Robert Fulton, famous later for his success with steam-propelled vessels, built a submarine, the Nautilus, at Paris in 1800 that he successfully demonstrated to the French government. He hoped to sell the boat—copper skinned over iron frames and driven by a hand-cranked propeller while submerged—but was rebuffed and sold the craft for scrap.
Robert Fulton (1765-1815), albeit far from gullible, was among the first to take Bushnell’s legendary submarine legacy on board. He was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania on 14 November 1765, to a Scottish-Irish family farming 394 acres at Little Britain even less successfully than the Bushnells cultivated their hillside in Connecticut: in the winter of 1791-2 the Fultons had to sell up and move back to their origins in the city of Lancaster where Robert’s father died soon afterwards.
With scant money at home to support three sisters and a young brother besides himself, young Robert went to Philadelphia where he obtained a precarious living, first as a jeweller’s apprentice and then as a landscape and miniature portrait painter. When, in 1786, he had saved enough for the fare, he emigrated to England to study art under Benjamin West with whom he stayed until 1793. A personable, persuasive young man with more than his half-share of Irish charm, not to say blarney, Robert made friends easily. He was soon engaged in canal schemes for improving inland navigation, inventing and patenting devices for flaxspinning, sawing marble, twisting ropes and dredging. Ultimately, his fame was to rest on the steamboat which he made a commercial success in America, but he always said that his submarine proposals were more important.
Fulton was undeniably brilliant. He was also bumptious and egocentric; but it was his dramatic shifts of allegiance as a would-be arms supplier – to France, to Great Britain, to the United States – that earned him odium.
He professed paramount concern for freedom of the seas and free trade, arguing that the world’s problems were caused by armies and navies, especially the latter which demanded heavy taxation and enforced recruitment. The thing to do, he said, was to get rid of navies altogether. The great attraction of this policy was that it would save America, where ships were decidedly in short supply, from having to pay for a proper fleet. Equally it would save France from having to face a persistently more powerful Royal Navy. To achieve these desirable ends, Fulton was devoting his whole attention to finding out ‘means of destroying such [naval] engines of oppression.’
A worldly-wise observer might suspect that Robert Fulton had a hidden agenda when advocating international disarmament on the one hand, while offering for sale (to successively opposing markets) ‘plunging boats’ and ‘torpedoes’ on the other. But despite the caveat about his motives (which, after all, only anticipated twentieth-century arms dealers), his resourcefulness and sheer engineering ability were exceptional. So were his selling techniques. But it was artistic merit that first led him to the world of underwater warfare.
In 1797, with France governed by the Directory after the Revolution, Fulton was invited to paint a colossal panorama of Paris. Here, his thoughts continually returning to maritime affairs, he witnessed the effects of the Royal Navy’s blockading strategy which the French Navy was unable to break. Fulton thought he might be able to help.
He was familiar with Bushnell’s ideas which had been proclaimed in Paris by Franklin and Jefferson. It is likely, too, that Bushnell’s former chief in the Engineer Corps, Brig Louis Duportail (imported from France in 1778 to improve Colonial engineering skills) took back details of Colonial weapon systems when he returned to France. Another American connection was the notorious land speculator and businessman Joel Barlow with whom Fulton lodged in Paris: Barlow was the brother-in-law of Abraham Baldwin who first sheltered Bushnell in Georgia. In other words, Fulton had a head-start when turning his mind to covert warfare on behalf of the French Navy.
His first device for attaining freedom of the seas was a self-propelled explosive ‘carcass’ or ‘submarine bomb’ built with Barlow’s help. It failed to attract backers, but on 13 December 1797 he wrote to the governing Directory of the First Republic:
Citizen Directors, Having taken great interest in all that would diminish the power of the English Fleet, I have planned the construction of a mechanical engine, in which I have the greatest confidence, for the annihilation of this Navy. . . . The grandeur of the project has excited in me an ardor to share in a demonstration of this engine. To this end, in order to save you more trouble, I have formed a Company which will undertake the expense and carry out the work on the following terms . . .
His terms were steep. The French Government would have to pay the Company of the ‘Nautulus’ (as he spelled the submarine he proposed) 4,000 francs per gun for every English ship above forty guns destroyed and 2,000 francs per gun for every ship below forty guns. English merchant ships or war vessels captured were to become the property of the Company ‘without any hindrance 011 the part of the government agents to prove they are English property’.
The implied success rate is reminiscent of De Son, and, in the event, Nautilus achieved no more sinkings than the clockwork craft of 1653; but at least Fulton’s boat was capable of (very slow) movement under its own power.
As a sop to patriotism, Fulton stipulated that the Nautilus (or anything similar) would not be used by the French against the United States ‘or, at least, the Americans must use them first against France before this stipulation is annulled’.
He was well aware that ‘in the case of . . . contrivances . . . which are considered to be against the Laws of War, the people who take part in these enterprises are hung. . . .’ He therefore demanded a naval commission for all crew members so that, if taken prisoner during ‘one of the Company’s expeditions’, they would be treated properly as prisoners of war. He concluded in his usual vein of trusting that ‘this engine will give liberty of the sea’ and that ‘the Terror |British fleet] will be scattered before the invasion of England, and the boat can be employed in assisting this invasion’.
The French Directory was inclined to accept the proposition in principle, although the rewards were drastically reduced and a commission to the submarine’s crew was briskly refused: such a method of waging war at sea was unworthy of French uniform.
Then, on 5 February 1798, the project was turned down altogether after the Minister of Marine, Adm Pleville le Pelley ( 1726 – 1805 ) declared that his conscience would not allow him recourse to so terrible a weapon. However, le Pelley was replaced on 28 April by the younger Adm Eustache Bruix (1759-1805) who reopened the matter and appointed an advisory commission which included the naval architect Pierre Forfait. Forfait, who had himself suggested a submarine for like purposes in 1783, championed Fulton but the scheme was rebuffed because it too openly implied French naval inferiority. However, when Citoyen Marc-Antoine Bourdon de Vatry (1761-1828) succeeded Bruix on 1 July 1799, Fulton submitted a fresh proposal. On 9 November, Napoleon seized power as First Consul and Forfait was promoted to Minister: no obstacles now remained.
The copper-skinned Nautilus, 6.48 m long and 1.94 m broad, was laid down in the Perrier Brothers’ works on the River Seine at Paris. The firm would soon be associated with steam navigation; but the submersible was propelled by a twobladed hand-cranked propeller (similar to Bushnell’s ‘oar’, but Fulton called it his ‘flyer’). A collapsible sailing rig was provided for use on the surface.
Launched in May 1800, Nautilus made her debut in the Seine off the Hotel des Invalides. Fulton, like Drebbel, used the current to advantage so that, running awash, he was able to make it appear that the submarine was quite fast. Onlookers crowding the banks cheered wildly although Nautilus never submerged fully. However, Fulton may have managed to dip momentarily, having judiciously flooded his three ballast tanks to a pre-determined level. The 30-degree up, level, or 30-degree down horizontal rudders aft (an undeniable first) cannot have had much effect when maximum speed through the water was no more than one or two knots – for so long as musclemen Sergeant and Fleuret held out. Monsieur St Aubin, a Member of the Tribunale, informed the Naval Chronicle that the boat ‘made way at the rate of half-a-league an hour’ (a league equalled three miles) – which sounds reasonable – and that, during later experiments at Le Havre, ‘Mr Fulton not only remained a whole hour underwater with three of his companions, but held his boat parallel to the horizon at any given depth’ – which sounds entirely wrong. The spin-doctoring St Aubin went on to wonder:
Who can see all the circumstances of this discovery or the improvements of which it is susceptible? Mr Fulton has already added to his boat a machine, by means of which he blew up a large boat in the port of Brest; and if by future experiments, the same effect could be produced on frigates or ships of the line, what will become of maritime wars …?
Trials at Brest were more hazardous than they had been in the Seine, where the depth of water had been at most 25 ft. Fulton claimed his boat went down to between 25 and 30 ft and held her depth. Corroboration is lacking and he could not possibly have kept control submerged for any meaningful length of time. He himself confessed that Nautilus was ‘extremely difficult to manage’. The weapon system was never demonstrated: this (cribbed from Bushnell, as were other features) comprised a copper magazine attached to a barbed spike which could be driven home from inside the helmet-shaped conning tower which had thick glass scuttles at the top and sides. Estimated safe depth was 9 m (30 ft); and on 3 June 1801, at Brest, the boat was bottomed at 7 m (23 ft) and remained one hour, which is believable. Then the crew pumped out water to bring her up again. The money actually paid to Fulton is uncertain although sums of 10,000 and 6,000 francs (from Forfait) have been mentioned against building costs reckoned at 28,000 francs.
Nautilus ventured to sea several times from 12 to 15 September 1800 in the area between Le Havre and La Hogue – all credit to Fulton for taking her so far. But the submarine was too slow to approach a target, and Capt Samuel Linzee of the potential British victim L’Oiseau, on patrol off Le Havre, was warned by an Admiralty message on 14 September.
Fulton changed his plan of attack from spike and magazine to towed ‘carcass’ (knowing that he would never drive the spike into a moving vessel), but this unilateral alteration upset Forfait, as did the submarine’s continuing inability to conclude an attack. When Forfait was replaced by the hardnosed, seamanlike Adm Decres on 1 October 1801, the date on which preliminaries for a short-lived peace were agreed with England, Napoleon’s advisers lost interest in the submarine. Fulton had, in fact, already sold it for scrap.
So much for Fulton’s own faith in Nautilusl As for the French Navy, Decres finally dismissed the inventor with: ‘Go, Sir, your invention may be good for Algerians or pirates, but be advised that France has not yet abandoned the oceans.’ Fulton next tried (unsuccessfully) to sell his plans to the Dutch; but, after due consideration unimpeded by probity, he decided that England was a better bet.
Receiving his conge from Paris in a letter, dated 5 February 1804, which confirmed that all his propositions were rejected, he left the French capital on 29 April and arrived unabashed in London on 19 May. Fulton was nothing if not adaptable – like the good Bishop Wilkins – but he continued to preach freedom of the seas as his sole interest.