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[AUTOGRAPH LETTER, SIGNED, FROM STEAMBOAT INVENTOR ROBERT FULTON, URGING SECRETARY OF THE NAVY WILLIAM JONES TO AUTHORIZE USE OF HIS TORPEDOES AGAINST BRITISH SHIPS DURING THE WAR OF 1812, AND ALLUDING TO AN INVENTION OF HIS THAT WOULD ALTER THE NATURE OF MARITIME WAR].
New York. May 13, 1813. pp., on a folded folio sheet. Plus separate engraved portrait of Fulton. Second leaf inlaid into later paper. A few small stains and tape shadows, neat separation along lower half of vertical fold, else near fine. Item #WRCAM57476
A truly remarkable letter from steamboat and torpedo pioneer, Robert Fulton, to William Jones, Secretary of the Navy during the War of 1812, showing an early instance of the use of science to bolster American military power. In his letter, Fulton eagerly recommends the use of his invention of the torpedo to cause great harm to the British navy and bring an end to the war, and refers another, secret, invention that would lead to the "annihilation of the present system of maritime war."
The famed inventor is strident in his tone, showing a readiness to use his weapons despite the potential cost of lives, including the lives of American prisoners. He virtually begs for permission to use his experimental weapons in active combat, regardless of the circumstances: "Since the first of April I have had two Whale Boats 20 men and 4 Torpedoes on the Delaware and after reconnoitering and arriving at Lewiston and having everything prepared for an attack on the [HMS] Poictiers and a favourable night my commander Received an order from [Delaware] Governor Haslet forbidding the attack because there were some American prisoners on Board. The humanity is laudable, but if this policy is to be pursued the British have only to take a few Americans on board each ship and be safe in our waters as long as they think proper, Butchering our Women and Children, Burning and destroying everything within access of their gun Boats."
Fulton continues, urging Navy Secretary Jones to facilitate a prisoner exchange that would remove the Americans from the Poictiers, so "that the attacks may be made on any vessel or vessels of the enemy at any time without further order or hindrance." He requests that Jones send an order as soon as possible to authorize the attack, and further requests a fire ship "for the purpose of making some interesting experiments in which I have on a small scale proceeded so far as to convince Commodore Decatur who has offered to take the command of my plan and destroy any ship of any force in harbour or on the high seas. He asserts[?] as I do, that it must lead to the annihilation of the present system of maritime warfare. As yet I shall not mention the plan....I shall also beg of you not to mention this except to the president." He closes by asserting that "our success in this war must depend more on mind than mere nerves."
Robert Fulton (1765-1815) studied painting under Benjamin West, launched the first successful paddle-steamer service in the world, designed and tested the first practical submarine, and significantly advanced the design of submarine torpedoes and torpedo boats. Born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Fulton moved to England in 1786 to study painting. His practical experiments with submarine torpedoes and torpedo boats began with his move to France in 1797 and culminated in the testing of the first practical submarine, The Nautilus, in 1800. In late 1806 he returned to the United States to supervise the construction of what was to become the North River Steamboat (or "Clermont"). His "torpedo" bombs were tested in New York Harbor, and he published a pamphlet, TORPEDO WAR AND SUBMARINE EXPLOSIONS, in 1810. He continued his experiments with government support before and during the War of 1812.
An outstanding letter from an ingenious inventor and early American Renaissance man expressing his insatiable urge for invention and experimentation even in the midst of war, and his belief in the use of military technology, seemingly without regard to the cost in lives.