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Technology and Culture 43.2 (2002) 428-429

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Book Review

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

The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream. By Kirkpatrick Sale. New York: Free Press, 2001. Pp. 242. $24.

Robert Fulton is famous in American history as the inventor of the steamboat. In The Fire of His Genius, Kirkpatrick Sale, author of books about the European discovery of America, the Luddites, and other topics, sets out to debunk several myths about Fulton and give us a more balanced—and sometimes jaundiced—view of Fulton's life and the world in which he lived. There is no question that Fulton was a genius. During the first forty years of his life, however, his genius consisted mainly in ingratiating himself with wealthy people by promising artistic and technological wonders. Only late and marginally did he become interested in steam power. His main obsession seems to have been naval warfare, in particular building human-powered submarines and the floating mines he called "torpedoes."

Although he was a failure as an artist and as a designer of weapons, Fulton was amazingly successful as a confidence man. He moved from the United States to Britain, from Britain to France, then back to Britain. At a time when Britain and France were at war, he was able to play one against the other, promising each country this his inventions would defeat its enemies, and threatening to divulge his "secrets" to the enemy if he were not paid handsomely. He ended up, at age forty, a wealthy man, having achieved nothing. His story should be an inspiration to traitors and blackmailers everywhere.

In 1806 Fulton moved back to the United States and formed a partnership with Robert "Chancellor" Livingston, one of America's early plutocrats. With Livingston's money, he began constructing the North River, the steamboat that is still, mistakenly, called Clermont in many history books. Though Fulton claimed to have invented the steamboat, he did nothing of the sort, for the Philadelphian John Fitch had experimented with steam-powered boats years before, as did the Frenchman Jouffroy d'Abbans and the Briton William Symington.

Fulton's genius consisted of building his boat in New York, the busiest port in the Americas, but a city beset with inadequate connections to its hinterland. As Fulton and many others realized, the Hudson River was the natural highway to upstate New York, but difficult for sailboats to navigate. [End Page 428] Fulton's North River was the solution to this bottleneck, as its successors were to be in opening up the Mississippi-Missouri watershed in the years to come.

In 1807, therefore, Fulton suddenly accomplished something very important, to his own as well as everyone else's surprise. While he devoted most of his energy to the steamboat business, he never gave up his schemes to produce deadly naval weapons, including a steam-powered warship. Yet in the last eight years of his life, much of his time and effort was devoted to litigation in a vain attempt to enforce a monopoly on steam navigation foolishly awarded to Livingston by the State of New York, and to seek similar privileges in the southern states and on the Mississippi.

In the process of describing Fulton's life and enterprises, Sale paints a vivid picture of the world he lived in: the aristocratic and artistic milieus of England, American expatriates in Paris under Napoleon, and the bustling, chaotic, frenetic world of New York City. Sale also presents a very interesting description of the impact of steamboats on the growth and prosperity of the United States (and the destruction of the Indians) in the decades before the railroad transformed everything yet again.

Historians of technology who love hardware will be disappointed that very little space is devoted to steamboats per se, their engines, their construction, their nautical properties. This book is not aimed at them, but at the general public, readers who like a good story filled with interesting characters and dramatic episodes, those...


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