J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Robert Fulton’s Submarine Struggles

Here’s another submarine design from the eighteenth century, this one from the artist and inventor Robert Fulton.

Fulton was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1765, and moved to Philadelphia at the end of the Revolutionary War, establishing himself in the new republic. A few years later he went to London, where he studied art under Benjamin West and became interested in the big engineering developments of the age, particularly canal building and steam engines.

In the 1790s Fulton also tackled the challenge of submarines. I started looking into his work in those waters because some sources said he was inspired by David Bushnell’s Turtle. But Bushnell’s plans weren’t published until 1799, when Thomas Jefferson passed them on to the American Philosophical Society. There doesn’t seem to be any private link between Bushnell and Fulton. The two men’s designs show some similar points but many differences, and, as I wrote yesterday, many Europeans had been working on submarines for a long time.

In the spring of 1797 Fulton sold a big chunk of the proceeds from his canal-building system to John Barker Church in exchange for a big chunk of cash. Now flush, the inventor decided to visit France. He embarked in June so suddenly that he didn’t obtain a passport, which looked a bit suspicious. After all, Britain and France were at war. Even being an American was no guarantee of being welcomed since the U.S. of A. had just ratified the Jay Treaty.

Fulton planned to stay in France for six months. Instead, in December 1797 he laid out his system of submarine warfare to the French government and asked for funding to develop it. Even though he didn’t get that grant, Fulton saw enough opportunity in France that he stayed for more than six years.

In 1800 Fulton moved to Brest to build and test a submarine large enough for a crew of three. As shown above, the Nautilus had spinning propellers, a breathing tube, and a fold-out sail for propulsion when it surfaced. It worked fine in tests. Fulton also developed torpedos for that ship to use against enemy vessels.

The target of those torpedoes was the Britain’s Royal Navy. The Quasi-War between France and America also heated up in the late 1790s. Fulton had friends and interests in both Britain and the U.S. of A., but he didn’t seem worried about his inventions being used to attack those countries. Instead, he enjoyed being able to bring his ideas to reality and being lauded as one of the country’s relatively few engineers.

Like many Americans, Fulton admired republican France and hoped it would succeed. When he was actually in the country, however, Napoleon Bonaparte was taking over, turning France into a dictatorship on its way to an empire. And then, just as Fulton completed his experiments and submitted his report to the government, France made peace with its enemies and cut defense spending. Napoleon also became suspicious of Fulton when he dismantled the Nautilus for rebuilding, so no further funds were coming his way. In 1804 Fulton gave up on France and returned to Britain.

The British government looked at Fulton’s submarine designs and gave him some money. He refined his ideas, producing the image shown below, but Britain never moved to the construction stage. Apparently the government was more interested in making sure Fulton didn’t go work for any other government than in actually realizing his designs. After a couple of years the inventor, now in his forties, got impatient and headed home to America.

In the U.S. of A. Fulton went back to steam engines. His partner in that enterprise was Robert R. Livingston, formerly of the Continental Congress. The two men had met in Paris, Fulton as an aspiring submarine builder and Livingston as his country’s minister to France. In New York, Fulton even married into the Livingston family. The result of that alliance was the first practical, long-lasting steamboat, which stayed on the surface but transformed travel all over the world.

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