The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream

by Kirkpatrick Sale

The Free Press 2001 192 pp. 24.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford    

            In The Fire of his Genius, Kirkpatrick Sale has produced a brief, readable, and occasionally shocking account of the life of the American hero and “inventor” of the steamboat, Robert Fulton.  A disorganized, egotistical, amoral, bisexual genius, Sale’s Fulton differs mightily from the man you read about in grade school.

            Sale claims that “the steamboat would be the single most important instrument in the transformation of America in the first half of the nineteenth century.”  He writes,

“It is not too much to say that, more than any technological achievement between the cotton gin in 1793 and the Colt firearms system in 1853—not forgetting the railroad, economically important only after the 1850s—it was the steamboat that was responsible for the shape of America’s destiny.”

            And what did Fulton actually do?  “We may dispense with the merry myth that Fulton invented the steamboat.”  In France, nobleman François-Dorothée Jouffroy d’Abbans first produced a steamboat twenty-five years before Fulton that, however briefly, worked.  Instead, Fulton modified existing designs based on sound engineering principles, and made travel by steamboat a profitable commercial enterprise.

            Robert Fulton was born on Nov 14, 1765, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Early records do not provide much of an insight into his upbringing.  Raised in poverty, as a teenager he moved to Philadelphia, and apprenticed himself to a jeweler.  He also began working as a painter of miniatures. 

            We next hear of him in 1787, when he booked passage to England, where he studied with the distinguished painter Benjamin West.  After several years of economic struggle, he befriended the wealthy William Courtenay, Earl of Devon, and “one of Britain’s most notorious homosexuals.”  Sale notes that evidence for Fulton’s homosexuality is “certainly suggestive,” and that “there was no mention of any women in his life until he was thirty-one years old.” 

            In 1793 Fulton, twenty-eight, began a career as a designer of canal digging machines, canals being a craze in England.  From here he branched out into steamboat design, but it is unclear exactly when he did so.

            Moving to Paris in 1797, Fulton sought to interest the French government in building submarines and what he called “torpedoes” (bombs secretly placed under the hulls of enemy ships).  Fulton tirelessly and fruitlessly promoted them to various government agencies for five years.  While his efforts secured an audience with Napoleon, he encountered no great success.

            In France he did, however, meet the Americans Ruth and Joel Barlow, with whom he was to carry on a passionate ménage à trois for the rest of his adult life, until the Barlows’ ill-health intervened.

            Having little economic luck in France, he pitched his ideas in Britain.  Fulton failed to blackmail the British into buying his devices so he wouldn’t sell them to France.

Sale comments that Fulton’s motives “seem particularly tawdry and amoral, perhaps traitorous.”  He was regarded by one Briton as “a man of very slender abilities though possessing much self confidence and consummate impudence.”

            Returning to America, in 1807 Fulton, with the support of wealthy patrician Robert R. Livingston, finally succeeded in building a steamboat.  A contemporary said it resembled “a backwoods saw-mill mounted on a scow and set on fire.”  Named the North River Steam Boat (not the Clermont, as legend has it), it quickly realized its commercial potential as transport from New York City to Albany. 

            The following year Fulton married his patron’s daughter, Harriet, fourteen years his junior.  Almost immediately he sought to transform his ménage à trois with the Barlows into a ménage à quatre that included his wife, but was unsuccessful.  The marriage, although producing a child, was loveless.

            By 1812, Fulton had become “on of the richest men in the republic,” having “done everything, at least in his perception, on his own, with his own skill, and pluck, and perseverance.”  The rest of his ensuing brief career was spent on two tasks: building more steamboats and defending his commercial rights in court. 

After a wintry night crossing an ice-bound river on foot, Fulton caught pneumonia.  On 23 February 1815, Fulton died, aged fifty.

            “At the time of his death, not even eight years after his initial success, Fulton had thirteen steamboats of his design running on the waters of America.”  Although his did not realize the central ambition of his life—“to use his genius to produce weapons of war”—he did transform the character and economy of an entire nation by making a commercial reality of “the fastest conveyance on earth.” 

            With Sale’s biography we can see Fulton not as a two-dimensional representative of America’s “can-do” spirit, but a complex and certainly troubled individual, driven to succeed by some of the less attractive qualities of the human personality.  Sale does not so much debunk the myth of Fulton as he replaces it with a more understanding and enlightening portrait.