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The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and…

The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream (2001)

by Kirkpatrick Sale

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The Americans are a very old and a very enlightened people, who have fallen on a new and unbounded country, where they may extend themselves at pleasure, and which they may fertilize without difficulty. This state of things is without parallel in the history of the world.--Alexis de Tocqueville

This great pressure of a people always moving to new frontiers in search of new lands, new power, the full freedom of a virgin world, has ruled our course and formed our policies like a Fate.--Woodrow Wilson
for Delilah, my American dream
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Although the idea of a boat propelled by steam was suggested in Europe as early as the seventeenth century, and experimental steamboats had been tried at various times in Britain, France, Italy and Germany in the eighteenth century, it was almost inevitable that the first successful and protracted steamboat operation should take place in America.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 068486715X, Hardcover)

Robert Fulton is often enshrined in American history texts as the inventor of the steamship. He did no such thing, as Kirkpatrick Sale is quick to point out, but that does not detract from his genuine accomplishments as an entrepreneur and technician.

Born in 1765 into a poor family on the Pennsylvania frontier, Fulton showed an early aptitude for working with machinery of all kinds, as well as an all-consuming drive to avoid his father's poverty. As a young man he contrived useful inventions at an astonishing rate, a marble-cutting saw here, a canal-digging engine there; he also cultivated friendships and connections with influential men on both sides of the Atlantic, and soon he was doing business with the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte (to whom he sold a prototype submarine, the Nautilus). Fulton's most lasting accomplishment, however, may have been to develop a steamboat fleet that dependably plied the waters in and around New York and eventually extended to rivers in the western interior, providing "a tool by which the dominant commercial interests could extend their reach and power, by which the reigning political forces could communicate and consolidate their influence, by which a restless people could penetrate new lands and develop new industries."

Sale, who has written several books that take modern technology to task, considers Fulton's legacy to be mixed: his steamship line helped enable the settlement of the frontier, but also the destruction of American Indian nations, and it "served to sanction and encourage the domination of technology itself in American society." His critique may not sway all readers, but his well-written life of Robert Fulton will be of interest to students of economic history, transportation history, and early America alike. --Gregory McNamee

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:19 -0400)

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None of the spectators who gathered on the Hudson River shore on August 17, 1808, could have known the importance of the object they had come to see and, mostly, deride: Robert Fulton's new steamboat. But as Kirkpatrick Sale shows in this remarkable biography, Fulton's "large, noisy, showy, fast, brash, exciting, powerful, and audacious" machine would -- for better or worse -- irrevocably transform nineteenth-century America. Set against a brilliant portrait of a dynamic period in history, "The Fire of His Genius" tells the story of the fiercely driven man whose invention opened up America's interior to waves of settlers, created and sustained industrial and plantation economies in the nation's heartland, and facilitated the destruction of the remaining Indian civilizations. Probing Fulton's genius but also laying bare the darker side of the man -- and the darker side of the American dream -- Kirkpatrick Sale tells an extraordinary tale with deftness, zest, and unflagging verve.

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