The genius of Fulton was of no ordinary mold. It began to unfold in less than ten years after his birth, which occurred at Little Britain, Pennsylvania, in the year 1765. His parents were farmers, and of Irish birth, but Protestants in religious belief.
At seventeen he went to Philadelphia and begun the study of printing. Four years later he evinced such decided talents in miniature painting that his friends united in sending him to London, where he remained for some years under the teaching of the world-renowned West. Being a friend of West, he was thus drawn into association with such men as the Duke of Bridgewater and the Earl of Stanhope. Through the influence of the former he adopted the profession of a civil engineer. He also became acquainted with Watt, who had just brought out his great improvement on the steam engine, the details of which Fulton mastered.
While in London, at this time, he also contrived a new device for sawing marble which proved to be a valuable improvement. To this period in his life also belongs his invention of a machine for spinning flax. In 1797 he removed to Paris where he remained seven years, assiduously studying the sciences. It was during his sojourn there that he brought out his celebrated torpedo-boat, since known as the Nautilus, a name derived from its resemblance in action to that wonderful little animal. This boat was a plunging machine designed for sub-marine service in placing torpedoes and other work, for which a sub-marine vessel could be used. According to Colden this boat was brought to a wonderful state of perfection, his account of which may be interesting.
On the 3rd of July, 1801, he embarked with three companions on board his plunging boat, in the harbor of Brest, and descended in it to the depth of five, ten, fifteen, and so on, to twenty-five feet; but he did not attempt to go deeper because he found that his imperfect machine would not bear the pressure of a greater depth. He remained below the surface one hour. During the time, they were in utter darkness. Afterwards he descended with candles; but finding a great disadvantage from their consumption of vital air he caused, previous to his next experiment, a small window of thick glass to be made near the bow of his boat, and he again descended with her on the 24th of July, 1801. He found that he received from his window, or rather aperture covered with glass, for it was no more than an inch and a half in diameter, sufficient light for him to count the minutes on his watch.
Having satisfied himself that he could have sufficient light when under water; that he could do without a supply of fresh air for a considerable time; that he could descend to any depth and rise to the surface with equal facility; his next object was to try her movements as well on the surface as beneath it. On the 26th of July he weighed his anchor and hoisted his sails; his boat had one mast, a main-sail and a jib. There was only a light breeze, and therefore she did not move on the surface at more than the rate of two miles an hour; but it was found that she would tack and steer, and sail on a wind or before it as well as any common sail-boat. He then struck her masts and sails; to do which, and to perfectly prepare the boat for plunging, required about two minutes. Having plunged to a certain depth he placed two men at the engine which was intended to give her progressive motion, and one at the helm, while he, with a barometer before him, governed the machine which kept her balanced between the upper and lower waters. He found that with the exertion of only one hand he could keep her at any depth he desired. The propelling engine was then put in motion, and he found that on coming to the surface he had, in about seven minutes, made a progress of four hundred metres, or five hundred yards. He then again plunged, turned her around, while under the water, and returned to near the place he began to move from.
He repeated his experiments several days successively until he became familiar with the operation of the machinery, and the movements of the boat. He found that she was as obedient to her helm under water, as any boat could be on the surface, and that the magnetic needle traversed as well in the one as in the other.
On the 27th of August Mr. Fulton again descended with a store of atmospheric air compressed into a copper globe, of a cubic foot capacity, into which two hundred atmospheres were forced. Thus prepared he descended with three companions to the depth of five feet. At the expiration of an hour and forty minutes, he began to take small supplies of pure air from his reservoir, and did so, as he found occasion, for four hours and twenty minutes. At the expiration of the time he came to the surface without having experienced any inconvenience from having been so long under the water.
Fulton, about this time, hearing of Fitche’s experiments in the United States with steam, became more than ever interested in the subject of “navigating boats by means of fire and water.” Our Minister to Great Britain, Robert R. Livingstone, becoming greatly interested in steam navigation, and especially in Fulton’s ideas in the matter, agreed to furnish the necessary funds to bring to success the enterprise. Accordingly, they ordered an engine of Watt & Boulton, “which would propel a large boat,” and the engine arrived in America during the year 1806. Fulton at once set to work to build a boat to fit the machinery, and in 1807 the “Clermont” was ready for trial.
The reader will not be surprised at the statement of an eye-witness: “When it was announced in the New York papers that the boat would start from Cortlandt street at 6:30 a. m., on the 4th of August, and take passengers to Albany, there was a broad smile on every face as the inquiry was made if any one would be fool enough to go?” One friend was heard to accost another in the street with: “John, will thee risk thy life in such a concern? I tell thee she is the most fearful wild fowl living, and thy father should restrain thee.” When the eventful morning came, Friday August 4th, 1807, the wharves, piers, housetops, and every available elevation was crowded with spectators. All the machinery was uncovered and exposed to view. The periphery of the balance wheels of cast iron, some four or more inches square, ran just clear of the water. There were no outside guards, the balance wheels being supported by their respective shafts, which projected over the sides of the boat. The forward part was covered by a deck which afforded shelter for her hands. The after-part was fitted up in a rough manner for passengers. The entrance into the cabin was from the stern in front of the steersman, who worked a tiller as in an ordinary sloop.
Black smoke issued from the chimney; steam issued from every ill-fitted valve and crevice of the engine. Fulton himself was there. His remarkably clear and sharp voice was heard high above the hum of the multitude and the noise of the engine, his step was confident and decided; he heeded not the fearfulness, doubts or sarcasm of those by whom he was surrounded. The whole scene combined had in it an individuality, as well as an interest, which comes but once, and is remembered a lifetime. Everything being ready the engine was set in motion, and the boat moved steadily but slowly from the wharf. As she turned up the river and was fairly under way, there arose such a huzza as ten thousand throats never gave before. The passengers returned the cheer, but Fulton stood upon the deck, his eyes flashing with an unusual brilliancy as he surveyed the crowd. He felt that the magic wand of success was waving over him and he was silent. The entire trip was an ovation, and is thus described by Colden:
“From other vessels which were navigating the river she had the most terrific appearance when she was making her passage. The first steam-boats used dry pine for fuel, which sends forth a column of ignited vapor many feet above the flue and whenever the fire is stirred a galaxy of sparks fly off, and in the night have a very beautiful and brilliant appearance. This uncommon light first attracted the attention of the crews of other vessels. Notwithstanding the wind and the tide were adverse to its approach they saw with astonishment that it was coming rapidly towards them; and when it came so near that the noise of the machinery and paddles was heard, the crews (if what was said at the time in the newspapers be true) in some instances shrunk beneath the decks from the terrific sight, and left the vessels to go ashore, while others prostrated themselves and besought Providence to protect them from the approach of the horrible monster, which was marching on the tides and lighting its path by the fires it vomited.”
Of peculiar interest and instruction is the following narrative connected with this historic voyage from the graphic pen of one who was personally an actor in the scene described: “I chanced to be at Albany on business when Fulton arrived there in his unheard of craft, which everybody felt so much anxiety to see. Being ready to leave, and hearing that his craft was going to return to New York, I repaired on board and inquired for Mr. Fulton. I was referred to the cabin, and there found a plain, gentlemanly man, wholly alone and engaged in writing. ‘Mr. Fulton, I presume?’ ‘Yes sir.’ ‘Do you return to New York with this boat?’ ‘We shall try to get back, sir.’ ‘Can I have a passage down?’ ‘You can take your chance with us, sir.’ I inquired the amount to be paid, and after a moment’s hesitation, a sum, I think six dollars, was named. The amount in coin, I laid in his open hand, and with his eye fixed upon it, he remained so long motionless that I supposed it might be a miscount, and said to him, ‘Is that right sir?’ This question roused him as from a kind of reverie, and, as he looked up, the tears were brimming in his eyes and his voice faltered as he said: ‘Excuse me sir; but my memory was busy, as I contemplated this, the first pecuniary reward I have ever received for all my exertions in adapting steam to navigation. I should gladly commemorate the occasion over a bottle of wine with you but really I am too poor for that just now; yet, I trust we may meet again when this will not be the case.’
“Some four years after this,” continues the writer of this reminiscence, “when the Clermont had been greatly improved, and her name changed to North River, and when two other boats, the Car of Neptune and the Paragon had been built, making Mr. Fulton’s fleet consist of three boats regularly plying between New York and Albany, I took passage upon one of these for the latter city. The cabin in that day was below, and as I walked its deck, to and fro, I saw that I was very closely observed by one, I supposed a stranger. Soon, however, I recalled the features of Mr. Fulton; but without disclosing this, I continued my walk. At length, in passing his seat, our eyes met, when he sprang to his feet and eagerly seizing my hand, exclaimed, ‘I knew it must be you, for your features have never escaped me; and, although I am still far from rich, yet I may venture that bottle now!’ It was ordered, and during its discussion Mr. Fulton ran rapidly, but vividly, over his experience of the world’s coldness and sneers, and the hopes, fears, disappointments and difficulties that were scattered through his whole career of discovery up to the very point of his final crowning triumph, at which he so fully felt he had at last arrived.”
And in reviewing all these matters, he said: “I have again and again recalled the occasion, and the incident of our first interview at Albany; and never have I done so without renewing in my mind the vivid emotion it originally caused. That seemed, and does still seem to me, the turning point in my destiny, the dividing line between light and darkness, in my career upon earth, for it was the first actual recognition of my usefulness to my fellow-men.” Why was it that Fulton won renown. True it was that he possessed unusual genius. We know that every one cannot be a Fulton, yet how few there are who would have exercised the stick-to-it-ive-ness that he was obliged to do before success came. How few would have passed through the trials and withstood the sneers that Robert Fulton passed through. On the 24th of February, 1815, he died, when the honor of first crossing the ocean by steam power was being contemplated by him, but his fame was established, and need naught to enhance it.