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ForbesRobert Fulton's kinky side.
Come up with a wildly ambitious scheme, secure wealthy backers, push the scheme at the highest level and don't take no for an answer. That, we learn from Kirkpatrick Sale's captivating new book, The Fire of His Gen-ius (Free Press, $24), was the modus operandi of Robert Fulton--the driven, presumptuous American who turned the steamboat from a novelty into an essential tool for U.S. expansion.
Born outside Lancaster, Pa. in 1765 to a failed Irish immigrant farmer, Fulton pursued several other fixations before finding success with steamboats. First, while living in England, he became captivated by canals. In 1797 he con-vinced a well-heeled Englishman named John Barker Church to plunk down Au1,500 toward a scheme to build canals that used inclined planes to raise and lower ships.
Another Fulton credo: Don't hesitate to stiff investors. Later that year he abruptly dropped the canal plan and moved to Paris, leaving Church in the lurch.
Something far more outlandish had captured Fulton's fancy: submarines. His plan to torpedo naval fleets around the globe, guaranteeing free trade, never made sense, but that didn't stop him from flogging it to England, France, the U.S., Holland, even Russia.
Throughout this period Fulton was fueled professionally and personally by a prominent American couple, Ruth and Joel Barlow, with whom he enjoyed a menage a trois. Joel, an eminent literary figure of the day, wrote the famous comic poem "The Hasty Pudding." Sale quotes love letters written by Barlow in a kind of erotic baby talk. Barlow refers to Fulton as "Toot," imploring him to "tate dood tare of nitten wifey [take good care of littlewifey]--sant [mustn't] tweeze too ard--just ov properly."
This isn't the only surprise in store for readers who may have last encountered Fulton's name in grade school. Sale corrects a widely held misimpression that Fulton invented the steamboat. He did not. Though the first steamboats appeared as early as 1783, Fulton showed little interest in the craft until 1802 when, at a soiree thrown by the Barlows, he met Robert Livingston, a patrician New Yorker who held a 20-year monopoly on steamboat transport in New York State. Fulton persuaded Livingston not only to support his efforts to design a vessel that would incorporate recent inno-vations, but to cut him in for 50% of any profits.
In August 1807 the North River Steamboat of Clermont set out from New York Harbor on its maiden voyage to Albany. Spectators were horrified, imagining that the boat was, in the words of one observer, "a monster moving on the waters, defying the winds and tide, and breathing flames and smoke." But the monster made a profit--$400 a week ($4,851 in today's dollars) for the 30 weeks every year the Hudson wasn't frozen.
Fulton cemented the partnership by marrying Livingston's cousin Harriet, 24, a plain woman who was 17 years Fulton's junior. For once Fulton's persuasive powers were foiled when Harriet refused to take part in a menage a quatre with the Barlows. Sale reports there is no record to suggest the slightest affection between the couple, but Harriet bore Fulton four children, whom he ignored.
Fulton and Livingston expanded their monopolies west to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, adding a dozen ves-sels and battling with competitors who copied their steamboats and infringed on their territories. Livingston died in 1813, and the strain of the ongoing legal battles and the push to dominate America's waterways started to take their toll on Fulton. After a particularly bruising dispute in the New Jersey legislature over his monopoly on the Hudson, he caught a chill and died of pneumonia on Feb. 23, 1815, at the age of 50.
No great monument to the man was built. New York City has a fish market, a subway station and two streets named after him, but no busts or statues. His legacy, writes Sale, was the powerful impetus given to American expan-sion by commercial steamboat transport. Mark Twain put it eloquently: Fulton, he wrote, "made the vacant oceans and the idle rivers useful, after the unprejudiced had been wondering for years what they were for. He found these properties a liability; he left them an asset."