Robert Fulton is famous as the inventor of the steamboat, and in his -day he was well known as a painter; nevertheless, art and steam navigation were of but subordinate interest to him. The consuming passion of his life was to nullify sea power by means of submarine warfare.
He was born on November 14, 1765, on a farm in Little Britain, now Fulton Township, Pennsylvania. His father died when Fulton was three, but his mother managed to send him, for a time, to a small private school. While he was no scholar, he showed a distinct talent for drawing and a remarkable aptitude for mechanics. At the age of seventeen he went to Philadelphia, where he soon established himself as a landscape artist, miniaturist, and draughtsman. In 1786 he left the United States to study art in London, and after five years of work two of his canvases were exhibited at the Royal Academy; nevertheless, he found it impossible to earn a living. Fortunately, during his stay in England he had kept abreast of the scientific developments of the time and his interest in mechanics increased daily. In 1793, rather than struggle along on the verge of starvation as a painter, Fulton gave up art as a lifework and became associated with Earl Stanhope in the latter’s canal schemes. During the next four years Fulton devoted himself to engineering projects, inventing, among other things, an inclined plane for raising and lowering canal boats. He was also the author of several essays on free trade and in 1796 wrote a treatise on canal construction. Still, Robert Fulton, Civil Engineer, as he styled himself, prospered no more than Robert Fulton, artist. However, in April. 1797, he sold a fourth interest in his inclined plane patent for £1,500 and, despairing of meeting with further success in England, took advantage of a short British-French armistice and sailed for France. Upon his arrival in Paris in June or July, he met Joel Barlow, the future American Minister to France, and Mrs. Barlow, who became a second father and mother to him.
France, ruled by the Directory, had been at war with England since February, 1793, and was also faced with the First Coalition. Bonaparte, who had been head of the Army since 1795, was now conducting his brilliant Italian campaign, but was impotent to deal with England.
Fulton went to France primarily to get a French patent on his inclined plane and to interest the Directory in a plan for a system of small canals, after which he intended to return home. But his attitude towards free trade, academic in England, became militant in France. Yet he was more concerned about the welfare of the United States than about free trade, per se. In a letter dated November 20, 1798, he says,
... a free trade or in other words a free Ocean, is particularly Important to America. I would ask anyone if all the American difficulties in this war is not owing to the Naval systems of Europe and a Licensed Robbery on the ocean? how then is America to prevent this? Certainly not by attempting to build a fleet to cope with the fleets of Europe, but if possible by Rendering the European fleets useless.1
Fulton was certain that war would cease to be necessary only when the great underlying causes of war had been removed. However, he “was convinced that society must pass through ages of progressive development,” before this could be brought about by international agreements. In the meantime, he
saw that the growing wealth and commerce ... of the United States, would compel them to look for a protection by sea, and perhaps drive them to European measures, by establishing a navy. Seeing this, I turned my whole attention to find out means of destroying such engines of oppression, by some method which would put it out of the power of any nation,2
to threaten another by sea. He desired, therefore, not so much to break the British blockade of France as to smash all sea power. He naively imagined that if a few British ships were torpedoed, “the confidence of the sailors will be destroyed and the fleet rendered useless in the first moment of its terror,” that under these circumstances the republicans in England would welcome a French invasion with open arms and that thereafter the mere existence of his torpedoes would make it impossible for any nation to maintain a navy.
Fulton’s first device for “rendering the European fleets useless” was an oval copper case containing a large quantity of powder and driven by a clockwork- powered screw propeller. It was manipulated from shore by means of a long line. Barlow and he experimented on the Seine with this crude automobile torpedo in 1797 and were nearly drowned trying to get it to work properly. Realizing that the entire arrangement was inadequate, Fulton abandoned it. Going off on a new tack, he came to the conclusion, like David Bushnell in 1775, that the most effectual way to convey an explosive charge under a warship was by means of a submarine. Although the two inventors never met, Fulton owed much to Bushnell, whose submarine, torpedoes, and mines had caused the British some anxiety during the American Revolution. Fulton admitted his debt freely and generously. Indeed,
He frequently spoke of the genius of this American with great respect, and expressed a conviction that his attempts against the enemy, would have been more successful if he had had the same advantages which he himself derived from the improvements of nearly forty years in mechanics and mechanical philosophy.3
Fulton was now without money enough to construct a submarine, but having arrived at a theoretical solution of the problem of propelling, submerging, and controlling the subsurface course of a vessel, on December 13, 1797, he made this proposal to the Directory:
Considering the great importance of diminishing the Power of the British Fleets, I have contemplated the Construction of a Mechanical Nautulus. A Machine which flatters me with much hope of being Able to Annihilate their Navy; hence feeling confident that practice will Bring the apparatus to perfection; The Magnitude of the object has excited in me an Ardent desire to Prove the experiment; for this Purpose, and to Avoid troubleing you with the Investigation of a new Project, or the cxpcnce of Carrying it into effect; I have Arranged a Company who are willing to bear the Expence, and undertake the Expedition on the Following Conditions:
(1) The company was to be paid 400 livres [$78] a gun for sinking British warships of more than 40 guns and 2000 livres [$390] a gun for lesser vessels.
(2) All captured British vessels were to become the property of the company.
(3) The company was to have a monopoly on the submarine, but, contingent upon the payment of a 100,000 livre [$19,500] royalty for each submarine, the government was at liberty to build an unlimited number.
(4) France was to refrain from using this invention against the United States unless first attacked by American submarines.
(5) If the war ended within three months the company was to be reimbursed for its expenditures.
The last and most important clause stipulated that:
whereas fire Ships or other unusual means of destroying Navies are Considered Contrary to the Laws of war, And persons taken in Such enterprise are Liable to Suffer death, it will be an object of Safety if the Directory give the Nautulus Company Commissions Specifying that all persons taken in the Nautulus or Submarine expedition Shall be treated as Prisiners of War, And in Case of Violence being offered; the Government, will Retaliate on the British Prisiners in a four fold degree.
Fulton concluded with:
Citizens hoping that this Engine will tend to Give Liberty to the seas, it is of Importance that the experiment Should be proved as soon as Possible in order that if Successful the terror of it may spread before the descent on England, and that it may be brought Into use to facilitate that descent.4
Since the specifications of the submarine are indefinite, it is logical to assume that Fulton supplemented them with a more detailed description which has not been preserved.
On December 31, 1797, the Directory referred these plans to the Minister of Marine, Rear Admiral Georges Pleville- le-Pelley, who accepted them with reservations: the amount of the prize money was to be halved, and the company’s expenses were to be paid only if, due to fear of the submarine, England sued for peace within 90 days; Fulton’s request for commissions in the French Navy was turned down on the grounds that it was impossible “to grant commissions to men who made use of such means to destroy the enemy’s forces, and even so, that such commissions could be any guarantee to them,” inasmuch as the French government could not threaten the British with reprisals since there were far more French prisoners in England than English prisoners in France. Fulton was afraid that without commissions the crew of the submarine would be hanged as pirates by the British; while the Admiral loved the treachery, as the saying goes, he refused to lend official sanction to it, and so the scheme fell through.
Fulton had no appeal from the Admiral’s decision; however, three months after the appointment, on April 28, 1798, of a new Minister of Marine, Rear Admiral Eustace Bruix, Fulton again submitted his plans for the Nautilus, and repeated his offer to build the vessel at no expense to the government. The commissioners appointed by Admiral Bruix to examine Fulton’s proposals displayed a rare understanding of the difficulties of submarine navigation and a keen appreciation of the value of the submarine as a new weapon of war. They realized that it was still imperfect—“the first conception of a man of genius”—and were aware that only after thorough training would the crew be able to use the submarine effectively. They said enthusiastically that “The arm conceived by Citizen Fulton is a terrible means of destruction, because it acts in silence and in a manner almost inevitable,”5 that it was particularly suited to France as a weaker naval power; therefore they requested the Minister of Marine to give Fulton the necessary authorization—and this was more than Fulton had asked—a grant of money to construct the Nautilus.
Unfortunately, the Commission was only an advisory body. The final decision rested with the Minister. The weeks sped by and no action was taken by Bruix. Thinking that the Admiral might be holding back because he thought that submarine warfare was unchivalrous, Fulton appealed to Barras, a powerful member of the Directory, explaining that
If, at first glance, the means I propose seem revolting, it is only because they are extraordinary. They are anything but inhuman; it is certainly the most peaceful and least bloody mode that the philosopher could imagine to overturn the system of plunder and of perpetual war, which has always vexed the maritime nations.6
Still, nothing was done.
It would be tedious to discuss all the details of Fulton’s negotiations. Suffice it to say that for the next eighteen months or so he was buffeted about by the bureaucracy of the First Republic, which, although only seven years old, was already moribund with red tape. On July 17,1799, Fulton reminded the Military Committee of the Directory of the extremely favorable report that had been made on his submarine and said again that he only asked to be allowed to build the vessel at his own expense and attack the British blockading fleet. “Citizen Fulton,” he continues, “has never been able to obtain that permission, but he has not ceased to beg for it with all the zeal of a disinterested patriot, who asks neither for place nor money.” The Committee, in its inevitable report, remarked that “the inventor is no charlatan—he proposes to captain his engine himself and thus gives his head as hostage for his success,” and piously concluded that “philosophy would not reprove a means of destroying the destroyers of the liberty of the seas,” but, like Bruix, it begged off from taking any definite action.
In the summer of 1799 Fulton offered his invention to the Batavian Republic, as the Netherlands was then known, but there, too, it was refused. It was not until Bonaparte came into power as First Consul and Fulton’s friend Forfait was appointed Minister of Marine that, in January or February of 1800, work was begun on the submarine in the machine shop of C. Perrier at Paris.
In the spring of 1799 Fulton had become interested in the panorama, an invention of Rober Barker of Edinburgh. Fulton had taken out a French patent on the device, painted two panoramas, and exhibited them for the first time early in 1800. It was with the profits from the panoramas, eked out by loans from Joel Barlow, that, at a cost of 40,000 francs ($7,720) Fulton built the Nautilus. He had not yet received his commission, but evidently had some sort of understanding with the Minister of Marine, to whom he wrote on April 10, 1800, informing him that the submarine was almost completed, and insisting that a reprisal clause be contained in the commission, saying that he had “every reason to hope from Bonaparte the welcome, the encouragement, that have so long been refused by Directors and Ministers.” Forfait replied that while the Nautilus was a machine not yet used by navies and that its employment infringed upon the laws of war, “It would be dangerous, especially at this moment when so great a number of Frenchmen are in the power of the English, to express any kind of menace in the Commission.” He thought that the mere acknowledgment of the crew of the submarine as belligerents should be sufficient protection.
The Nautilus was a cigar-shaped vessel, 21.25 feet long and 6.43 in diameter, made of copper plates on iron ribs. The ballast tank, which took the form of a hollow iron keel 1.7 feet deep and 15.5 long, was faired to the bow and stern. This tank was allowed to fill until the submarine had only 4 or 5 kilograms of reserve buoyancy, so that when a gallon or so of water was admitted or pumped out the boat sank or rose quite easily. Fulton refers to her depth gauge as a “bathometer” (sic) but does not bother to describe it. It was probably very much like the simple gauge used by Bush- nell: a calibrated glass pipe, closed at the top and open to the sea at the bottom, in which a column of water rose and fell with the increase and decrease of pressure. Fulton was in advance of Bushnell in that he did not believe that a perfect equilibrium could be established between the submarine and the surrounding water. He desired instead to imitate “the mechanism by which fish make their movements in the water,” and by means of a two-cylinder force and suction pump, to take “the place of the swim-bladder which by its spontaneous contractions and dilations increases and decreases the volume of the fish and makes it approach to the surface or sink to the bottom. ...” The germ of this idea was set forth by Giovanni Borelli in 1680.
About a yard from the bow a watertight bulkhead cut off a small compartment in which were placed the anchor gear and a small windlass used in connection with the torpedo. These winches were operated by shafts which passed through stuffing boxes in the bulkhead. The shank of the stockless anchor was drawn up through the hawsehole and its flukes rested against the hull. The conning tower, a copper dome fitted with thick glass ports and a watertight hatch, was located just abaft the anchor compartment. When in a light condition the Nautilus was ventilated by means of the scuttles.
Her screw propeller was 4.4 feet in diameter and each of the two blades was 2.2 feet wide at the tip. Fulton thought that this propeller, which two men operated by means of cranks and gearing, would develop 240 revolutions per minute at high and 120 at cruising speed. Its actual rate, however, turned out to be much lower, and the Nautilus never logged more than 2 knots when submerged. To spare the crew the labor of cranking when the boat was on the surface, she was equipped with a mast and sail, under which, in the open sea, she made 4 ½ knots at best. This low speed was due to the fact that Fulton was forced to sacrifice efficiency to ease of stowage. The comparatively small sail, greater in area at top than at bottom, was bent to a hinged mast and a collapsible arrangement of light spars that could be folded up like a fan and dropped lengthwise into a slot in the deck. This operation was accomplished entirely from within the boat.
The balanced Chinese rudder had not yet made its appearance in Europe and the rudder of the Nautilus was of the common unbalanced type, 3.28 feet long and 1.64 deep. The vessel was steered by means of a long-handled crank which led from an arrangement of cogwheels at the head of the rudder spindle to the commander’s station in the center of the boat. The hydroplanes were of about the same dimensions as the rudder, on which they were hinged so that they could turn through an arc of 15 degrees above and 15 below horizontal. It was doubted that the hydroplanes alone would keep the Nautilus on an even depth line and so Fulton supplemented them with a vertical propeller under the keel. The hydroplane was Fulton’s own invention, but the vertical propeller was borrowed from Bushnell. Subsequent inventors7 also equipped their submarines with vertical propellers and the hydroplane did not come into general use until about 1900.
The periscope was yet to be invented and the pilot stood with his head in the conning tower, shouting his observations to Fulton, who stood behind him, operating the rudder and the hydroplanes and regulating the quantity of water ballast. It is strange that Fulton failed to perceive that the pilot might have lent his strength to the propelling machinery had the controls been so arranged that the duties of captain and engineer were combined.
Fulton’s first method of torpedo attack was quite similar to that employed by Bushnell a quarter of a century before. A shaft, the outer end of which terminated in a sort of harpoon, passed through a stuffing box in the top of the conning tower. Fulton called this “the horn of the Nautilus,” and through an eye in its base passed a 100-fathom line at the end of which was towed a torpedo containing 100 pounds of powder and a gunlock set to go off on contact. The other end of the line was secured to the previously mentioned reel. Fulton planned to maneuver the Nautilus under an enemy vessel and drive the “horn” into her bottom with a few blows of a mallet on the inner end of the shaft. Whereupon the shaft was to be disengaged and while the submarine moved off to a safe distance, he intended to pull the line through the eye until the torpedo struck the ship. Later, he decided that it was better to dive under a ship and tow the torpedo against her without affixing the harpoon.
The Nautilus made her trial run in the Seine opposite the Invalides in mid-June, 1800.8 Guyton de Morveau, an eyewitness, says that she was manned by Fulton and one sailor. With a single candle for illumination they remained submerged for 20 minutes. On coming to the surface they found that the current had carried the boat some distance downstream. Fulton then dived the submarine and brought her back to the point of departure. After several more practice dives the Nautilus was laid up at Rouen for repairs and improvements in preparation for more advanced trials. At Rouen she was modified by the addition of a deck 6 feet wide and 20 long, which, while not appreciably affecting her submerged speed, increased her stability when under sail. It also made it possible for the crew to come up for a breath of fresh air when the submarine was on the surface, and had the additional advantage of making her look like an ordinary boat. She was put into the water on July 24, and her second series of trials began five days later “in 25 feet of water in the middle of the Seine between Bapeaume and the shipyard of the late Citizen Thibault.” Fulton was accompanied by a crew of two and, during a run lasting 3 hours, made one dive of 8 minutes’ duration and another of 17. Fulton informed Forfait that he had succeeded in making the operation of sinking and rising easy and familiar but that lack of experience made it difficult to handle the vessel when submerged in the 3-knot current. He decided, therefore, to conduct all future trials in the harbor of Havre. However, he says, the ability of the Nautilus to sail like an ordinary boat and plunge beneath the surface when necessary to avoid pursuit “may be sufficient to make an operation against the enemy successful . . . .” He requested Forfait to send him an order for 8 to 10 quintals of gunpowder to be used in making torpedoes, and closed on a familiar note:
I have not yet heared anything of the letter of protection from the Primier Consul be so good as to speech to him on that subject and let me know his determination.
After a four days’ journey down the Seine, towing the Nautilus behind two barges, Fulton arrived at Havre on August 3, 1800. Two days later, in an extremely but not unduly confident letter to Forfait, he says, “you will learn with great pleasure that all my experiments on submarine navigation have fully succeeded.” In summarizing his work at Havre Fulton states that he found it necessary to increase the displacement of the Nautilus by fitting her with a 350-pound conical anchor; the propeller worked well, he says, and the compass functioned as perfectly below water as on the surface. He adds that he had “plunged ... by means of lateral wings” retaining the boat at a predetermined level without difficulty.
Fulton was now in need of money and Barlow loyally came through with a draft for $1,000. During the latter part of August Fulton made great progress. On the 24th he “plunged in the basin at Havre to the depth of 15 feet having with me two people and a lighted candle; we remained below the surface for the space of an hour without experiencing the slightest inconvenience.” On the 26th he succeeded in traveling a distance of 90 fathoms (the length of the basin) at a depth of 5 feet, maintaining an even horizontal course by means of the hydroplanes alone. Incidentally, he had removed the hydroplanes from the rudder and fitted a new pair near the bow. “The three people who have been my companions during these experiments are so familiarized with the Nautilus and have so much confidence at present in the movements of this machine that they undertake without the least concern these aquatic excursions.” Then, to test the effectiveness of the torpedo, Fulton anchored a barrel in the middle of the harbor and blew it up with a torpedo containing 30 pounds of gunpowder. For some reason the submarine was not used in this essay, instead, the “carcass of powder” was towed on a 200-fathom line behind a small boat.
Only the lack of a commission prevented Fulton from putting to sea. In Joel Barlow’s opinion,
there was not much danger in the expedition, especially if they don’t go over to the enemy’s coast. ... He is master of all his movements, and it appears to me to be the safest of all hostile enterprises.9
But this was only wishful thinking.
Barlow was doing his best to obtain the commission for which Fulton was so anxious. Fulton, speaking from long experience with vacillating French officialdom, advised Barlow to regard “these fellows . . . [as] parts of the machine .... You must have as much patience with them as with a piece of wood or brass,” and so Barlow haunted the corridors of the Ministry of Marine until, on September 6, 1800, almost three years after Fulton had first requested it, Forfait disgorged the commission in the French Navy.
And now, after these years of waiting and hoping, planning and working, Fulton’s offensive operations began. He relates that on September 12, 1800, he left Havre for La Hogue, and on the 15th, after sailing 70 miles down the channel,
put into a little harbour called Growan near Isigny at 3 leagues from the islands of Marcou. On the [16th] the equinoctial gales commenced and lasted 25 days. During the time I tried twice to approach two English brigs which were anchored near one of the Islands, but both times, whether by accident or design, they set sail and were quickly at a distance. During one of these trials I remained during the whole of one tide of 6 hours absolutely under water, having for the purpose of taking air only a little tube which could not be perceived at a distance of 200 [fathoms].
The weather being bad, I remained 35 days at Growan and seeing that no English vessel returned, and that winter approached, besides my Nautilus not being constructed to resist bad weather, I resolved to return to Paris and place under the eyes of Government the result of my experiments.10
Writing, on November 7, to Monge and Laplace, Fulton says that,
there has come to me a crowd of ideas . . . tending to simplify . . . the great object in view. As to myself I look upon the most difficult part of the work as done.
Fulton had conquered the mechanics of the problem. He had a reasonably effective torpedo; his submarine could maintain a fairly uniform depth line and remain submerged for an hour, but now he had to deal with the human element: the Nautilus was never able to get close enough to a British vessel to use the torpedo. Why? Three years had passed since Fulton’s plans had been submitted to the Directory. In that time his secrets had been bandied about Paris and Amsterdam. It is not surprising that they found their way to Whitehall. On September 21, 1800, we find Captain S. H. Linzie, of H.M.S. L’Oiscau, blockading the port of Havre, thanking the Secretary to the Admirality for his letter of the 14th, “giving an account of Mr. Fulton’s Plan respecting the possibility of destroying the ships on this station. ... I shall be very much on my guard.”11
Upon receiving Fulton’s report Monge and Laplace asked how much it would cost to put several submarines on a war footing. Fulton estimated, in a letter dated Paris, November 18, 1800, that about 250,000 francs—a fifth of the cost of a ship of the line—would be sufficient and requested an immediate advance of 54,000 livres to build a new submarine 30 feet long and 6 in beam, to purchase 20 torpedoes and 2 small boats for use as tenders. He also asked for 3,000 livres to test the new boat at Havre and requested that the trained crew of the Nautilus be retained in government service at the following rates of pay: 600 livres a month for the captain, 400 for the lieutenant, and 180 for a seaman. As for himself, Fulton said that he would accept whatever the government thought proper to give him, adding that,
I have undertaken the experiments at my own expense. I have succeeded to such an extent as to leave no reasonable doubt as to the success of the whole design. But I have expended as much as my circumstances will permit and more than one individual should do for an object of general interest.
Monge and Laplace, acting with remarkable dispatch, wrote to Bonaparte on the following day:
Citizen First Consul,—You have charged us to examine the Nautilus of Cit. Fulton, and to give you our opinion on the probability of its success.
Instead of giving a description of this machine of which you know the object perfectly well, we beg you to indicate the time when we can see you; Cit. Fulton will bring the model of his Nautilus and at one glance you will know its form, the movements of which it is susceptible, and the nature of the operations which it can execute.
We have looked into the projects of Cit. Fulton, his means of execution, and the experiments that he has made already. We do not doubt his success especially if the operation is conducted by the inventor himself who combines with great erudition in the mechanic arts an excellent courage and other moral qualities necessary for such an enterprise.12
They also suggested that before another expedition against the enemy was undertaken, further tests of the torpedo should be made by blowing up a target vessel and asked that 60,000 livres be granted for that purpose.
A few days later they presented Fulton to the future Emperor. Unfortunately no record of their conversation was kept. Despite the wholehearted support of Fulton’s two faithful friends, Monge and Laplace, this interview had no immediate result. After calling on Forfait for news of Bonaparte’s decision, Fulton wrote to the Minister on December 3,
You will permit me to observe that although I have the highest respect for you and the other members of the government, and although I retain the most ardent desire to see the English Government beaten, nevertheless the cold and discouraging manner with which all my exertions have been treated during the past three years will compel me to abandon the enterprise in France if I am not received in a more friendly and liberal manner.13
On the following day Forfait was piqued into sending Bonaparte a lukewarm and hypocritical report. While admitting that Monge and Laplace strongly endorse Fulton’s plans, the Minister of Marine says that it is impossible to grant the request for an old hulk to be used in testing the torpedo, since, if the vessel were sunk, the wreck would be expensive to remove. He says that he had suggested, as a counterproposal, that Fulton destroy an enemy warship, but that Fulton refused to do this until spring. Forfait also advocated that the use of the Nautilus as a submarine be given up and that she be employed solely as a surface torpedo boat.
But, on February 27, 1801, due to the persuasion of Monge and Laplace, Bonaparte ordered the Minister of Marine to accept Fulton’s proposals and to give him 10,000 francs ($1,930) with which to repair the Nautilus. A month later it was decreed that Fulton be allowed prize money of 400,000 francs for sinking a ship of more than 30 guns, 200,000 for one of 20 to 30 guns, 150,000 for one of 12 to 20 guns, and 60,000 francs for a vessel of 10 guns, but nothing for smaller craft.
Fulton and the Nautilus, which was probably transported overland from Isigny, where she had been left for the winter, arrived at Brest sometime in May, 1801. The naval dockyard there was placed at his disposal and he was allowed to requisition supplies from the Arsenal. In his report to “Citizens Monge, La Place and Volney . . . Commissioners appointed by the first Consul to promote the invention of Submarine Navigation,” he points out that
my plunging boat had many imperfections, natural to the first machine of so difficult a combination added to this I found that she had been much Injured by the rust during the winter in consequence of having in many places used iron bolts and arbours instead of copper or brass. The reparation of these defects and the difficulty of finding workmen Consumed near two months, and although the machine remained still extremely imperfect, yet she has answered to prove every necessary experiment in the most satisfactory manner.14
On July 22 he submerged to 5, then to 10 feet, and so on until he reached a depth of 25 feet, beyond which he did not venture for fear that the hull could not withstand the pressure, and where he and his crew of three, Captain Sergent, Lieutenant Fleuret, and Citizen Guillaume, with two lighted candles, remained for an hour without finding the air oppressive. According to the calculations of Guyton de Morvcau, the volume of air in the Nautilus, about 212 cubic feet, was sufficient “to nourish 4 men and 2 small candles 3 hours.” Wishing to dispense with the candles, Fulton fitted a glass scuttle 1.5 inches in diameter into the deck near the bow, which admitted enough light to permit him to “count the minutes on the watch.” He also added a jib to the mainsail, and on July 26, having “tacked and re-tacked, tryed her before and by the wind,” and otherwise testing the sailing qualities of the Nautilus, he made several practice dives and found that he could lower sail and submerge in about 2minutes. The next four days were spent in executing subsurface evolutions. Fulton was dissatisfied with the short length of time that the boat could remain submerged. A government commission had told him in September, 1798, that the air in her hull would support four men and a lamp for 6 hours. That estimate was halved by De Morveau, but one hour, despite Fulton’s assertions to the contrary, seems to have been the limit of endurance. By doing without the candle, 4 men could stay below for an hour and forty minutes. De Morveau then advised Fulton to purify the air by absorbing the carbon dioxide with lime and to carry bottles of ogygen which might be uncorked as needed. But, Fulton says, the bottles would have taken up too much space, and so he simply equipped the Nautilus with a compressed air tank. The idea had occurred to him 18 months previously and it ranks next to the hydroplane as his most important contribution to submarine navigation. This device, a copper globe one cubic foot in capacity, was fitted with two petcocks, a pressure gauge, and an air pump. It took two men about an hour to bring the pressure up to 200 pounds per square inch, and by letting the air out in measured quantities from time to time, the submarine was able to run for 6 hours without surfacing.
But Fulton had not been able to render the Nautilus completely seaworthy. As an inexpensive substitute for her he built a surface torpedo boat, a pinnace 36 feet long, “perfectly constructed,” and propelled by a manually operated screw. Fulton expected her to attain a speed of a 12 knots, but even with a crew of 24 picked men from the battleship Ocean, she made only 4, and the sound of her propeller crank could be heard for about 200 fathoms. Her armament was the towed torpedo of the Nautilus. It may be remembered that in 1777, a year after he had scrapped his submarine, David Bushnell tried to sink H.M.S. Cerberus by floating a torpedo towards her by means of a long line from a rowboat.
Forfait, writing on July 4, 1801, to the commander of the French squadron at Brest, Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse, said that it had been decided that Fulton’s torpedo boat should attempt to sink one of the British ships which were blockading the port. In obedience to orders, Fulton slipped out on two raids, one on August 8, and another on the 10th, both of which were unsuccessful. The British Admiralty spy system worked uncommonly well where Fulton was concerned; when he approached the cruisers he saw that they were expecting him: not only had the British placed lookouts at the mastheads to keep watch with telescopes, but guard boats rowed round the ships whenever they came near the mouth of the harbor.
The torpedo boat was now a dead letter, and although the Nautilus was useless except for experimental purposes, Fulton believed that the government would finance the construction of a new submarine to be used in the spring campaign, and so he turned his attention to the improvement of the torpedo. He states that,
It is this Bomb which is the Engine of destruction, the plunging boat is only for the purpose of conveying the Bomb to where it may be used to advantage. . . . The Prefect Maritime and Admiral Villaret ordered a small Sloop of about 40 feet long to be anchored in the Road on [August 11]. With a bomb containing about 20 pounds of powder I advanced to about [100 fathoms]; then taking my direction so as to pass near the Sloop, I struck her with the bomb in my passage. The explosion took place and the sloop was torn to atoms. . . . This simple Experiment at once proved the effect of the Bomb Submarine to the satisfaction of all the Spectators.15
In his plan for the submarine blockade of England, presented to Monge, Laplace, and Volney on September 9, 1801, Fulton recommends that the government build two submarines, each 36 feet long and 12 in beam, capable of carrying 6 men, air for 8 hours, and provisions for 3 weeks,16 along with 25 or 30 mines. These boats, he says, need not sail at more than 5 to 7 knots, but must make at least 1 knot when submerged and their brass hulls should be strong enough to allow them to dive to 60 or 80 feet. His plan also called for hundreds of floating mines, varying in powder capacity from 200 to 400 pounds, half of them to be detonated by clockwork and half by contact. Each submarine was to take on a full cargo of mines, and under cover of night, “let them loose with the current into the harbours of Portsmouth, Plymouth, Torquay or elsewhere.” Many of these mines, he admits, would miss, but some would be sure to strike the shipping. “And thus the enemy may at all times be attacked in their own Ports, and by a means at once cheap, simple, and I conceive, certain in its operation.” Another method would be to anchor two or three hundred contact mines in the entrance channels of the Thames.
No pilot could steer clear of such hidden dangers, ... no one dare to raise them even if hooked by grapplings, as they could not tell the moment when they might touch the Secret Spring which would cause the explosion and destruction of everything around them. No vessel could pass without the utmost danger of running on one of them and Her instant destruction . . . nor can the combined fleets of England prevent this kind of attack. . . . The free navigation of the Thames nourishes the immense commerce of London, and the commerce of London is the Nerve and Vitals of the Cabinet of St. James. Convince England that you have the means of stopping that source of riches, and she must submit to your terms.17
The Commissioners do not seem to have been greatly impressed by the blockade plan, but it aroused Bonaparte’s interest. The opportunity that Fulton had been waiting for presented itself for a moment and then slipped away. In his final report, dated September 20, 1801, Fulton had to tell the Commissioners that he was unable to gratify the First Consul’s desire to see the Nautilus.
When I finished my experiments, She leaked very much, and being but an imperfect engine, I did not think her further useful,—hence I took Her to pieces, Sold Her Iron work, lead and cylinders .... So that now nothing remains which can give an Idea of her combination ....
He refuses to show his drawings to a committee of engineers on the grounds that information concerning the submarine might leak out to the enemy, and because,
I consider this Invention as my private property, the perfectionment of which will give to France incalculable advantages over her most powerful and active enemy; and which Invention, I conceive, ought to secure to me an ample Independence. That consequently the Government should stipulate certain terms with me Before I proceed to further explanation.18
On October 1, 1801, Forfait resigned as Minister of Marine and was replaced by Vice Admiral Decrès. Forfait, although a cordial friend of Fulton, at last lost faith in the Nautilus, but his objections were so puling that Bonaparte lightly brushed them aside. Decrès, however, was an entirely different sort of man. A blue-water sailor, he despised submarine warfare and dismissed Fulton in the grand manner of a character out of Racine; “Go, sir, your invention may be of use to the Algerines and Corsairs, but learn that France has not yet abandoned the ocean.”19
Fulton later had some small success with towed torpedoes in England (1804-1805) and in America during the War of 1812, and although he often planned to do so, he was never able to build his improved submarine.
Fulton’s knowledge of submarine construction and navigation was infinitely superior to that of his contemporaries, and he had a firmer grasp of the principles of submarine warfare than many of his successors. He extracted the last ounce of value from the materials available to him and the Nautilus was as perfect as Fulton’s limited resources and the technology of the time could make her.
David Bushnell had thought of the submarine purely as a defensive weapon and it never seems to have occurred to him that more than one submarine should be in service at the same time. Fulton, on the other hand, saw that one submarine, operating alone, could accomplish very little. After his first enthusiasm over the Nautilus was past, and he had learned something about naval warfare, he realized that the destruction of a single frigate, or even the torpedoing of several ships of the line, could not win the war. Therefore he regarded the Nautilus as an experimental vessel, the forerunner of a fleet of submarines. As early as October 18, 1798, he had asked the Minister of Marine to agree to an arrangement whereby, after he had proved the value of the submarine by sinking a British warship, the French government was to credit him with 500,000 francs ($96,500) with which to build 10 submarines. Fulton, a century ahead of his time in his conception of the mission of the submarine, envisioned his “fleet of Nautili” as breaking the British blockade of France, and, more than that, as blockading the British Isles themselves. Nothing ever came of this scheme, but it appears that he thought that he would be able to put it into operation with the prize money gained by sinking a few British ships.
The careful watch kept on Fulton by Admiralty spies indicates the importance attached to his invention by the British; nevertheless, the Nautilus was without effect in her own time and exerted little or no influence upon naval warfare. She gave the British a few apprehensive moments, but the blockade was neither relaxed nor rendered even slightly less efficient. It is true that when the British sighted her off Growan in September, 1800, “they set sail and were quickly at a distance,” but the French Navy did not attempt to exploit that advantage. What a squadron of 10 submarines, or what 2 submarine mine layers might have accomplished is entirely within the realm of speculation, but it can be said that Fulton’s failure was due equally to the vigilance of the British and to a cardinal naval crime on the part of the French high command—lack of imagination.
1. A. C. Sutcliffe, Robert Fulton and the “Clermont," New York, The Century Co., 1909, p. 317.
2. C. D. Colden, The Life of Robert Fulton, New York, 1817, pp. 25-26.
3. Ibid., pp. 61-62.
4. H. W. R. Dickinson, Robert Fulton, Engineer and Artist, London, J. Lane, 1913, pp. 74-7S.
5. Ibid., pp. 87.
6. Sutcliffe, pp. 61-62.
7. Tuck, 1884, Nordenfclt, 1885, Goubct, 1885, Baker, 1892, Rutlcy, 1896, Arglcs, 1900, etc.
8. Holden Furber, “Fulton and Napoleon in 1800: New Light on the Submarine Nautilus,” The American Historical Review, Vol, XXXIX, April, 1934, pp. 489- 94.
9. C. B. Todd, Life and Letters of Joel Barlow, New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1886, p. 181.
10. Dickinson, p. 108.
11. Dickinson, p. 109.
12. Ibid., p. 111.
13. W. B. Parsons, Robert Fulton and the Submarine, New York, Columbia University Press, 1922, p. 37.
14. Sutcliffe, p. 89.
15. Sutcliffe, pp. 94-95.
16. St. Aubin, “Account of a Diving Boat,” Journal de Commerce, Paris, January 20, 1802, vide, The European Magazine, London, Vol. 41, April, 1802, p. 245.
17. Sutcliffe, pp. 321-25.
18. Ibid., pp. 84-87.
19. Lt. Comdr. J. S. Barnes, U. S. Navy, Submarine Warfare, Offensive and Defensive, New York, D. Van Nostrand, 1869, p. 30.