Robert Fulton

It is given to some people to come to the world’s attention, to achieve fame and/or fortune, to succeed in unlikely endeavors, almost from the sheer force of their personalities. Such a person was Robert Fulton.

Fulton’s rise from obscure beginnings to lasting world fame is chronicled here by a man who both understands Fulton’s technical prowess and can wonder with us at his remarkable achievements. John Smith Morgan is a prolific writer, with many more than a dozen titles to his credit. Most of his works are of a technical nature, and his expertise in such matters acts as a solid basis for this biography of Fulton, a prolific inventor, and best known as the builder of the first steamboat.

The book is divided into three parts which parallel the three major phases of Fulton’s career. The first section of the work centers around Fulton’s early life and family background. There is very little direct information available in primary sources of the era, and consequently much of this section is conjectural. Morgan attempts to flesh out this sketchiness for the reader with reminders of political and social events that would have occurred during Fulton’s early years and which may have been influential in his development. One wishes that Morgan had condensed much of this material, for, while probably having some bearing on Fulton’s early years, much of it is superfluous to the narrative, especially for a reader with any familiarity with history.

Fulton’s first career was as an artist of sorts. As a very young man, he was apprenticed to a jeweler in Philadelphia and first learned to paint the miniatures that were so popular at the time. Through his experience with the jeweler, he also discovered a whole new world of genteel people and a life very different from that of the farm and small town of Lancaster. He soon directed his restless energies toward the ambition to become a gentleman, and discovered that he could at least spend much time in the company of gentlemen by painting portraits of them and their families. He resolved to become an artist.

It was greatly by luck augmented by charm that he managed to make and to borrow enough money to reach England to begin his artistic apprenticeship. This was the first of many instances in his life in which Fulton demonstrated an uncanny ability to attach himself to a famous person, in this case the artist Benjamin West, who was well known and successful in London circles. Although West was not overwhelmed by Fulton’s talent, the entire artistic adventure in London gave Fulton some personal polish and an even greater drive toward fame and fortune.

Morgan seems to have written this section of the book in a great hurry, and not edited it with sufficient care, for there are many instances in which the writing style detracts markedly from the information being imparted. Perhaps this problem resulted from the conjectural nature of much of the material in the section; nonetheless, it is regrettable.

Morgan comes more into his own element, however, in the second section of the book, which deals with something that almost constituted Fulton’s second career, and was certainly his first love: the submarine. Although Fulton’s name is rarely linked to the submarine except by true students of the device, he was certain at the time that his fame was to come from his inventiveness with the “plunging boat.” Most of his work with it was done while he was in France, having given up his English artistic endeavors after some passing interest in the design of canals.

Morgan next sets before us the story of Fulton’s attempts to “sell” the idea of the submarine in an objective fashion, but shares with the reader an appreciation for the enormous charm and ego which aided Fulton. In his drive to achieve fame and recognition he took his cause to anyone who would listen, and to a few, like Napoleon, who would not. He was not in the least shy about pushing his experiments at every opportunity, many of which he created himself. This was an intensely frustrating time for Fulton since the submarine drew moral objections from many quarters as an ungentlemanly, dishonorable form of warfare, and he had many technical difficulties with it to overcome as well. Here, as...

(The entire section is 1748 words.)


Library Jorrnal. CII, June 1, 1977, p. 1271.

Publisher’s Weekly. CXI, March 28, 1977, p. 70.