Page images

West. This advice he followed without delay, met with a cordial reception from the benign painter, and passed some years in his family. From London he went to Devonshire, and practised his art for a considerable period; but while there "a change came

; o'er the spirit of his dream.” Never having greatly excelled in painting, and having a natural love of enterprise, his late social advantages had enlarged his views, and excited a deep and intelligent interest in plans of broad, practical utility. Before leaving home he had enjoyed the friendship of Franklin, who, indeed, first introduced him to West. With his mind thus quickened by the companionship of men of superior gifts and extensive ideas, while passing through the manufacturing towns of England he heard of the success of Arkwright's invention. His practical and at the same time imaginative mind took in, at a glance, the possible influence of manufactures upon human welfare, the new avenues to wealth incident to mechanical skill, and the extraordinary natural advantages of his own country as the arena of great improvements in political as well as social economy. An acquaintance formed at this period with the Earl of Stanhope and the Duke of Bridgewater — names honorably identified with recent improvements in inland navigation — tended still more to confirm Fulton's resolution to devote his energies to mechanical science. Accordingly, he began by experiments with the inclined plane as a means of canal transportation, invented a machine for sawing marble, one for spinning flax, one for making rope, another for scooping earth, and published a treatise, in 1796, on Canal Navigation. These, and other of Fulton's early labors in the new field he had chosen, were more or less recognized and honored. He obtained patents and medals, and, what was of equal importance to his future success, the confidence and sympathy of many persons of influence. It is to be regretted that the written memorials of this part of his life, when he was engaged in the study and observation upon which his subsequent career was based, were lost by shipwreck on their way to this country. In pursuance of the course he had now earnestly adopted, Fulton repaired to Paris, and there formed a life-long friendship with Joel Barlow, then our minister at the court of France, with whom he long resided. Here he was soon absorbed in experiments to perfect a


scheme of submarine explosion, and sought the aid successively of the French, English, and Dutch governments, which appointed commissioners to examine the invention. In each case the report was adverse to its practical utility, yet Fulton continued to improve upon the original conception, invented a submarine boat to act in concert with the torpedo, and exhibited the greatest ingenuity and dauntless ardor in prosecuting this favorite scheme for a series of years, both at home and abroad. Already an accomplished draftsman, he made himself an efficient civil engineer while in Europe, studied physics, mathematics, and perspective, and returned to New York, in 1807, where he immediately began a series of attempts to perfect the application of steam to navigation, and to enlist the government in behalf of his plans of naval warfare. In the midst of his most active usefulness, after the triumph of his great invention, while contending for his right to a share of the vast emolument it already began to yield, and while enjoying the recognition and the domestic happiness which were the just reward of a life devoted to objects intimately connected with human welfare, in the prime of his usefulness, honor, and life, he died. It is said that this event called forth more public tokens of respect and sorrow than ever before attended the demise of a private citizen in the same city and state. If this was the case, it may be attributed, in a measure at least, to a consciousness of worth unappreciated, and character misunderstood; for, although Fulton had several friends whose devotion knew no bounds, it is undeniable that political and local prejudice, and a narrow view of his claims and purposes, rendered not a few of his countrymen insensible to his genuine value until death revealed to them the singular combination of moral energy, noble feeling, and inventive genius, which distinguished Robert Fulton. To realize this it is necessary to transcend the brief outline we have given, and survey his qualities together.

It is a very narrow view of Fulton's claims to grateful respect which estimates them solely according to the degree of originality he manifested in the application of steam to navigation. The idea is probably of older date than any of the records or traditions regarding it; for so favorable a project was it with men of science and experimental mechanics, that we read of attempts to realize it in various countries, and on the part of different individuals obviously unknown to each other. The great fact in the controversy remains indisputable, that the only inventor who persevered in giving a practical use to the knowledge already gained on the subject, and continued to try expedients until crowned with a success which introduced steam navigation to the world, was Robert Fulton. Never having claimed that the idea was original with him, and always having openly recognized the efforts of his predecessors, this acknowledgment is no disparagement to Hulls, whose treatise on the subject appeared in London, 1737; to De Garay, whose experiment in the harbor of Barcelona is alleged to have been made in 1543; to the Swiss clergyman, the French nobleman, the three Scotchmen, and the two other Americans, whose right to be considered inventors of the steamboat have been so strenuously advocated.

The same mutual dependence and slow advancement to a great end is exemplified in two inventions, which have, as it were, created manufactures. Arkwright, the inventor of the spinningjenny, after experimenting, as an obscure watchmaker, in a provincial town, upon theories of perpetual motion, accidentally met with Kay, who had long tried in vain to perfect a spinningmachine ; and when they coöperated, the result was achieved. Yet Arkwright, though he left an enormous fortune, the fruit of his inventive skill, was charged with unjustly appropriating the ideas of others. Kay, doubtless, originally conceived the notion of such a machine, but to the timely pecuniary means furnished the poor watchmaker by a gentleman of Liverpool, and the practical ingenuity he brought to the aid of his comrade's theory, is due the successful issue. Whitney proved beyond a doubt that, while on a visit to Georgia, he shut himself up in a room of the hospitable mansion of a friend, and toiled for months to contrive a machine for removing the seeds of the cotton-plant; yet, when his object was accomplished, his originality was denied, his model surreptitiously imitated, and his claims to a patent disputed. It was only after several lawsuits, and that tardy. justice which time and patience bring, that his title to the invention of the cottongin was established.

It is a common error to attribute mechanical invention to a

happy chance; but no branch of human pursuit more directly originates in the calculating energy of the mind. It is the result of practical thinking; and the greatest inventors assure us that the intervals of their experimental toil are occupied with intense meditation upon the means and ends, the relation of matter and laws, or the process of overcoming a special difficulty. Whittemore, the inventor of the card-machine, one of the most ingenious and intricate of inventions, after having accomplished everything desired except bending the wires, was completely baffled ; the subject haunted him day and night, and he declares that, while pondering upon it, he fell asleep, and the method came to him in a dream, which he instantly adopted on waking, and with entire success. Blanchard, the clever boy, who, at the age of thirteen, invented a machine for paring apples, based on observation of the graduating action of the thumb, when the process was done by hand; while riding in a wagon and musing on the obstacles to manufacturing gun-stocks by machinery, suddenly conceived the whole principle of turning irregular forms, and cried out, like Archimedes, at the idea, which he afterwards realized and patented. Watt's early practice as a mathematical instrument-maker, and his subsequent studies as an engineer, prepared him to improve so essentially the steam-engine. The naval architecture of Eckford, the Eddystone lighthouse, – that monument of Smeaton's scientific temerity, - the bridges of Edwards and Remington, the kitchen apparatus of Count Rumford, and the momentous discoveries of Faust, Jenner, and Daguerre, are not to be regarded as accidental triumphs of mere ingenuity, but as the results of patient study, numerous experiments, and intelligent resolution. It is the same with the mills of Evans, the water machinery of Slater, the clocks and globes of Ferguson, the steam-guns of Perkins, the safety-lamp of Davy, and almost every successful application of natural laws to mechanical aptitudes, whether by self-educated or professedly scientific men. We are apt to look only at the achievement, and disregard the process, which is often gradual, complicated, and only attained through earnest study and long experience. A certain natural shrewdness is doubtless characteristic of the mechanical inventor, and to the prevalence of this trait has been reasonably ascribed the facility and productiveness of the New Englanders in this branch of labor; but it is not less owing to their remarkable perseverance and energy. " It is through the collation of many abortive voyages to the polar regions,” says De Quincey, "that a man gains his first chance of entering the polar basin, or of running ahead on the true line of approach to it."

Thus the history of mechanical inventions and the annals of the law of patents evince a gradual approximation to success, in almost every instance, and prove that a division of labor and a union of talent is the usual process of discovery, and essential to practical results. Accordingly, the litigation and rival claims to originality, which almost invariably follow the introduction of any new machine into use, are the inevitable result, not of plagiarism so much as simultaneous ideas, and the fact that the ostensible inventor is only an eclectic in mechanics, and skilfully brings together the scattered or fragmentary principles of a variety of minds. But this is generally accomplished through patient selfdevotion, and by overcoming great and incessant difficulties; and therefore it is quite just, under ordinary circumstances, that the man who brings a great scientific idea, or mechanical project, to a wholly successful practical development, should reap the largest share of honor and emolument.

Genius may strike out novel and promising hints, but they are useless to mankind until embodied and applied by consistent and pertinacious thinkers ; in this, as in other departments of social welfare, character must often appropriate and apply the fruits of talent; and the union of both in one individual is as rare as it is auspicious. Constructiveness is a distinct tendency and gift, but,

. in order to realize mechanical originality in its highest phase, the principles of science must be brought into action. It is on this account that the greatest inventions have sprung from the mutual labors of the scientific and the practical. A knowledge of the principle and aptitudes of the lever, wheel, inclined plane, screw, wedge, rope, and other natural forces, becomes infinitely more available when combined with equal intelligence in hydraulics, meteorology, and electro-magnetism. Through such an acquaintance with the laws of matter, human genius sways its energies, and makes it subservient to purposes of utility and enjoyment;

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »