A condensed history of Robert Fulton and his Nautilus

Robert Fulton invented the Nautilus submarine, another milestone future inventors would build upon.

Fulton was born on November 14, 1765 in the town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He went to a Quaker school and acquainted himself with minitiature painting in a jewelry shop. Fulton was a creative sort. His mind wandered into all directions, including the field engineering.

He seemed a promising painter and managed to cobble together money from wealthy financiers, which allowed him to travel to London, England. There he set up shop as a painter. But Londoners weren’t very impressed with his works.

He then took an interest in engineering properly. He improved on a steam propulsion engine and dabbled in the design of canals and bridges, specialized cargo boats, locks and sluices. But not much came of it. The British government was lukewarm on his ideas and plans.

He then moved to revolutionary France, where he arrived in Paris in 1797, just when France and Britain had gone off to war. The French immediately ran into the dominance of the Royal Navy, which had started a naval blockade. Throughout the years Fulton had also been thinking about submarines, imagining ways to improve on the works of Van Drebbel and Bushnell. His thoughts culminated in the design for the Nautilus submarine.

The Nautilus was a little over 20 feet in length, or some 7 meters. Her teardrop-shaped hull was made of wood, iron ribs and copper plating. One of Fulton’s innovations to the field was twin propulsion.

Submerged propulsion was a hand-crank, like the designs of Van Drebbel and Bushnell, operated by two crew members. When on the surface, the Nautilus could quicky unfurl a sail and just as quickly wrap it up again.

The other innovation was diving rudders at the front. Thus far submarine designs had mainly relied on buoyancy. A submarine went up and down vertically using ballast tanks. Fulton used the rudders at the front as an early form of diving planes, so as to push the Nautilus under water at speed in combination with the buoyancy provided by the ballast tanks. This allowed for quicker diving, surfacing and balance under water. Heavy copper layering below the keel allowed for stability.

Another innovation, though only in name, was the torpedo.

Fulton’s method of attacking a surface ship was again an improvement on Bushnell’s idea. Bushnell, as you’ll remember from our previous episode, tried to basically drill a bomb into a ship’s hull. Fulton’s improvement was what he called the ‘Horn of the Nautilis’, a spike that sat on top of his small conning tower.

Robert Fulton

When below the target ship, Fulton would drill the spike into the hull. The spike had an encased flintlock and an eyehole. A wire acting as a tow-rope ran from the Nautilus through that eyehole, and then onto a floating powder case that was dragged forward by the Nautilus, using the wire through the eyehole to draw the powder case to the target.

The idea was that if the spike was in place, the Nautilus would move forward, thus moving the submarine out of danger, while the tow-rope from the submarine pulled the powder case against the spike. Then the tow-rope would pull the trigger, causing an explosion, hopefully sinking the ship.

This powder case Fulton called the ‘torpedo’. He got the name from a fish, the Electrophorus Electricus, more commonly known as the electric stingray, and for which another name is the ‘torpedo electricus’. And so that’s where word ‘torpedo’ entered the world’s lexicon.

But Fulton had difficulty convincing the admiralty of the French revolutionary government to finance his project. He argued that an effective campaign blowing up Royal Navy ships by even a small number of submarines would terrorize the British enough to pull out of the Channel, thus breaking the naval blockade.

He also offered the idea to the government of the then Batavian Republic, presently known as The Netherlands, but they weren’t interested. Another offer to the French government, to finance the project himself and only have them pay once he sank the first enemy ship, also fell on deaf ears.

Fulton vented his frustration in a letter to a friend back in America. He was by now convinced of the efficacy of the submarine against the Royal Navy.

“I would ask anyone if all the American difficulties during this war are not owing to the naval systems of Europe and a licensed robbery on the ocean? How then is America to prevent this? Certainly not by attempting to build a fleet to cope with the fleets of Europe, but if possible by rendering those fleets useless.”

Robert Fulton

Summarized, Fulton opined that nations should not try to build its own Goliath, but instead create Davids.

In this, he was was somewhat of a visionary.

It wasn’t until after Napoléon Bonaparte had established his régime that Fulton finally found a willing ear. Napoléon wasn’t completely convinced, but the possibilty of breaking the Royal Navy’s blockade was too alluring to let pass.

Because Napoleon also entertained the idea to invade Great Britain and knock them out of the war. For that, he needed the Channel between France and England to be cleared of the Royal Navy. And so he first had a commission study the feasability of Fulton’s proposals and then financed the improvement of the first operational Nautilus, which Fulton had started building on his own anyway.

First, there were several succesful trial runs in the Seine river near Paris and in the port of Le Havre, followed by a trial attack against an old ship in the harbor of Brest. The torpedo worked and blew up the ship. Then, Fulton took the Nautilus out for a spin in the Channel. And when that too turned out to be a success, it was time for the first real test.

Fulton tried attacking his first real targets: British ships close to the French coast, part of the blockade. But Fulton wasn’t the only one who had read up on the history of Bushnell’s Turtle and his failed attacks on Royal Navy ships in New York’s Hudson Bay.

Whenever Fulton moved in, he saw his targets weigh anchor and move away. Rumor had it that the British had spies along the French shore who warned the ships whenever the Nautilus left harbor. Whether this is true or not is beside the point. The British clearly knew of the submarine’s existence and took their precautions.

A lack of supplies and exhaustion of his crew invariably forced Fulton back to Brest. The British prevented night time attacks by having row boats picket around their ships continuously.

Napoleon then lost interest in the project and withdrew his support. Next, Fulton tried selling Napoleon the idea of steam boats, or ships with steam propulsion instead of sails, allowing the French to outrun and outmanouver the Royal Navy. To which Napoleon is said to have famously replied, “you wish to set fires inside wooden ships? I will have none of this nonsense”.

It was around this time that British admiral Nelson decisively beat the French navy at Trafalgar, bringing an end to any dreams the French may have had of breaking the Royal Navy’s back. Napoleon dropped plans for an invasion of the British Isles and moved his Grand Army east into Continental Europe.

Frustrated, Fulton left for Great Britain, where he used his connections to get the British prime minister interested in his idea. As far as I can tell, it is unknown what happened to the Nautilus in France.

Fulton submitted his ideas for an improved version of his submarine and the torpedo to the British government. According to various sources, British prime minister Pitt and the Admiralty were only interested in his torpedo, not in the submarine. He was allowed to demonstrate his torpedos under a captured Danish brig.

When after setting his torpedoes nothing seemed to happen, the gathered admirals started to dig into their lunch, when all of a sudden two explosions blew the brig to smithereens. Fulton later made a woodcut of the scene himself, showing how the big ship was blown to bits.

It is said that the head of the British admiralty, Lord St. Vincent, was quite appalled by the sight – and that he wished to have none of it and would rather see the entire idea of submarines buried and forgotten. He is quoted as saying:

“The prime minister was the greatest fool to have ever existed, to encourage a mode of war which they who command the sea did not want and which, if successful, would deprive them of it.”

Lord St. Vincent

If anything, Lord St. Vincent’s words underlined that he understood the potency of submarines and the threat they posed to the hegemony of the Royal Navy. So much so, actually, that the government decided to drop the submarine matter entirely.

Fulton was done in Europe, and moved back to the United States to focus on steam boats. The US government didn’t show much interest in submarines either.

Fulton never abandoned his idea to build a succesful submarine.

According to several sources, he started constructing a new, far bigger submarine called the Mute, incorporating his ideas for steam propulsion.

However, Fulton died in 1815, before he could finish it, and it is unknown what happened to the Mute. Some sources state that Fulton never got to finish the hull. Other sources suggest that he did and that the hull was moored in Brooklyn port for a while, then rotted away after Fulton’s death, and finally sank.


Your host, Kaj Leers. 1975, Amsterdam dweller, submarine aficionado.

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