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Robert Fulton: A Biography by Cynthia Owen Philip (Franklin Watts: $18.95; 384 pp., illustrated)

October 13, 1985|Edward Tenner | Tenner is physical science editor at Princeton University Press. and

Generations of American schoolchildren have known Robert Fulton as something he really wasn't: inventor of the steamboat. Cynthia Owen Philip's new study of Fulton reveals a man even more gifted, if less admirable, than his textbook image: an extraordinary artist, technologist, publicist and entrepreneur, a brilliant early incarnation of the All-American Hustler.

Born in 1765 to a poor Pennsylvania farming family, Fulton became a skilled artist and artisan by apprenticeship to a Philadelphia silversmith, as well as a broadly educated and articulate man by his own reading.

Sailing for England at age 21, he studied with his fellow American Benjamin West, had his work exhibited at the Royal Academy and soon was receiving commissions from a fashionable clientele. But Fulton grew dissatisfied with his progress as a painter and turned from fine art to engineering.

His unusual knack for visualizing new machines was apparent. He invented a prize-winning device for cutting marble and attracted the attention of progressive British landowners with a superbly written and produced plan for a national network of small canals--"a model of comprehensive regional development planning," as Philip calls it.

When British and American investors proved slow to support his ideas, Fulton moved to France in 1797 to begin a new career as a free-lance naval inventor and promoter. He offered France's ruling Directory, and later Napoleon, a device illegal and cowardly under contemporary military thinking, but (according to Fulton) a means to peace and free trade through neutralization of British naval superiority. It was a submarine.

Finally disappointed by the French, the opportunistic Fulton returned to London in 1804 with a handsome British salary for developing the Nautilus, as he called it. After promising trials, it was abruptly dropped when victory at Trafalgar made it seem unneeded.

Fulton returned to America to rejoin his most powerful and lasting patron, Robert R. Livingston, who had met Fulton while serving as U.S. minister plenipotentiary to France and discovered their common interest in the steamship navigation of the Hudson. Fulton and Livingston collaborated in two related enterprises: defending the monopoly of Hudson steam navigation granted by the New York legislature, and developing profitable steamboats for all inland waterways, even as Fulton continued to promote his submarines and torpedoes.

Philip is surely right in viewing Fulton neither as a confidence man nor as a selfless industrial pioneer. He was driven, often disturbed; his private life was worthy of a Gore Vidal novel. The young Fulton was a protege of the openly homosexual Viscount Courtenay and, Philip suggests, had a series of other benefactors. Later he joined the household of the speculator-diplomat Joel Barlow, best known today for his poem in praise of hasty pudding. Barlow encouraged Fulton's dalliance with his wife Ruth, addressing them in baby talk letters as "wifey" and "toot." This menage a trois continued even after Fulton's marriage.

Fulton's character was equally paradoxical. A fervent American patriot, he offered his submarine to France and Britain on terms that afforded only token protection for U.S. vessels.

Cynthia Owen Philip writes with clarity, fairness and insight. She draws skillfully on an impressive range of sources and on a sure understanding of Fulton's surroundings. I doubt there will be a better book about his career.

More important than individual devices is the psychology of invention--in this case, the combination of talent, ambition, energy and arrogance that saw Fulton through. If we have lost the technological founding father on his textbook pedestal, we have gained a still more remarkable figure, masterfully drawn.

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