation”:
…..As to the expense of a plunging Boat, I believe when constructed in the best manner with every improvement which experience has pointed out, She cannot cost more than 80,000 Livers [sic]. The Bombs Submarine may be estimated at 80 Livers [sic] each, on an average independent of the powder.

I am sorry that I had not earlier information of the [first] Consul's desire to see the Plunging Boat. When I finished my experiments, She leaked very much and being but an imperfect engine, I did not think her further useful,--hence I took Her to pieces, Sold Her Iron work lead and cylinders and was necessitated to break the greater part of her movements in taking them to pieces. So that nothing now remains which can give an idea of her combination; but even had she been complete I do not think she could have been brought round to Paris. You will be so good as to excuse me to the Premier Consul, when I refuse to exhibit my drawings to the Committee of Engineers. For this I have two reasons; the first is not to put it in the power of anyone to explain the principles or movements lest they should pass from one to another until the enemy obtained information: the Second is that I consider this Invention as my private property, the perfectionment [sic] of which will give to France incalculable advantages over her most powerful and active enemy; and which Invention, I conceive, ought to secure to me an ample Independence…..

The First Consul is too just, and you know me too well, to construe this into an avaricious disposition in me. I have now labored 3 years and at considerable expense to prove my experiments. And I find that a man who wishes to Cultivate the useful Arts, cannot make rapid Progress without sufficient funds to put his succession of Ideas to immediate proof; and which sufficiency I conceive this invention should secure to me. You have intimated that the movements and combination of so interesting an engine should be confided to trusty persons, lest any accident should happen to me. This precaution I took previous to my departure from Paris for my last experiments, by placing correct Drawings of the Machine and every Movement with their descriptions, in the hands of a friend; so that any engineer capable of constructing a Steam engine, could make the plunging Boat and Carcasses or Bombs.

The greatest problem to contend with in regard to the early submarines was underwater propulsion. David Bushnell faced this problem in 1775 with the Turtle (with which Fulton was familiar), and it was still a problem with the Confederate submarine C.S.S. Hunley in 1864. Until the advent of safe internal-combustion and/or electrical power (requiring no exhaust) in John P. Holland’s Holland I, tested on the Passaic River in New Jersey in 1878, the submarine by necessity required human manually cranked power. This created a major problem for interception, because even a slow sailing ship must be virtually dead in the water to be threatened by a hand-cranked submarine. If the targeted vessel was not moving, it was another story. The 40-foot sloop Chaloupe was dramatically and effectively sunk by Fulton using a nine kilogram charge at Brest in July 1801. According to the French Maritime prefect: "The Chaloupe leapt into the air and descended in a thousand pieces."

In his letter of August 22, 1801 to the French submarine commission, Fulton described his submarine experiments and the first successful sinking of a stationary sloop by a torpedo in history. (But not in wartime… that distinction would await the C.S.S. Hunley in 1864.) The letter’s importance to the history of invention, naval warfare, and submarine navigation cannot be underestimated. It is remarkable for being the first description of a successful dive, surfacing, and a secondary dive by a submarine vehicle with a three- and four-man crew. It is also astounding that the Nautilus was handily changed from surface sailing to "plunging boat" in only two minutes.
CITIZENS: Yesterday on my return from Brest I received your note and will with pleasure communicate to you the result of my experiments, during the summer, also the mode which I conceive the most effectual for using my invention against the enemy. Before I left Paris I informed you that my plunging boat had many imperfections, natural to the first machine of so difficult a combination added to this I found she had been much Injured by the rust during the winter in consequence of having in many places Iron bolts and arbours instead of copper or brass. The reparation of these defects and the difficulty of finding workmen consumed near two months, and although the machine remained still extremely imperfect, yet She answered to prove every necessary experiment in the most satisfactory manner.

On the 3rd of Thermidor [July] I commenced my experiments by plunging to a depth of 5 then 10 then 15 and so on to 25 feet, but not to a greater depth than 25 feet as I did not conceive the Machine sufficiently strong to bear the pressure of a greater column of water. At this depth I remained one hour with my three companions and two candles burning without experiencing the least inconvenience.

Previous to my leaving Paris I gave to the C[itize]n Queyton, Member of the Institute, a calculation on the number of cube feet in my boat which is about 212. In such a volume of air he calculated there would be sufficient Oxygen to nourish 4 men and two small candles 3 hours. Seeing that it would be of great improvement to dispense with the candles, I constructed a small window in the upper part of the boat near the bow, which window is only one inch and a half in diameter, and of glass nine lines thick. With this prepared, I descended on the 5th of Thermidor, to the depth of between 24 and 25 feet at which depth I had sufficient light to count the minutes on the watch. Hence I conclude that 3 or 4 such windows arranged in different parts of the boat, would give sufficient light for any operation during the day. Each window may be guarded by a valve in such a manner that should the glass break, the valve would immediately shut and stop out the water. Finding that I had air and light sufficient, and that I could plunge and Rise perpendicular with facility, on the 7th Ther. I commenced the experiments on her movements. At ten in the morning I raised her anchor and hoisted her sails, which are a mainsail and Gib, the breeze being light I could not at the utmost make more than about two-thirds of a league per hour. I tacked and re-tacked, tried her before the wind, and in all these operations found her to answer the helm and act like a common dull sailing boat. After exercising thus about an hour, I lowered the mast and Sails and commenced the operation of Plunging. This required about two minutes. I then placed two men at the engine which gives the rectilinear motion, and one at the helm, while I governed the machine which keeps her balanced. . . .. With the bathometer before me and with one hand, I found I could keep her at any depth I thought proper. The men then commenced their movement and continued about 7 minutes when, mounting to the surface, I found we had gained 400 metres. I again plunged, turned her round under water and returned to near the same Place. I again plunged and tried her movements to the right and left, in all of which the helm answered and the compass acted the same as if on the surface of the water. Having continued these experiments the 8, 9, 10 and 12th, until I became familiar with the movements and confident of their operation, I turned my thoughts to increasing or preserving the Air. For this purpose the Cn. Queyton advised to precipitate the carbonic acid with lime, or to take with me bottles of Oxygen which might be uncorked as need required: but as any considerable quantity of bottles would take up too much room, and as Oxygen could not be created without a chemical operation which would be very inconvenient, I adopted a mode which occurred to me 18 months ago, which is a simple globe or bomb of copper capable of containing one cube foot [the paper is here torn] a pneumatic pump by means of which pump 200 atmospheres or 200 cube feet of common air may be forced into the Bomb, consequently the Bomb or reservoir will contain as much oxygen or vital air as 200 cube feet of common respirable air. Hence if according to the Cn. Queyton's calculation 212 [cubic] feet which is the volume of the boat, will nourish 4 men and two small candles 3 hours, this additional reservoir will give sufficient for 6 hours. This reservoir is constructed with a measure and two cocks So as to let measures of Air into the boat as need may require. Previous to my leaving Paris I gave orders for this machine but it did not arrive till the 18th of Thermidor [July}. On the 19th I ordered 2 men to fill it, which was an operation of about one hour. I then put it in the boat, and with my three companions, but without candles, plunged to a depth of about five feet. At the expiration of one hour and 40 minutes I began to let off measures of air from the reservoir and so from time to time for 4 hours and 20 minutes, without experiencing any inconvenience. Having thus succeeded
To sail like a common boat.
To obtain air and light.
To plunge and Rise perpendicular.
To turn to the right and left at pleasure.
To steer by the compass under water.
To renew the Common Volume of air with facility.
And to augment the respirable air by a reservoir which may be obtained at all times.

I conceived every experiment of importance to be proved in the most satisfactory manner. Hence I quit the experiments on the Boat to those of the Bomb Submarine. It is this Bomb which is the Engine of destruction, the plunging boat is only for the purpose of conveying the Bomb to where it may be used to advantage. They are constructed of Copper and of different sizes to contain from 10 to 200 pounds of powder. Each bomb is arranged with a Gun lock in such a manner that if it strikes a vessel or the Vessel runs against it, the explosion will take place and the bottom of the vessel be blown in or so shattered as to ensure her destruction. To prove this experiment, the Prefect of Maritime and Admiral Villaret ordered a small Sloop of about 40 feet long to be anchored in the Road [Sea Lane], on the 23rd of Thermidor [July]. With a bomb containing 20 pounds of powder I advanced to within about 200 Metres, then taking my direction so as to pass near the Sloop, I struck her with a bomb in my passage. The explosion took place and the sloop was torn into atoms, in fact, nothing was left but the buye [buoy] and cable. And the concussion was so great that a column of Water, Smoke and fibres of the Sloop were cast from 80 to 100 feet in the Air. This simple Experiment at once proved the effect of the Bomb Submarine to the satisfaction of all the Spectators. Of this experiment you will see Admiral Villaret's description in a letter to the Minister of Marine.

However, for all of its success, the French did not adopt Fulton's submarine. The reasons for this are open to conjecture. Perhaps they feared the weapon and its awful destructive force compared with other weapons of the age. Perhaps they wondered where a crew would be obtained to sail submerged so dangerously close to the hull of the targeted enemy ship. Maybe they did not wish to grant French protection to Fulton and his crew if they fell into British hands through capture—or perhaps they realized the terrible peril that existed to their huge national investments, in the form of their fleet of wooden sailing ships. The submarine and torpedo would cheaply and stealthily render them such wooden men-of-war. While the Nautilus was not capable of intercepting a ship under sail, it was still dangerous to any ship at anchor. What was worse, the approach of the submarine below ten feet would be silent and probably invisible.

The task of sinking a surface ship by a submerged vessel with a torpedo-mine would not be repeated until the C.S.S. Hunley sank the U.S.F. Housatonic in Charleston Bay on October 15, 1864. Although Fulton's Nautilus carried but a crew of three, it enjoyed a few advantages over the Hunley, as follows:

  • it did not require candle light;
  • it could be propelled or navigated in three dimensions; and
  • there was a compressed-air tank on board so that the crew did not have to worry about surfacing in order to receive fresh oxygen.

The major disadvantage of Nautilus was that it was only capable of diving to 25 feet, but this was sufficient for maritime operations of the time.

Understandably, the British Admiralty were alarmed when they learned of Fulton's successes with submarine devices and explosives. Charles Stanhope, the third Earl of Stanhope, a friend of the inventor’s, went to the House of Lords with a strong message of warning. In 1803, Stanhope formed a committee to study Fulton's progress with submarine devices. In September 1803, the British invited Fulton to display his "torpedo contrivance."

Fulton had conditions under which he would meet with the British government. This was written as a folio of many pages, now in the possession of his heirs, "Submarine Navigation & Attack" and its outline is as follows:

  • Reasons why I directed my attention to such inventions.
  • Negotiations with the British Government on this subject.
  • Description of the Engines & several modes of using them.
  • Reasoning on the consequences of such Inventions.
    (Here Fulton blatantly stated that his reason for the invention was the "possibility of destroying all military Marines and of giving liberty to the seas."

Fulton arrived in London on May 19, 1804. That same month, William Pitt became Prime Minister once more. After observing Fulton's sketches, Pitt understood that the introduction of such machines would lead to the annihilation of existing naval vessels. He offered to employ Fulton in His Majesty's Dock Yard and Arsenals, at £200 per month and half the value of all vessels that Fulton might destroy by his new machine within 14 years, the duration of the patent….or the British would purchase the patent outright for £40,000. Two years of argument, entreaty, and explanation began between Fulton and the British government. Yet, in autumn 1806, the Admiralty decided not to use Fulton's invention, but tried to pay Fulton not to use it or develop it further. Fulton, the idealist, refused. He wrote back:
At all events, whatever may be your reward, I will never consent to let these inventions lie dormant should my country at any time have need of them. Were you to grant me an annuity of 20,000 [pounds] a year, I would sacrifice all to the safety & independence of my Country. But I hope that England and America will understand their mutual Interest too well to War with each other And I have no desire to Introduce my Engines into practice for the benefit of any other Nation…For myself I have ever considered the interest of America[n] free commerce, the interest of mankind, the magnitude of the object in view and the national reputation connected with it superior to all calculations of a pecuniary kind.

Thus, Fulton returned to the United States after an absence of 20 years. His only desire was to develop his plans for the steamboat, which reached fruition within a few short years. America seemed to be much more interested in steam surface navigation than submarine warfare.

While the United States did not produce a submarine, there is concrete evidence that experimentation and trials of the torpedo took place (see A Real Mix-up: Who Tried to Blow up HMS Plantagenet?). When the British captured Washington, D.C., when Rear Adm. George Cockburn entered the U.S. Capitol building along with the victorious British commander Maj. Gen. Robert Ross on August 24, 1814, he picked up a souvenir of his visit. The memento was "a slim volume was President Madison's personal copy of the U.S. government's receipts for the year 1810, printed in Washington in 1812. In addition to the 79 pages noting compensation for Madison's expenses of $25,000 was an entry for $1,000.00 "for trying the practical use of the torpedo or submarine explosion." [Pitch, The Burning of Washington, p.108].

Debut of the Steam Frigate

When the United States declared war with Great Britain on June 18, 1812, the military forces of the United States were tiny compared to the enemy confronting her. The Royal Navy could boast at least 600 men-of-war, including about 250 ships of the line (74 guns) and frigates (36 or 38 guns). The U.S. Navy had only ten frigates and a number of gunboats that were battle-worthy. Diplomat (and future President) John Quincy Adams wrote to his grandson in July 1812, "Our navy is so Lilliputian that…Gulliver might bury it in the deep by making water on it."

For all of their bluster and pugilistic speeches, the western War Hawks in Congress did not allocate the funds necessary for the effective execution of the war. By 1813, the total appropriation granted to the United States Navy totaled only $300,000, or barely enough to repair three of the damaged frigates in the U.S. Navy. The request for twelve new 74's and twenty frigates, put forth to Congress in early 1812, was flatly denied.

Such parsimonious behavior on the part of Congress was bad enough, but what even worse was the lack of vision in the U.S. Navy. By 1807, this country had in its possession the potential for developing at least two weapons that would revolutionize sea power, and tools which could have significantly lowered the extreme odds in shipping versus England. These tools included the submarine and the heavy-gunned steam frigate. There was only one source for these devices, and one champion for this cause, and his name was Robert Fulton. In regards to the submarine, the United States had exhibited almost no interest at all. How would they receive the idea of a steam-powered floating battery?

Late in 1813, Fulton presented President James Madison with a design for the world's first steam-powered frigate. This revolutionary new vessel would carry 30 heavy cannon and be capable of sustained and constant speeds in excess of 4 mph. Fulton believed that even that speed and maneuverability (under her steam power) would be equal to any 74-gun man-of-war under sail. She would be an instant threat to the British blockade of the Atlantic coast, and a fearful menace to any armed fleet caught without a breeze.
Besides his modification of Bushnell's idea for a submersible, Fulton invented the word torpedo, based on a ray-like fish which emitted an electrical shock. He toyed with many designs for submerged weapons that could stealthily sink enemy shipping. One design very dear to his heart was the submarine gun, which he called a Columbiad, also designed in 1813. (This weapon should not be confused with the Columbiad cannon made famous and used to great effect in the latter stages of the American Civil War.)

Fulton named his Columbiad after a long epic poem of the same title written by his friend Joel Barlow. The Columbiad would be a cannon to be mounted below the waterline of a ship and discharged underwater. Fulton had patented the device, …"for several improvements in the art of maritime warfare and means of injuring and destroying ships and vessels of war by igniting gunpowder under water or by igniting gunpowder below a line horizontal to the surface of the water, or so igniting gunpowder that the explosion which causes injury to the vessel attacked shall be under water." Fulton's Columbiad was a rather normal cannon, but its housing and method of fire were unique. The weapon was designed to be placed in a water-tight box, with a special tampion (plug) affixed to the muzzle, and lowered at least 3 feet below the water line for firing. The weapon was fired by dropping a glowing coal down a tin tube that communicated with the touch-hole of the cannon.

Early experiments with the new cannon were encouraging. Using a four-pound cannon submerged three feet in the Hudson River, Fulton fired a projectile 41 feet from the muzzle and into the sandy river-bottom. The gun was uninjured. Firing again at a submerged stand of pine logs 12 feet from the end of the muzzle, Fulton's Columbiad shot penetrated 11.5 inches into the target. This experiment was repeated using a cannon firing a 100-pound shot, and the target was obliterated. The cannon was again uninjured. The only problem was one of range. Fulton's Columbiad was only effective against shipping at ranges less than 20 feet.

Fulton next needed a firing platform for his new weapons. This firing platform had to be designed to withstand enemy cannon fire, and to be self-propelled with steam power. This new firing platform would be the Demologos (“Voice of the People”). In 1813, Fulton submitted plans to President James Madison for a steam warship. Secretary of the Navy William Jones and several influential captains supported the idea, and in March 1814 Congress authorized the vessel's construction. Fulton was placed in charge of the project. The new vessel was launched on October 29, 1814, renamed as Fulton the First.

The steam frigate was built by the firm of Adam and Noah Brown, outstanding shipbuilders and naval architects of the period. At the time of her commissioning in June 1815, Fulton the First was the first steam frigate in any navy in the world. Yet she was not a true frigate. Designed as a catamaran, her hulls protected the center paddle wheel, and her intended use was as a harbor defense vessel for New York City. The recently formed New York City Coast and Harbor Defense Association were concerned about British naval intentions towards the city. This group was very impressed by Mr. Fulton's presentation of the craft, and offered to put up the estimated construction cost of $320,000, on the proviso that the Federal government would agree to reimburse the city upon the successful maiden voyage of the ship. Congress actually came to their assistance before the vessel was completed, with an appropriation of $500,000.

The mere promise of the steam frigate made Fulton a very popular figure in 1814. It is not quite clear whether Fulton was invited to Philadelphia or if he made overtures regarding the use of his device for the effective harbor defense of the city. In any case, Fulton made a personal visit to Philadelphia to lobby for funds for his "floating steam battery" soon after the August 24 burning of Washington.

Fulton envisioned the vessel as a mobile battery exclusively under steam propulsion, independent of wind and tide. However, Capt. David Porter, who took command of the frigate while she was under construction, insisted on the addition of a two-masted lateen sailing rig. The change required the bulwarks on the spar deck to protect men working the sails and added greatly to the Fulton's weight without enhancing her fighting qualities. The measurements of this new craft were: length 156 feet, beam 56 feet, moulded depth 20 feet, paddle wheel 16 feet in diameter, and width 14 feet. The paddle-wheel was set in a tunnel between the hulls. The tunnel did not run the full length of the hull, but was about 60 feet long and had sloping ends. These dimensions made Fulton the First the largest steamer in the world.

The vessel’s steam engine could produce 120 hp, and could push her 2,475 tons at 5.5 mph. Her 58-inch wooden bulwarks made her presumably shot-proof, and her thirty 32-pounder guns would make her formidable. She already had fire aboard in the steam furnace that could be used to make heated shot to a glowing red. This would provide a very nasty surprise for would-be attackers. In addition there were plans for a pump to be used to repel potential boarders in much the same way that fire hoses are used on unruly protesters in our own age. In a testimonial in favor of Fulton’s invention, Capt. Jacob Jones stated that he did not think the vessel capable of an ocean voyage, but he was otherwise favorable to the development of the craft for defensive use. Her sides would be impregnable, and he wrote that “in a light breeze she can take her choice of position or distance from an enemy. The only stipulation concerned her engines: if they were worth as much as four knots, the ship can be rendered far more formidable to an enemy than any kind of engine yet invented for the defense of ports, harbors, bays and sounds."

The advice of all the consulting Navy captains was to build her, by all means. The controversy continued over calling the craft a steam frigate or the "Fulton Steam Battery." It seems the naval commanders of the time favored the use of the vessel as a floating battery rather than as a fighting vessel, because they believed the vessel would never handle the waves as an ocean-going sail frigate could.

Fulton the First carried long 32-pounders on her trial run, but there were plans to eventually arm her with large Columbiads as mentioned earlier. Fulton had no factories or foundries for rolling iron armor and had to rely on using timber sides five and a half feet thick; his engine was also primitive and unsatisfactory by later standards, with maximum attainable steam pressure of ten lbs. per square inch. But with even such engines as these, the vessel could sustain a constant speed of four miles per hour. Fulton the First was launched from the yard of Adam and Noah Brown on October 29, 1814. Cadwallader D. Colden, an eyewitness, reported:
…it was a bright autumnal day. Multitudes of spectators crowded the surrounding shores, and were seen upon the hills which limited the beautiful prospect. The river and bay were filled with vessels of war, dressed in all their variety of colours, in compliment to the occasion. In the midst of these was the enormous floating mass, whose unwieldy form seemed to render her as unfit for motion, as the land batteries which were saluting her. There were bands of music, crowds of gay and joyous company on steamboats gliding through the harbour passages left by anchored vessels, shouting and cheering.

But the war ended before the steam frigate was ready for service. Her engine was not put aboard until May 1815, and she was not ready for trials until July. Many corrections had been made to her machinery. In the end, the vessel never left New York harbor.

Robert Fulton had always been a frail man with delicate constitution and a lifelong history of "lung inflammation." When addressing problems with the Demologos, he frequently worked through 24 hours straight without taking sleep or meals. In early February, Fulton's friend, a Mr. Emmet, accidentally fell through the ice of the Hudson River at the shipyard. Fulton dived into the water and rescued the man, becoming soaked-through in the process. Within days, he suffered from yet another case of "inflammation of the lungs" or pleurisy. His doctor, the well-known David Hosack of New York, did not give a positive prognosis. Fulton's lungs were filling with fluid, his temperature was rising, and he exhibited swelling of the neck and jaw to the shoulders. With the limitations of medical practice and treatment of the era, combined with his own medical history, he did not have much of a chance. Robert Fulton died on February 23, 1815, soon after the Battle of New Orleans, at just fifty years of age.

His ship lived on for a brief time, but she never lived up to her true potential. The Fulton the First became a receiving ship and marine curiosity at the Brooklyn Navy Yard-- a kind of holding tank for transient sailors, until she blew up in 1829 from an accidental explosion of her magazine, probably the result of fire.

Such was the end of a truly revolutionary naval vessel, which had the potential for incredible mobile defensive power, and far-reaching influence. She was a ship nearly as innovative for her time as the U.S.S. Monitor would be in 1862. The great naval historian and author C. S. Forester also saw a comparison with the Monitor;"The [Demologos] was only a portent, and not a power, deeply though she impressed post-war British observers; but with slightly accelerated construction and a few technological advances in America, Long Island Sound might have witnessed something like the first day of the battle of Hampton Roads with no Monitor on the way to redress the balance."

Fulton’s Achievements

Some writers have criticized Fulton because he sought financial profit from many of his inventions, especially the marine weapons he developed during 1799–1815. Rather than argue this point, I would rather enumerate Robert Fulton’s lifetime achievements:

  • He was one of but a few Americans to have artwork displayed in the Royal Academy of London.
  • He built the world's first commercially viable steamboat.
  • He invented the first underwater, gunpowder-propelled torpedo [a name he also originated, and which is used for an entire group of underwater weapons up to the present day].
  • He modified David Bushnell's Turtle concept and brought it as far forward as the technology of his time would allow, by building the first multi-crewed submarine, Nautilus.
  • He invented compressed air tanks to be used to allow submarine breathing.
  • He was the first person to actually sink a ship by striking it with a torpedo or surface mine.
  • He designed and built the world's first steam-powered frigate or floating battery.

History inevitably leads to questions of "what if…" on many occasions. Fulton's career is full of such questions. I leave it to the reader to conjecture what might have happened if Fulton's Nautilus, Torpedo, Columbiad underwater cannon, or Demologus had been used effectively by the United States in the War of 1812.

I would like to thank the librarians of the Steamship Historical Society Library of Baltimore in locating most of the earlier materials listed below. I also owe a debt of gratitute to the Enoch Pratt Free Library (Baltimore City) and Baltimore County Public Libraries, on whose collections I heavily relied.


Chapelle, Howard I. The History of The American Sailing Navy: The Ships and Their Development. New York: Bonanza Books, 1949.

Colden, Cadwallader. Life of Robert Fulton. New York: Kirk & Mercein, 1817. [Considered the best biography of Fulton by a contemporary.]

Dayton, Fred Erving. Steamboat Days. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1925.

Dickinson, H.W. Robert Fulton, Engineer and Artist, His Life and Works. London: John Lane, the Bodley Head, 1923.

Harris, Brayton. The Navy Times Book of Submarines: A Political, Social, and Military History. New York: Berkley Books, 1997.

Heyl, Erik. Early American Steamers, Vol. V. Buffalo, N.Y.: Published by the Author, 1967.

Hutcheon, Wallace. Robert Fulton: Pioneer of Undersea Warfare. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1981.

Leckie, Robert. From Sea to Shining Sea. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

Letter, "Robert Fulton to the French Director of the Marine Commission", [1799] [Housed in the British Museum and reprinted in Sutcliffe, below.]

Letter, "The Minister of the Marines and Colonies, To Mssr, Robert Fulton", March [Germinal] 7, 1801. [see Sutcliffe, below.]

Letter, "Robert Fulton to the Citizens of Monge, La Place, &c." 1801 [owned by Ms. Sutcliffe, great-granddaughter of the inventor] [see Sutcliffe, below].

Letter, "Robert Fulton, [2d to the Citizens of Monge, La Place, and Volney, Members of the National Institute, and Commissioners appointed by the First Consul to promote the invention of Submarine Navigation." [August 22, 1801] [Fulton papers, in the possession of Alice Crary Sutcliffe, see below].

Life of Robert Fulton. New York: Fulton Trust Company of New York, 1908.

Lloyd, James T. Lloyd's Steamboat Directory and Disasters on the Western Waters. Cincinnati: James T. Lloyd, 1856.

Lord, Walter. The Dawn's Early Light. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Miller, Nathan. Broadsides: The Age of Fighting Sail, 1775-1815. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.

Navy Department. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Vol. II. Washington, D.C.: Navy Department, 1963.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense, 3rd ed. Philadelphia: R. Bell, 1776.

Parsons, William Barclay. Robert Fulton and the Submarine. New York: Columbia University Press, 1922.

Pitch, Anthony. The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press,1998.

Pratt, Fletcher. Preble's Boys: Commodore Preble and the Birth of American Sea Power. New York: William Sloane,1950.

Ridgely-Nevitt, Cedric. American Steamships on the Atlantic. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1981.

Sutcliffe, Alice Crary. Robert Fulton and the Clermont: The Authoritative story of Robert Fulton's Early Experiments, persistent efforts, and Historic Achievements, containing many of Fulton's hitherto unpublished letters, drawings, and pictures. New York: The Century Co., 1909. Sutcliffe was great-grandaughter of Robert Fulton. This book contains all of the letters on Submarine Navigation quoted in the present article.

Tucker, Spencer C. "Demologos", in Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Edited by David and Jeanne Heidler. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997.

Woodman, Richard. The History of the Ship. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1997.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Related pages:
  Fulton, Robert
       Dissertations: A Real Mix-up: Who Tried to Blow up HMS Plantagenet? 

  home > articles  > robert fulton and the secret war of 1812
Copyright © Christopher T. George, 2012