Nautilus – 1800 Part II


Fulton’s Nautilus, 1801; length 6.5m, max beam 2.1m.


Fulton’s unfulfilled 85ft semi-submersible bullet-proof Mute, 1814, with handcranks linked to a paddlewheel and seven underwater guns, intended for silently sneaking up to the King’s ships on Lake Ontario.

The British Intelligence Service was efficient; and, although there was scepticism about Nautilus, there was markedly less doubt about explosions beneath the surface. It was known that one of Fulton’s ‘torpedoes’ had been towed against a shallop, which sank immediately. (Fulton was the first to adopt the word ‘torpedo’, taken from the North Atlantic species of ray Torpedo nobiliana which produces strong shocks to stun its prey.) Mr Francis (Fulton’s alias in England) was worth wooing.

There was some naval huffing and puffing about ignoble principles; but British politicians were by no means averse to using cheap weapons which could destroy enemy ships, including invasion barges, without imperilling significant elements of the Fleet. Economy was an important factor: Prime Minister Pitt had been forced to introduce Income Tax in 1798 to finance the war, and it was not popular at 2 shillings in the pound on incomes above £60 per annum.

There was also a strategic reason for adopting irregular weaponry. Adm Horatio Nelson, no less, had been charged with defeating French invasion plans in the summer of 1801. His hope was to encounter Bonaparte at sea and make him ‘feel the bottom of the Goodwins’; but in the event he had to be content with bombarding Boulogne for sixteen hours on 4 August. He returned, with a force of fifty-seven boats, eleven nights later, with the object of capturing the invasion barges assembled at Boulogne and towing them back to England. French shore batteries and gunboats moored off the port, together with strong tidal streams inshore, defeated the noble admiral’s purpose. Nelson uncharacteristically comforted himself by concluding that natural conditions in the Channel were so adverse that a crossing and landing by French invasion craft would be impractical in any case; but Parliament’s fears were not eased. Pitt turned to Fulton.

A Commission duly debated Fulton’s ‘Nautilus’ plan which was paralleled by a suggested one-man submersible, only 9 ft long, which he named ‘The Messenger’. The larger craft would be 35 ft long, 10 ft wide and 8 ft deep, capable of accommodating a crew of six for twenty days at sea. It could, the American added, anchor while submerged.

Fulton’s designs did not impress. Before a verdict was announced he learned of the Commission’s unfavourable reaction and wrote directly to William Pitt: ‘. . . Robert Fulton, known by the name of Francis, Author of Submarine Navigation . . . I beg 20 minuets |s/c] conversation with you as soon as possible.’ Pitt invited Fulton and the Commission’s Chairman to breakfast at his country house and here, on 20 July 1804, a contract was signed with Fulton who would receive £200 a month for explaining how to attack an enemy fleet with ‘submarine Bombs’ and supervising consequent operations. He would also be paid up to £7,000 for his ‘mechanical preparations’. The Royal Dockyards and Arsenals would provide materials; and the Government would pay £ 40,000 for every decked French vessel sunk.

On 2 October 1804, Adm Keith, flying his flag in HMS Monarch and with Mr Francis on board, led an expedition to Boulogne where, ironically, Adm Bruix was in command of the invasion fleet. Although historians have referred to Fulton’s torpedo-mines as catamarans, they were no more than casks in pairs connected by a rope – the Battle of the Kegs restaged.

The operation commenced at 9.15 p.m. and lasted seven hours. Clockwork delay mechanisms were set for ten minutes, so the point of release was about 100 yards to seaward on the flood tide. Most of the connected mines, which the French christened ‘fireship chains’, were driven onshore where they either exploded or fell into inquiring enemy hands. Only one French ship was lost. When the attackers started to withdraw, at 4.15 the following morning, an officer from HMS Leopard confided his hope to ‘return the remainder of the machines to store from which, as a true friend of the service, I heartily wish we had never taken them.’

The results were greeted in London with more warmth than they deserved, and the performance was repeated a year later on 1 October 1805. Nothing significant was achieved: Napoleon described the raid as ‘breaking the windows of the good citizens of Boulogne with English guineas’.

Fulton hastened to restore his reputation. On the afternoon of 15 October 1805, he organized a test against the redundant brig Dorothea anchored in Walmer Roads not far from Pitt’s country estate near Dover. Naval officers were scornful: a Capt Kingston vowed that if a ‘torpedo’ were set off under his cabin while he was at dinner he would not be worried. None the less the brig was deserted by the afternoon of 15 October when a couple of eight-man galleys snared two pairs of mines across the anchor cable. Calculating that previous ‘torpedoes’ had been too heavy and hence too deep to rub against a hull (which of course curved inwards towards the keel), Fulton arranged for these mines to be held up by buoyant cork. The resulting explosion broke the vessel in half: it disappeared in less than a minute.

Fulton was ecstatic and an unusually prompt Chancellor of the Exchequer agreed to advance him £10,000, one-quarter the sum promised for complete proof of success. The Admiralty immediately planned to send ‘Mr Francis’ to assault French and Spanish warships gathered at Cadiz; and on 27 October Lord Castlereigh, Secretary for War, wrote to tell Adm Lord Nelson of the intention. But Nelson had already done what was necessary, and lost his life, at the Battle of Trafalgar six days earlier.

There was therefore no more need for Fulton’s type of warfare, which British sea officers professed to abhor as unmanly and assassin-like, comparing it to the midnight attack of a burglar. Vice Adm Sir George Berkeley thought that ‘The Author or rather projector . . . tried his hand upon John Bull’s credulity . . . and after a very expensive Trial the scheme was scouted not perhaps so much from its Failure as from the Baseness & Cowardice of this species of Warfare.’ Anonymous ‘F.F.F.’ writing to the Naval Chronicle agreed (at length): ‘How base! How horrible! . . . when we see men openly stooping from their lofty station to superintend the construction of such detestable machines, what are we to infer . . . ?’

More to the point Adm Lord St Vincent told Fulton to his face that ‘Pitt was the greatest fool that ever existed to encourage a mode of warfare which those who commanded the seas did not want, and which, if successful, would deprive them of it.’

When Fulton perceived, after Trafalgar, that his chances in England were at an end he endeavoured, fruitlessly, to extract a massive sum from the Treasury, primarily, as he put it, to ensure that he ‘would remain tranquil’, meaning that he would not sell his ‘torpedoes’ elsewhere. In November 1806, with a severely reduced but not unfair settlement in hand, Mr Francis reverted to Robert Fulton and sailed for New York. In July 1807 he conducted, in New York Bay, three more demonstrations (two of which failed) similar to the Dorothea trial.