Robert Fulton’s Boyhood



So many anecdotes have been told about Robert Fulton’s boyhood that they will fill a whole chapter. It is an inspiration to boys and girls, who dream of fame through splendid future action, to realize that a hero usually begins life by a normal childhood, striving to do well the trivial tasks. Daily duties well done form character, and only character creates worth.

Robert Fulton studied at home, under his parents’ teaching, until he was eight years old. By this time the family had returned to Lancaster, and Robert was considered old enough to attend the school kept by one Caleb Johnson, a Quaker.

He had learned to read and write and was eager for school. We can fancy the scene of his entrance to the class-room, his dark eyes bright with excitement, his curls brushed to parted order, as he encountered for the first time the austere schoolmaster, an impressive personage in that day. He was guarded on either side by his fond elder sisters,[11] Peggy and Belle, but their care could not protect him later from the tutoring birch, when Caleb Johnson discovered, as he thought, that Robert was “a dull boy.” The younger sister, Mary,—or Polly, as she was called,—and the baby brother, Abraham, were at home eager to hear Robert’s description of school life.

But after all, Robert seems not to have cared very greatly for his books. His delight lay in visiting the machine-shops of the town, where he spent all his spare time in trying to make things he needed or wanted. One day he explained his late arrival at school by saying that he had been at Nicholas Miller’s shop making a lead-pencil—“the best I ever had,” he declared. He had pounded out the lead and fitted it so neatly into a wooden case that Caleb Johnson admitted it was indeed an excellent pencil. Within a few days,—so eager are children to follow a leader,—all the boys had made for themselves, with more or less success, pencils like Robert’s.

Sometimes his plans for making things so filled his thoughts that he dreamed over his books and was unprepared for recitation; then Caleb Johnson, after the stern fashion of those days, called him to the desk and bade him hold forth his hand for a whipping by the ferule. Once, when the teacher[12] thought him particularly idle, he struck Robert sharply over the knuckles, saying, “There, that will make you do something!” The boy, roused by a sense of injustice, replied with politeness yet with reproof:

“Sir, I came here to have something beaten into my brains, and not into my knuckles.” With head held high and arms folded, he walked back to his place, seeming even to Caleb Johnson, at the time, “a strange boy.” When Robert’s mother called at the school to talk over her son’s progress—for she was worried at his giving so little attention to his books—the master replied,

“Robert says his head is so full of original ideas that there is no room in his brain to store away the contents of dusty books.”

He was beginning to consider life’s problems and he dared to try to solve them by ways of his own. He was never really idle, for two absorbing interests claimed attention,—the study of machinery and the study of art.

For it was not very long before that lead-pencil, pounded with such care at Nicholas Miller’s store, began to reveal Robert’s talent for drawing. He sketched parts of machinery in the various shops of the village and made himself so useful to the mechanics that they welcomed his visits. Then,[13] as Robert realized the beauties in nature, his black pencil seemed to disappoint him. He could find no paints or crayons at the shops, and it was not until a playfellow brought a box of paints to school that Robert realized the possibility of such an aid to making pictures. He pleaded with his friend for a share that he might try his hand at mixing colors, so it was agreed that each boy should paint a picture on a mussel shell. The result proved Robert so excellent an artist that his generous schoolmate, whose talents lay in another direction, presented Robert with the entire outfit. His delight knew no bounds, and thereafter he never was at a loss for occupation.

Like many another famous man, it should be noted that Fulton did not enjoy the advantages of a liberal education in his youth. Beginning work at an early age, by the need of earning his living, he necessarily left his desk and books before he had mastered the higher branches of knowledge demanded by his later work. Still, he was determined to acquire knowledge. Busy by day, he studied by night, and in time added higher mathematics, languages, chemistry and perspective drawing to his mental stores. In fact, Fulton was a student throughout his entire life.

To-day his spelling seems to us distinctly original[14] and often amusing; but let us remember that he lived in “the good old days” when that particular art was largely a matter of inspiration, instead of being governed, as it is to-day, by stern and unbreakable rules.

The War of the Revolution was in progress during the days of Fulton’s boyhood, and the town of Lancaster was the scene of many important acts.

There had been many English settlers in Lancaster, so it is not surprising that the town abounded in “Royalists,”—sympathizers with the British Crown.

The time and place were rife with excitement. Village boys shared the news, one with another, and followed every skirmish with active interest.

In 1775, Major John André, with other British officers on their way to Quebec, was captured by General Montgomery and taken for safety to Lancaster. So crowded were the barracks that André, on his word as a gentleman, was allowed the following parole:

“I, John André, being a prisoner in the United Colonies of America, do, upon the honor of a gentleman, promise that I will not go into or near any seaport town, nor further than six miles from Lancaster, without leave of the Continental Congress of the Committee of Safety of Pennsylvania,[15] and that I will carry on no political correspondence whatever on the subject of the dispute between Great Britain and the Colonies, so long as I remain a prisoner.”

A man named Caleb Cope received John André into his home and André tutored his son, John Cope, thirteen years old, and gave him lessons in art; for André had a decided talent for the brush and loved to depict, from recollection, the scenes of his English home. One of these pictures, a landscape with a church and lodge among a bower of trees, André gave to Mr. Cope who treasured it in later years. He described André as “a gifted and deceived, but noble-hearted and generous, man.” It is thought that John Cope was the boy who presented the painting outfit to Robert Fulton, so it is probable that, indirectly, Robert may have profited from Major André’s instruction.

Because of its political importance Lancaster was the local headquarters for supplies necessary to American troops, and rifles, blankets and clothing were manufactured there. American soldiers patrolled the streets and had in charge the two thousand British prisoners at one time garrisoned there.

The boys of Lancaster, in the late afternoons, gathered to view the novel scenes of the encampment. After a time, growing braver, they challenged[16] “the rebels,” as they termed the Hessian boys, with the consequence that boyish battles began to take place between the “Tories” and the “Rebels.” A rope, stretched across the street, defined a limit which none dared to pass.

Robert Fulton’s imagination was lively and carried him beyond bounds. One day he made a graphic sketch of the scene, depicting the “Rebels” advancing beyond the line to threaten a thrashing to the “Tories.” He showed the picture to the boys and it had the unfortunate result of inspiring them to the very action portrayed. The town authorities, hearing of the skirmish, feared that the boys were carrying their fun too far and put a hasty stop to these martial games.

Through these stirring days Robert Fulton was daily learning the excellent lessons of self-reliance and self-support. He learned, as we all should, in school and out of school. The Continental authorities employed certain firms to manufacture and repair arms. Guards at the doorways of factories forbade any interruption of the important work, which was pushed with speed, and none but employees might enter. Workmen labored in relays, night and day; even on Sunday the sound of the hammer and engine could be heard.

Special permit was granted to young Robert[17] Fulton to go within the shops, for by this time he was so good a draughtsman that his pencil could occasionally outline a suggestion of value, and his increasing knowledge of mechanics made him an apt pupil in the study of the tools of warfare. At this time he commenced to draw designs for fire-arms and as early as 1779 made himself an air-gun.

A certain druggist sold Robert several packages of quicksilver, and these formed part of some mysterious experiments which Robert declined to describe to his curious friends. The workmen in the gun-shop tried in vain to compel him to explain the use to which he put the silvery, elusive metal. So puzzled were they by his secret that they called him in fun “Quicksilver Bob,” and by this name he was known for some time among the workmen of the shops and among his young comrades.

Robert accompanied the gunsmiths upon their testing tours of marksmanship on the open common, or village park; he soon learned to prove calculations of comparative carrying distances of varying sized bore and balls, by shooting at a mark and finding the relative distances and forces of carrying powers.

Among the factory clerks was an intelligent youth, Christopher Gumpf, four years older than[18] Robert, who in 1779 became his intimate friend. The father was an enthusiastic fisherman and accompanied the boys upon many a fine excursion in his flatboat on Conestoga Creek. When it was not in use he padlocked his boat to a tree, but when off on holiday trips he would ask the boys to pole the boat to certain shady fishing-grounds.

Robert became weary of the hard work of poling the heavy boat for long distances. During a visit of a week at his aunt’s home in Little Britain, he planned and made a small model of a boat to be propelled by side paddles. It was too large to carry home, so Robert placed the model in his aunt’s attic and asked her to keep it for him. Many years after, when Robert’s first steamboat had become famous, that model was brought down from the attic and proudly placed in the aunt’s parlor as the most valued treasure of the house.

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When he returned to Lancaster Fulton told Christopher Gumpf about his plan, and together they made a set of paddles, propelled by a double crank action, to move the fishing-boat. Two lengths of timber, with a blade at each end, were fastened at right angles to the boat: a crank at the stern turned the blades, while a third paddle, as a rudder, revolved on a pivot to steer the course. The invention worked well and the delighted boys[19] abandoned the work of poling. The paddles were removable from the boat, and, when not in use, were hidden in thick bushes near the water.

So it was on the Conestoga Creek, with only two witnesses who little dreamed what the contrivance would lead to, that Robert Fulton, the fourteen-year-old boy, began to plan a solution to the problem of navigation.