A lively, contrarian study of the renowned inventor.
Robert Fulton, Sale tells us, was far more than the man who set the steamship upon America’s waterways—the one thing for which he is known today, nearly 200 years after his early death. As the author painstakingly demonstrates, Fulton did not invent the steamship; instead, drawing on the tenets of what Sale defines as the American dream—some of the planks of which are “Yankee know-how in service to technological improvement,” “a belief in human perfectibility and individual achievement,” and “a national destiny of expansion and conquest”—Fulton parlayed an extremely thorough knowledge of machinery and a gift for attaching himself to the ruling elite to incorporate the inventions of others into his own work (which indeed led to the development of the first truly practicable steamships). He made a considerable fortune in the process, and he took elaborate steps to defend his own patents and monopolies—but he continued to seek greater riches, and from all possible sources, from Thomas Jefferson to Napoleon Bonaparte and the British admiralty. Sale circumspectly guesses about some facets of Fulton’s character, including his insatiable desire for wealth and his amorous attachments to young men along his path. He is far more direct in his enthusiastic denunciation of industrial technologies generally, a hallmark of Sales’s writing for many years (Rebels Against the Future, 1995, etc.), and one that his readers have by now come to expect.
Apart from his evident distaste for the “psychologically dangerous as well as practically foolish” technological developments that came in Fulton’s wake, Sale has done a good job with his subject and made a solid contribution to the history of transportation and early America alike.