|Robert Fulton (1765-1815)
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.
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.
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
Manchester, Nov. 4, 1794
Messrs. Boulton & Watt,
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.
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,
Bridgewater Arms, Manchester
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.
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.
is the majority of a letter Fulton wrote to Paul Barras, the French
Director of Marine (counterpart to the US Secretary of the Navy):
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
6 Brumaire [27 October], An. 7 (1799)
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:
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
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
- 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.
Fulton blatantly stated that his reason for the invention was the
"possibility of destroying all military Marines and of giving liberty to
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.
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.
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
Debut of the Steam Frigate
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."
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
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?
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."
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
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
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.
was only effective against shipping at ranges less than 20 feet.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Fulton had always been a frail man with delicate constitution and a
lifelong history of "lung inflammation." When addressing problems with
, 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.
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
[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."
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.
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].
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.
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.
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.
"Robert Fulton to the French Director of the Marine Commission", 
[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.]
"Robert Fulton to the Citizens of Monge, La Place, &c." 1801 [owned
by Ms. Sutcliffe, great-granddaughter of the inventor] [see Sutcliffe,
"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,
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
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.
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