Building the First Submarine

And now Fulton began to build his submarine torpedo-boat and named it Nautilus, meaning a sea-shell. He wrote a letter to the French Directory and offered to submit his plan and explain his engine to Napoleon, whom he had heard was “a good engineer.”

The emperor was at the height of his power. With France and England at war, disturbed conditions prevailed throughout Europe and the unrest hindered all progress. Fulton offered to the French nation, through its governing body, his original weapon to secure their supremacy upon the seas throughout the world.

His letters on the subject, which must have seemed like fairy-tales, fortunately are preserved in the archives of France. In one he asked to be authorized to build the engine he had invented and to try it against the English fleet. He himself promised to make the trial and asked no other compensation for labor extending over eighteen months than “the happiness of having contributed to the re-establishment of peace, the freedom of the seas and of commerce, and the consolidation of the Republic.”

The Directory appointed a committee to consider Fulton’s novel plan; they made a fairly favorable report, for, they said, “the inventor is no charlatan, for he proposes to captain his engine himself and thus gives his head as a hostage for his success.”

But after several years of experiment and trial, Fulton was still far from finding acceptance of his plan. In 1797, when he began to devise it, he was possibly inspired by the work of an American, David Bushnell, of Connecticut, who had built a turtle-shaped boat to dive under water and attach an explosive to an enemy’s boat. The device met with scant success in America, so Bushnell crossed to France, where he also failed to arouse interest.

Fulton’s invention was far more powerful and agile, if we may use the word. It could sail like a common boat on the water, then dive below and remain under the water at any depth for more than six hours at a time; guided by a compass, it could move about with ease, and plant torpedoes where desired. Small wonder that the Frenchmen were slow to believe all the astonishing statements made in its favor by the enthusiastic inventor.

But Fulton stood ready to prove them. During the years 1799 and 1800 he was busy demonstrating the accomplishments of his novel craft. He launched it in July, 1800, and proceeded to make a series of experiments in the middle of the Seine where he could plunge twenty-five feet. He took two persons down with him and his tests were encouraging although the swift currents of the tide made him decide to remove the boat to Havre on the coast, where he could attempt feats in the open sea.

His queer-looking boat, six feet wide and twenty feet long, was towed on two barges to Havre, where four days later it arrived and Fulton proceeded to put her through all sorts of “paces.” The vessel responded to his every wish and he imagined that universal peace would result from the use of the new subduing agent, the torpedo.

Great ideas move slowly,—their very immensity hinders quick progress. Fulton was under heavy expense in the building and testing of his strange boat. Barlow, who remained in Paris, wrote frequent letters of encouragement and forwarded drafts of money, profits which were Fulton’s share in the earnings of the panorama. Repeated entreaties to the Directory finally gained attention, and Napoleon showed enough interest to appoint a committee to examine the queer-looking vessel.

To this committee Fulton eagerly explained his invention. He tells the story in simple language and it is so thrilling that a copy will prove interesting. He writes:

Not having had time to busy myself with the drawings and description of the latest changes I have thought fit to make in my Nautilus, I take the liberty to recommend the model of it to your examination as the best means of enabling you to judge of its form and combinations.

Although having exact details of experiments, I shall limit myself to rendering here a succinct account of the most important of them:

First Experiment:—The Nautilus is 20 feet long and 5 in diameter and according to the calculations of Citizen Guyton it will contain a quantity of air sufficient for 3 men and a candle for three hours.

Second Experiment:—On 24th of August, 1800, I 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 one hour without experiencing the slightest inconvenience.

Third Experiment:—On August 25th I tried to manœuvre the Nautilus by means of wings 4 feet diameter like the sails of a wind-mill; to this end at first I placed on the bridge two men with oars; they took 7 minutes to row about 192 yards, the length of the basin; then I ordered the same 2 men to set the sails and in 4 minutes the Nautilus covered the distance to the starting place;—I proved by this that the speed of sails to that of oars is about 2 to 1 and that these sails are very suitable to manœuvre a boat under water. The success of this experiment has given me several new ideas which I hope will facilitate much the use of carcasses [iron cases] of powder or torpedoes.

Fourth Experiment:—On the 26th of August I tried balancing the Nautilus under water in such a way as to prevent it rising towards the surface or descending to the bottom, meanwhile advancing. This is executed by means of a pair of wings placed horizontally on the front of the Nautilus and which communicates with the interior. By turning these wings from left to right the Nautilus is made to descend below the water, in turning them from right to left, it is raised to the surface. My first trial was unfortunate, in not having placed the boat in the necessary trim in order that the wings could act. The next day I had a decided success and I kept my Nautilus below water at a depth of about 5 feet whilst it covered a distance of 192 yards, about from one end of the basin to the other. This day I made several movements under water and I observed that the Compass acts as well under water as at the surface. 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.

Having thus assured myself of the ease of immersion and submersion of the Nautilus and all its movements as well as the effect on the compass, on the 27th of August I half filled an ordinary barrel and placed it at anchor in the harbour at about 426 yards from the jetty;—I seated myself then in an ordinary boat at the distance of about 160 yards and placed in the sea a torpedo containing about 30 lb. of powder; the torpedo was attached to a small rope 200 yards long; the current going under the barrel, the torpedo[78] passed without touching it; but turning the helm of the boat in which I sat, I made it go obliquely till I saw the torpedo exactly under the barrel; I then drew back the cable till at last the torpedo touched the barrel; at that instant the battery went off, the powder exploded and the barrel was reduced to fragments being lost in a column of water 10 feet in diameter that the explosion threw into the air to the height of 60 or 80 feet.

On the 12th of September I left Havre for La Hogue and in this little voyage my Nautilus sometimes did a league and a half (4½ miles) per hour and I had the pleasure of seeing it ride the waves like an ordinary boat.

On the 15th of September I put into a little harbour called Growan near Isigny at 3 leagues from the islands of Marcou. The next day 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 400 yards.

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.

In the course of these experiments there has come to me a crowd of ideas infinitely more simple than the means that I have employed hitherto and in an enterprise so new and without precedent one ought to expect that new ideas should[79] present themselves, tending to simplify the execution of the great object in view.

As to myself, I look upon the most difficult part of the work as done. Navigation under water is an operation whose possibility is proved, and it can be said that a new series of ideas have just been born as to the means for preventing naval wars or rather of hindering them in the future; it is a germ which only demands for its developement the encouragement and support of all friends of science, of justice and of society.

Health and respect,

(Nov. 7th 1801.)

Robert Fulton.

It is almost beyond belief that Fulton had been able, in so short a time, to bring to such perfection an invention of such great importance, yet fraught with so much danger. The recital of his voyage on the high seas, at war-time, together with his plunging experiments, proves that he possessed real heroism. The navy of England had received private news of the invention and the sailors were on their guard, so it is easy to realize why the brigs “set sail and were quickly at a distance.” Fulton had become well known in both warring countries and was accounted a power to be reckoned with.

Fulton offered personally to command the Nautilus and to teach the French navy the art of the new warfare, as well as to build such submarine[80] boats as Napoleon would authorize. He asked that he might employ as co-workers the three men he had already taught; and they, by the way, must have been courageous indeed to engage in so novel and dangerous an enterprise.

But the contract “backed and filled” in tantalizing delay to the ardent inventor. Fulton had a personal interview with Napoleon and tried to persuade him to adopt the new plan; but no immediate response resulted; finally, after hope long deferred and repeated letters and visits to the embassy, Fulton received a letter from the Minister of the Marine, bearing the good news that Napoleon had accepted Fulton’s proposition; that 10,000 francs had been placed to his credit to repair the Nautilus, build auxiliaries, and convey his unusual fleet, at his own expense, to Brest, where he could engage in warfare against the enemy.

From that time, March 28th, 1801, to May, Fulton was busy with the novel enterprise. The Nautilus was overhauled and conveyed to Brest, mounted on a long cart drawn by horses. How the boys and girls of the villages through which the queer boat passed must have gazed and wondered! Finally it reached the dockyard at Brest, and after two months of fitting Fulton was ready to attempt an attack on the enemy. But again[81] the English seamen were too wary to be surprised. Fulton spent an anxious summer but could find no vessel within reach of possible attack.

However, he conducted a series of successful experiments, and, in the presence of several influential officials, he blew up a large sloop, destroying it so completely that nothing was left but the buoy and cable. He was able to report that he had proved his boat could

Sail like a common boat,
Obtain air and light,
Plunge and Rise perpendicular,
Turn to the right and left at pleasure,
Steer by the compass under water,
Renew the common volume of air with ease
And add the respirable air, by a reservoir, which may be obtained at all times.
Although the invention proved successful, it was exercised for only eight months. On the first of October the Minister of the Marine resigned his office, and his successor, a French admiral of the old-school, declined to listen to or forward any new-fangled ideas. How disappointed Fulton must have been after his three years of hard work and his unquenchable faith in the power of his project. The Treaty of Peace, signed at Amiens in 1802, brought a welcome end to warfare, and Fulton[82] realized that the nations had no present need for his weapon of naval destruction.

But Fulton did not forget France and the interest Napoleon had shown, even after his return to his own country. In 1811, the Boston Weekly Messenger, of Friday, November 15th, contained the following amusing letter in rhyme, addressed to Napoleon’s infant son, the King of Rome. Perhaps it was a diplomatic move to interest Bonaparte through a recognition of his tiny heir; perhaps it was merely written in jest and never crossed the seas. But here it is, in part, for our amusement.

Great King, two years ago I wrote
To Lord Marbois a civil note,
Which he ne’er answered, like a bear,
So now I send my modest prayer
To your dread throne, or stool, or chair.
The plan, my lord, which I have hit on
Will quite destroy the pride of Britain;
The great torpedoes I prepare
Will blow her ships up in the air,
And every man-of-war will soon
Ascend just like a vast balloon.
In half a day one thousand men
Would scatter all the ships you ken,
Would clear the Channel and do over
All between Calais port and Dover;
Thus in two years, Sir, might be seen
The end of England’s proud marine;

And then that Isle, without a doubt,
Puffed like a farthing rush-light out,
Instead of reigning o’er the waves
Would only furnish France with slaves.
How glorious then were such a thing
To grace your annals, mighty king!
And (turn it over in your mind)
How happy ’twere for all mankind,
And more, (but that’s a thing between us)
How worthy of your daddy’s genius;
This business will be done—this blow up
Take place, great Monarch, ere you grow up.
Reflect, Sir, powder was invented:
And then, Sir, you must feel contented.
Now, Sir, soon as the haughty foe
Shall feel a meditated blow,
Their ships, perhaps, they will abandon,
That you with ease their coasts may land on;
Or, England, if I don’t befriend her,
May quickly all her fleets surrender.
Now rendered master of the seas,
You may let ports out as you please;
These can be rented, understand,
Just as some kingdoms are on land;
England, then prostrate at your feet,
For peace, on any terms, may treat;
Be this your language firm and bold,
“While yet the brand of war I hold,
As you are most completely beaten,
This basis only will I treat on—
That you, without the least delay,
Two millions to Bob Fulton pay.”

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