In January, 1814, the Commission for the Defense of New York approved Robert Fulton’s plans for a “steam battery” which, under the name of “Fulton the First” was destined to be the world’s first steam driven war vessel. The commission pledged $120,000 for the enterprise. The financial burden was later assumed by Congress and the vessel thus, before completion, became a part of the American Navy and David Porter of Essex fame was assigned to command her. The congressional appropriation provided for the construction of three such batteries at the same cost but nothing was done about the other two ships until 1838 when construction of the second Fulton was begun. In the meantime the Fulton the First deteriorated at the dock in Brooklyn Navy Yard from 1815 to 1829. In the latter year her uneventful career was terminated by a magazine explosion.
At the time of building, this steam battery aroused the admiration of all the good citizens of New York City and was the subject of many glowing and exaggerated reports appearing in European journals. But, following the conclusion of the War of 1812, enthusiasm for her untried military prowess seems to have been insufficient to assure her an active naval career. After several successful trials between June and September, 1815, she was relegated to the duty of station ship at Brooklyn where she rendered the remainder of her naval service.
Brief as was her active naval career, the Fulton the First is none the less deserving of fame not only as the brain child of Robert Fulton and the product of his machine shops but also as the forerunner of the steam navies which immediately began to put in an appearance. Entirely aside from her capabilities as a man-of-war, her performance as a steam vessel was a mechanical triumph and was worthy of Fulton's genius. It is a pity that there does not exist some authentic picture of this famous ship. Even complete descriptions are lacking, and many of those in existence are befuddled by reference to fantastic weapons attributed to the vessel by distorted contemporary accounts. It so happens that Fulton was forever experimenting with one kind of weapon or another, so that care must be exercised in discrediting any of the defenses attributed to the Fulton the First, however fantastic they may seem.
Typical of the exaggerated reports circulated concerning the vessel is the following article appearing in a London paper of September, 1815:
An American gentleman who is lately arrived from New York, states that there is just completed in that harbor, a steam frigate, the length of which is 100 yards and breadth 200 feet; her sides, which are alternately composed of oak plank and cork wood are 23 feet thick. She carries 44 guns, four of which are of very large bore, the others 42-pounders; and, in case of being boarded, she is enabled by machinery to discharge 100 gallons of boiling water on her enemies per minute, and at the same time300 cutlasses branch over her gunwales, and an equal number of pikes dart out from her sides!
Substantially the same description appears in Joachim Gilbert's Essai Sur L'Art De La Navigation Par La Vapeur, Paris, 1820, except that he states that the ship could deluge the enemy with 20 tons of boiling water per minute!
The sketches of the Fulton the First which accompany this article are drawn to scale from a description of the vessel written by M. Montgery, a commander in the French Navy. M. Montgery saw the ship in 1818 and made a written report to the Minister of Marine and the Colonies. M. Montgery was a man of considerable scientific attainments, and was doubtless a keen observer. His description of the Fulton the First is the most informative and authentic in existence:
Steam frigate named Fulton the First, constructed at New York in 1814 and 1815. The submerged part of the Fulton the First is divided into two equal hulls by a canal which is 151 feet wide, and which extends from one end of the boat to other. The two hulls, independently of the deck which joins them together, just above the water line, are also connected at their keels by means of 12 oaken beams, each 1 foot square.
Above the water, the Fulton the First forms only one boat, being 152 feet long, 57 feet wide, and 20 feet deep. The thickness of its sides is 4 feet 10 inches; its two ends are rounded and exactly the same; each carries 2 rudders, one on each side of the interior canal. At the middle of this canal, it has a wheel 16 feet in diameter provided with 8 paddles, each 141 feet wide and 3 feet high. The wheel can turn in either direction by a procedure common in the operation of steam engines, which consists simply of stopping the piston near the middle of the stroke, and causing the steam to enter the cylinder on top, if it began its motion on the bottom, and vice versa. So, as the wheel turns in one direction or the other, the Fulton goes toward the one or the other of its extremities. Furthermore this floating battery has 2 lateen sails and 2 jibs which can be made in such a manner as to sail the ship in opposite directions without coming about.
The steam engine is of about 120 horsepower; it is placed in the bottom of one hull; its 2 boilers are placed in the bottom of the other hull.
From other sources1 it is possible to piece together a sketchy picture of the ship’s machinery. The engine was an inclined, single-cylinder affair with a 4-foot bore and a 5-foot stroke. It was direct connected to the paddle wheel which it turned at the rate of 18 r.p.m. The boilers consisted of single cylindrical shells about 8 feet in diameter and 22 feet long, containing an enlarged tube, about 5 feet in diameter, which formed the furnace. The furnace extended about halfway through the boiler. From its inner end the hot gasses passed under the boiler to the rear and returned inside through two other horizontal tubes about 3 feet in diameter. Oblique tubes at the front connected the return tubes to the chimney. A distinctive feature of Fulton’s boilers was that the furnace was completely surrounded by the boiler water. Boiler pressures were normally carried at about 6 pounds per square inch. Pressure was indicated by a mercury column, the height of which varied several inches with each stroke of the main engine piston. Water level was indicated by try cocks and the safety valves lifted against the pressure of a weighted lever.
The purity of the boiler feed water was not yet a matter of any moment and salt water feed was the normal boiler diet. A jet of salt water sprayed into the exhaust trunk induced the condensation necessary to a desirable vacuum. The air pump transferred sea water and condensate to the "cistern" whence about .9 of it was forced or drained over board at the uneconomical temperature of 200°F. or thereabout. The remaining tenth of this water was fed to the boiler. The salt deposits from the water stopped up the leaky joints which were prevalent in new boilers.
M. Montgery's description continues:
The space encompassed between the top deck and the lower deck is intended for the artillery. Above the top deck there are no bulwarks, but chandeliers of iron, which can sustain a barricade 8 feet thick, formed of bales of cotton.
In the accompanying sketches no attempt has been made to represent the "chandeliers of iron" above the main deck. The writer is of the opinion that, whatever may have been the appearance of these stanchions, they deceived uninformed observers into believing them to be cutlasses or pikes extending over the gunwales.
The battery of the Fulton the First consists of 30 gun ports which carry one cannon each of a caliber of 32 pounds. There are 3 gun ports at each end of the ship, and 12 on each side; it is possible to have 13 or 14; but beside the wheel and directly above the engine and boilers the ship's sides are without opening. Thus the paddle wheel is more sheltered from the projectiles of the enemy. It also has in this space, exactly above the engine and the boilers, the hatches which admit air to the hold. Nevertheless, as the furnaces open toward each other, the heat in the intermediate space is stifling.
In Colden's Robert Fulton it is reported that a temperature of "one hundred and thirty degrees of the Fahrenheit scale” was noted in this space on one of the trial runs.
The frigate, in addition to its cannons, carries at the end of each of its two hulls one submarine columbiad of a caliber of 100 pounds. It was the intention to pour in shot and shells with these four columbiads, which, however, were never put in place. It has, in the furnace of the boilers, a grill for heating the 32-pound bullets. Also a forcing pump of 33 inches diameter. When this is not used to turn the wheel, it can throw 60 to 80 gallons of cold water per minute to a distance of several hundred feet.
The “grill for heating the 32-pound bullets” suspiciously resembles the furnace grate. And the “forcing pump” for throwing water on the enemy bears a marked resemblance to the air pump. The quantity of water mentioned, 60 to 80 gallons per minute, very closely approximates the overflow from the “cistern” or hot well in a jet condenser system of the capacity of the Fulton's plant. It is probable that an uninitiated observer would have mistaken this steaming overflow for a defensive weapon; although it is possible that the ingenious Fulton had arranged this discharge on the pressure side of the feed pump so that the excess water could indeed be thrown to a considerable distance for the purpose of drowning the enemy gunner’s torches. The remoteness of this latter possibility is enhanced by the fact that no American commentators even mention the discharging of water as an element of the vessel’s defense. The assumption is that American observers had seen enough of steamboats not to be misled by the hot-water overflow. M. Montgery, on the other hand, was probably seeing steamships for the first time in his life. Small wonder if his information regarding the engineering plant of the Fulton the First is somewhat vague and decidedly meager.
Over the wheel there is a sheathing of wood which is fitted with steps and forms two wide stairs. It is here alone that the upper deck is open. The middle of the battery over the canal is occupied by the staterooms, one fault of which is that the partitions are not demountable. These cabins are for the captain, the ship's officers, and the principal mates or subofficers. The complement is fixed at 500 men.
Draft of the ship in its present state is 10 feet 4 inches. It would be at least 11 feet if the armament were complete; and the height of the lower sill of the gun ports above the water would be about 5 ½ feet. The displacement of the ship, laden, is 1,450 tons.2
It can carry four days’ supply of fuel, in burning wood; and twelve days’ supply in burning coal. Its speed without sails is a little less than 6 miles an hour, there being no wind or contrary sea.
There would be no point in speaking of the many inventions which have been heralded in certain journals and didactic works; these inventions were never applied and, indeed, were almost inexecutable.
In general there exists too formidable a conception of this battery. The sides are supposed to be impenetrable; this may be true for ordinary bullets, but the bombs, shells, and other projectiles of which the large ships are able to make use would penetrate and easily burn the great masses of timber work. The gun ports of the Fulton the First form wide mouths which present a passage to all species of projectiles right where the gunners are arrayed. Finally, one must note among the defects of this ship that the upper deck, which is only slightly higher than the water level, could be easily boarded.
There is no doubt that in many quarters there existed “too formidable a conception of this battery,” as witness the description quoted above from an English paper. This does not, however, detract from the credit due the inventor and the vessel in the eyes of the French Academy of Science:
Reduced to her simple means of defense the frigate Fulton is, without doubt, one of the most admirable works which mechanical genius has been able to produce.
M. Montgery also hastens to give credit where due:
Whatever may be the genius of inventors, their first attempts always have imperfections which can be recognized and corrected by men of lesser talent. The distinctive character of a great invention lies not in being without defect, but in offering some considerable advantage which humanity has not hitherto enjoyed; such an advantage the frigate or steam battery offers us. Its sides are proof against ordinary bullets; it has guns from which a single blow could destroy the largest ship, and it moves without the help of the wind. Some special circumstances, besides, enhance the merit of the construction of the first frigate or steam battery in regard to the engineer as well as the persons who lent him their support.
It was then the height of the war; he needed carpenters, materials, and money; he was obliged to transport overland, from Philadelphia to New York, the cannons intended for the armament of the frigate; many zealous citizens frequently made advances and engaged their own credit for the payment of the work. These local difficulties did not discourage the builders and only served to increase Fulton’s ardor. But he did not live much longer, and peace had been made when the new frigate was at last ready to be tried out.
Fulton died on February 24, 1815, at 50 years of age. His death was reported to have resulted from overwork in connection with the construction of the steam battery. It was at this time that the vessel was christened Fulton the First. On the original plans Fulton had dubbed her Demologos. M. Montgery now describes the trial runs:
The first trial took place in June, 1815. It proved that this vast floating mass could be steered with ease against wind and sea, could cross currents, and could steer among ships at anchor through bad weather and rough sea. The commissioners were satisfied with the success of these maneuvers, and afterward some improvements in detail were made.
The 4th of July, following, the frigate left New York for Sandy Hook and return, covering in this trip 53 miles in 8 hours and 20 minutes. The sea was against her part of this time and the wind was not any help.
There were afterwards placed on board 26 cannons of 32 and a considerable quantity of mutations and provisions, which increased the draft to 11 feet. In this condition the ship made a very satisfactory trip and showed herself perfectly amenable to the control of her four rudders. She went ahead and astern by reversing the movement of the wheel, and without the need of tacking. Her mean velocity was estimated at 51 miles per hour, the frigate having ascended the ebb of the East River at a speed of 2 knots, the ebb flowing at 34 knots. The last tests surpassed the hopes of the onlookers, and one could entertain but one opinion of the energy and effectiveness of this new defensive power, since adopted by the government for the more vulnerable parts of the Union.
The results of the trials as reported above are similarly reported in several American journals of those dates. The vessel's sole activity of a purely naval character was the firing of a 21-gun salute (returned by Fort Columbus on Governor's Island) during her trial of September 11, 1815.
The Fulton the First was undoubtedly a mechanical marvel of her time in engineering construction and performance. Circumstances combined to thrust her into obscurity without opportunity to prove her military worth. But the brief glimpse of her successful trials was sufficient to stimulate tests of steam vessels in the navies of Britain and France with the result that those two countries each had several naval steamers by the time the destruction of the Fulton deprived our Navy of its only power vessel.
1. Proces-verbaux des seances de l'Academie de Sciences, Tome VII. Seance de 27 janvier 1823, pp. 436–38. Robert Fulton, Colden, 1817.
2. (Note by Montgery) Monsieur Colden says that the tonnage of the Fulton the First is 2,475; an evident error, resulting perhaps from a faulty impression. The tonnage given here is found on a copy of the original plan, which I have from M. Noah Brown, who built the Fulton the First.