196 years ago today, the first steam-powered U.S. Navy warship, Fulton, was launched in New York City – culminating a seven year adventure by inventor Robert Fulton.
Fulton’s relationship with the United States Navy began in 1807, when few could have predicted his major importance in the Navy’s history. In fact, that relationship started out badly, principally because of the rhetoric Fulton used to promote his naval inventions.
Fulton shared in the republican enthusiasm of the revolutionary age. Enthusiasts for the new republics of the United States and France believed that republican government would solve society’s great evils, including the evil of war. These early republicans believed that wars resulted from the greed and ambition of monarchs and aristocrats. Eliminating kings and nobles and putting government in the hands of the people would eliminate the principal causes of war. The common man would not vote for war merely to aggrandize the wealthy who were interested in conquest and dominion.
Fulton conceived of his inventions of naval weapons as part of the republican campaign to end warfare. His work on underwater explosives and the means of delivering them to the hulls of warships below the waterline that would cause those warships to sink quickly, he believed, would make large warships as vulnerable to destruction as were small warships. Once his inventions were proven successful, they would make navies obsolete. Either great ships of the line would be sunk to the bottom of the ocean, or governments would stop building them only to see them quickly destroyed.
In 1810 Fulton persuaded the Navy to participate in tests of his system of destroying warships by mines. The secretary of the navy assigned Captain John Rodgers, USN, to the project. Rodgers viewed Fulton as a dangerous visionary. It wasn’t that Rodgers feared that Fulton’s inventions would actually work and doom navies to destruction. He was sure that they would not. What Rodgers feared was that Fulton would persuade Congress, and that Congress would cut the Navy’s budget even more than it already had.
In the test, in which Fulton attempted to float his mines against the sides of a Navy brig, Rodgers thwarted the mines with netting and booms, which he said were prepared out of supplies readily found aboard any naval vessel. Fulton returned to the drawing board, designing ways of defeating the nets and booms.
The War of 1812 changed the attitude of naval officers toward Fulton. U.S. naval officers became open to innovative means of sinking the enemy’s blockaders and for defending the ports against naval attacks. During that war, Robert Fulton designed the U.S. Navy’s first steam-powered warship, which was also the world’s first such vessel. In time, steam power would transform naval warfare and the structure of navies. Fulton’s inventive work on submarines and mines, on what he called the submarine gun, and on steam transport vessels also contributed to those transformations.
Robert Fulton would have found it ironic, perhaps, that instead of making navies obsolete, his naval innovations helped in the transformation that made navies an even more essential element of national existence, so that by the end of the nineteenth century the measure of a nation’s prestige was pretty much the size of its navy.