Thursday 28 May 2015

Where did Robert Fulton go?

It is my pleasure to welcome Lisa Chaplin, author of The Tide Watchers, to tell a tale of espionage and war, of nautical escapades and a chap who seemed to just disappear... 


Where did Robert Fulton go?

Robert Fulton, with a steamboat in the background
Robert Fulton, with a steamboat in the background
While researching the “hidden history” for my first historical novel, The Tide Watchers, a question kept returning to my mind. Where did Robert Fulton go? 

Given that The Tide Watchers is about espionage and the buildup to war between Britain and France in 1803, and Robert Fulton was an American inventor, it might seem an odd question; but it became crucial to finding the exact story and history that I felt needed to be told.

In my research of the espionage and governmental policies of the times, I found some odd references. It seems that the small French port town of Boulogne-sur-Mer was blockaded by land and sea from August 1802 until war was declared in May 1803. It was one of the few places outside Paris and Calais that the French government had invested in to give streetlights. The Camps de Boulogne, or Armée du Nord – the army of the north – was stationed there, with up to 100,000 soldiers. It was also one of the few small towns not on the Paris-Calais road that had a semaphore tower – a messaging system, the precursor of the telegraph. Finally in March 1803, after Bonaparte publicly accused the English of provoking him to war, part of a French fleet sank eight miles out to sea off Boulogne-sur-Mer; the rest of the fleet returned to port. According to witnesses, they’d been heading toward southwest England, or possibly Wales.

Within weeks Britain declared war on France, over terms of the Treaty of Amiens they’d been patiently negotiating for months – and 1500 ships were docked in open harbors from Brest in western France to Flushing in Holland. Napoleon called it his “invasion fleet”. A few weeks into war, he already had 500 ships more than the terms of the Treaty allowed.

But what did Robert Fulton have to do with all this? A very good question!

Talented artist, enthusiastic inventor and passionate advocate of the republican state, Robert Fulton is a well-known historical identity. As a child in his native Philadelphia, he tried his hand at different inventions. After crossing the Atlantic as a young man to study art with the famed artist Benjamin West, he returned to invention, though some of his art still exists in London and Paris today. Steam engines in particular fascinated him. He wasn’t the inventor of the steamboat, as many believe, but used its practical applications to make the dream a reality in North America. His real brilliance lay in creating practical working prototypes of earlier, impractical inventions. He created the first paddlewheel steamboat to sail down the Hudson River; he is the father of the Mississippi River steamboats, and a guiding light in modern submarines and torpedo and sea-mine technology in particular.

Two facts caught my interest for The Tide Watchers: in 1797 Fulton left England for France, and by 1800 was trying to interest Napoleon in his inventions; his fascination with “submersible boats” (submarines) at this time. 

In August 1802, history records him at Le Havre, France, trying to shoot an early for of torpedo from his submarine Nautilus to blow up a ship. He didn’t call them torpedoes then; strangely, he called them corpses. What he called torpedoes were porcupine-shaped “sticky bombs”, the precursor of today’s sea-mines. Sadly the test didn’t go as planned (as shown in The Tide Watchers). Instead of the funding he’d hoped for, he got public ridicule – and a rumor that Napoleon would seize Fulton’s inventions and give them to the Ministry of Science, or Ministry of the Marine, for development.

An inner-view section of the 3 - 6 person submarine Nautilus, torpedo chamber removed
An inner-view section of the 3 - 6 person submarine Nautilus, torpedo chamber removed

The inner workings of Nautilus, with table of contents
The inner workings of Nautilus, with table of contents
So Fulton apparently did what any self-respecting inventor alone in a hostile foreign country would do: he sabotaged Nautilus, ripping out its inner workings, and burning his blueprints. 

Then, it seems, he disappeared. I found conflicting stories about where he went: from America to work on steamboats; he was hiding in Holland; he was working for Britain. But in August 1803 he was definitely in Paris, offering a fleet of 500 paddlewheel steam-powered boats to invade England. But Napoleon, having his eye on flashier methods (and methods that hadn’t yet failed), refused. In fact he publicly ridiculed and insulted Fulton – but that story, and the exciting inventions that came after, is in my next book ☺. 

When Fulton was in Paris in August 1803, there was no talk of the submarine-torpedo technology being with him…perhaps he was taking no chances of its being confiscated in wartime? But Fulton, his submarines and torpedoes all showed up in England the next year. When he returned to America to make his name and fame with steamboat technology in 1806, he left handmade copies of the original Nautilus blueprints with the British Admiralty. These were left to molder in the Admiralty archives until they were resurrected over a hundred years later to create German U-Boats and the Allies’ submarines in WWI.

All this research left me with a few vital questions: where was Fulton from August 1802 – August 1803? Where did he hide his inventions? And what did he do with Nautilus? He seems to have vanished, not once, but twice: from August 1802 – August 1803; and again for eight months from August 1803 – April 1804, when he offered his services to Britain. There are conflicting accounts: that he was in Amsterdam; that he was in Britain – that he was with Robert Livingston working on paddleboats (Livingston, the Minister to France at the time and Fulton’s future uncle-in-law, had negotiated exclusive rights to licenses on the Hudson River in New York); but there is no evidence of his being there until 1806. The most exciting action in steam invention at that time was with British men such as James Watt and Richard Trevithick – and his mentor Livingston was still based in Europe. Also in my humble opinion the only chance Fulton had of selling his submarine-torpedo technology was in a nation at war, or in great danger of invasion.

So it seemed to me that Fulton must still be in Europe – somewhere in hiding. Napoleon seemed uninterested in steam engines at the time, or anything Fulton had to offer apart from the submarine-torpedo technology. If Fulton really had destroyed Nautilus and sold it for scrap, and burned every trace of how to rebuild it, would he need to hide? The French government didn’t want him…only his inventions.

Working from that premise, I learned in further research that Fulton had built a replica of David Bushnell’s “turtle” submarine, used with limited success in the American War of Independence. Bushnell was one of Fulton’s heroes – and Bushnell had offered his craft to help evict the English from where they weren’t wanted…

A replica of David Bushnell’s “turtle”, a one-man hand-pedaled submarine used in the American War of Independence, with limited success
A replica of David Bushnell’s “turtle”, a one-man hand-pedaled submarine used in the American War of Independence, with limited success
A cutaway image of the inner workings, with a burning ship in the background. The needle-like object at the top right of both pictures is the “torpedo-attaching screw”, used in The Tide Watchers
A cutaway image of the inner workings, with a burning ship in the background. The needle-like object at the top right of both pictures is the “torpedo-attaching screw”, used in The Tide Watchers
I visited France in 2011, and in the little village north of Boulogne-sur-Mer called Wimereux and Ambleteuse, I found evidence, not only of an invasion fleet in its history, but a strange street called Rue Laboratoire (Laboratory Street), with an odd, Gothic house standing alone amid gorse on a sandy path.

At that point all the research I’d done on the governments and espionage of the time made sense. With Robert Fulton, and Robert Fulton alone, I had the plot for The Tide Watchers. I knew how to get my real-life, unnamed British spies inside blockaded Boulogne-sur-Mer; I knew how part of that fleet sank, and why Britain unexpectedly declared war. Robert Fulton, passionate, brilliant inventor and American fish out of French water, had become a central character in the world of British espionage, whether he’d wanted to or not…and he became a central character in The Tide Watchers.

About the Author

LISA CHAPLIN discovered her passion for history in high school, watching I, Claudius and The World At War. She eventually took the advice if her husband and tried her hand at fiction - but after having 20 contemporary romance novels published by Harlequin under a pseudonym, and inspired by living in Europe for 4 years, she turned at last to her first love, historical fiction. The Tide Watchers marks her mainstream historical debut. Lisa, her husband and three children currently reside in her home country of Australia.

About the book

The Tide Watchers

In the winter of 1803, one woman stands between Napoleon and the fall of Great Britain. In a time of uneasy peace, one British spy is convinced Napoleon is about to invade Great Britain. In one day Duncan uncovers plots to kill both King George III and the French leader, the probable existence of Napoleon's secret invasion fleet, its location blockaded by land and sea - and that there's an unknown French spy on his team. There's only one way to get inside Boulogne-sur-Mer - by the submarines of American inventor, Robert Fulton - but he won't help. Not knowing who to trust, he turns to a young Englishwoman he's just met, and makes a desperate deal: a child for a submarine.

Ruined in society's eyes, abandoned wife Lisbeth is working as a tavern wench in enemy France, despised and belittled. All she wants is the infant son her husband, a spy and assassin, has taken from her. Soon her unpredictable brilliance makes her indispensable to the British spy whose name she doesn't know. To have her son returned to her, she goes undercover. She must charm the perceptive genius, take possession of one of his submarines and learn how to use it, all before the invasion fleet sails. Lisbeth's willing to sacrifice herself for family and country, and ruin herself to save her son - but her heart refuses to take the same route.

The Tide Watchers is based on real-life assassination attempts of Napoleon and King George within weeks of each other, and the still-unnamed spies that found and sabotaged Napoleon's secret invasion fleet.

Written content of this post copyright © Lisa Chaplin, 2015.


Regencyresearcher said...

A fascinating and informative blog. The book sounds interesting as well. I had read some of the material but had never put it together. Great stuff, Lisa.

Unknown said...

This may well be the oddest comment you ever receive, but my 11-year-old son wrote a report on Fulton back in March, so I had him read this. In his estimation, you have discovered the "coolest information ever about Fulton" and spurred the question, "this kind of stuff is in romance stories?" Terrific post!

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you! I thought it was absolutely fascinating too, great detective work.

Catherine Curzon said...

High praise indeed, it's lovely to know he enjoyed the post!

Unknown said...

There seem to be an awful lot of books on Fulton in HathiTrust - full view. have you ploughed through all of them? Fascinating story!

Catherine Curzon said...

It has certainly inspired me to further reading!

Nick Kingsley said...

There is some correspondence between Fulton and James Watt junior on the subject of steam navigation in the Watt papers at the Library of Birmingham, but I don't think the two men were closely connected.

Unknown said...

The story goes that in the late 1790s/very early 1800s Fulton designed a steam tug for use on the Duke of Bridgewater's canal near Manchester. It wasn't a great success. The funnel was too tall for the bridges and had to be hinged (I can't quite visualise this development); although the vessel could haul a string of coal boats along at a steady 1mph, the paddles risked damaging the canal's clay puddle lining, and the experiment came to an unceremonious end. For more information see Hugh Malet's book, 'Bridgewater: the Canal Duke, 1736-1803) 2nd edn(Hendon Publishing, 1977)

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you; he led a *very* fascinating life!

Catherine Curzon said...

Another book for the wishlist!