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The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream [Paperback]

By Kirkpatrick Sale (Author)
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Item description for The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream by Kirkpatrick Sale...

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.

Citations And Professional Reviews
The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream by Kirkpatrick Sale has been reviewed by professional book reviewers and journalists at the following establishments -
  • Wilson Public Library Catalog - 12/31/2008 page 988
  • Wilson Public Library Catalog - 01/01/2004 page 781

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Item Specifications...

Studio: Free Press
Pages   256
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.41" Width: 5.5" Height: 0.67"
Weight:   0.55 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Sep 10, 2002
Publisher   Free Press
ISBN  0743223217  
ISBN13  9780743223218  

Availability  0 units.

More About Kirkpatrick Sale

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Kirkpatrick Sale is the secretary of the E. F. Schumacher Society, a contributing editor of The Nation, and the author of nine previous books, including Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Conquest and Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution.

Kirkpatrick Sale currently resides in Cold Springs, in the state of New York.

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Product Categories

1Books > Subjects > Biographies & Memoirs > General
2Books > Subjects > Biographies & Memoirs > Historical > General
3Books > Subjects > Biographies & Memoirs > Historical
4Books > Subjects > Biographies & Memoirs > Professionals & Academics > Scientists
5Books > Subjects > Science > History & Philosophy > Science
6Books > Subjects > Science > History & Philosophy

Reviews - What do customers think about The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream?

Striking a balance  Feb 15, 2005
In the 100 years after Robert Fulton's death in 1815, biographers produced several accounts of his life. All were largely admiring of his far-reaching achievements, mechanical and intellectual, one to the point of obsequiousness (Thurston, 1878). ( See for two of them, Thurston and Dickinson, 1913.) Then, after a gap of 60 years, Cynthia Philip provided a different picture of Fulton in "Robert Fulton: A Biography" (1985), which dealt in far greater depth and detail with his personal and business life -- and that paints a picture of a promoter who engages in double-dealing, industrial blackmail and even treason. For the thoroughness of its biographical research, Philip's is the essential Fulton biography now extant. It was followed 15 or so years later by Kirkpatrick Sale's shorter and less formal account ("The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream," 2001), which sought to put Fulton's accomplishments in a broader perspective and so shifted the balance back somewhat toward the positive. But not a lot, since the narrative essentially reflects Philip's account.
The evolution of the view of Fulton is understandable: To the 19th Century, his achievements were real and palpable; the use of steam power to move people and goods revolutionized transportation and opened the American West (then comprising the land over the Alleghenies), as Kirkpatrick notes; its impact was as great, if less obviously, in a myriad other applications as well. But to the late 20th Century, all those developments are taken for granted or are long forgotten: Steam locomotives no longer move Americans; airplanes do. So today, there's far more room to examine Fulton's life critically.
But there's a cost to lost context. The weakness of both Philip's and Sale's accounts is that they are biography, not history: They offer too little perspective to evaluate Fulton personal peccadilloes or intellectual contributions. Was his towering drive to enrich himself and benefit mankind an individual trait, or was it a motivation shared by ambitious men of the age? Were his erratic business relationships a personal fault, or did they reflect the conduct of entrepreneurship of the times? Were his calculations of the benefits of canal construction (an early Fulton passion) a sign of his genius or a common device of canal promoters? Without that kind of background, it's hard for the reader to sort out whether Robert Fulton was really the scoundrel he sometimes seems in the modern biographies or the unequivocal benefactor to mankind of an earlier era that 19th Century biographers depict.
Probably the best work on Fulton to date  Jun 16, 2004
It does seem odd that the Secretary of the socialistic and luddite E. F. Schumaker Society would produce the best work to date on one of America's pioneering industrialists, but Kirkpatrick Sale is, first and foremost, and excellent historian. His first work of note, "SDS", was a brilliantly detailed work, and although Sale's sympathies were clearly with the founding members of SDS, he never let that prevent him from telling all the truth as he saw it.

And so it is with "The Fire of His Genius". Sale goes back to original documents to present the real Fulton, a rich and complex character, and to clear up a number of errors that have crept into the popular histories, such as the claim that Fulton's boat was named the "Claremount". (It was in fact called the North River Boat, after the popular name for the stretch of the Hudson it operated on).

Sale goes into some detail on Fulton's finacing, his relationships with friends and backers (some real surprises here) and his various dealings with governments. The picture that emerges is of an egocentric, but talented entrepeneur, less engineer than salesman, who nonetheless was instrumental in creating the technology of riverboat navigation that was instrumental in opening up commerce and trade throughout the expanding United States in the Nineteenth Century. All in all, excellent history and entertaining reading.

Fulton and America  May 16, 2004
This slim volume (only 250-odd pages) is perhaps more informative than most biographies of Robert Fulton. Author Kirkpatrick Sale has done a marvelous job, in "The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream", of capturing the brilliance and the importance of Fulton's vision. Robert Fulton did not invent the steamboat but he did know how to perfect and sell it. This young man led an incredibly full and active life, considering how young he was when he died.

But "The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream" also differs from other works on Fulton because of the second half of the subtitle: Fulton's influence on America. Much has been made of the New York City that Fulton lived in, and how his work would be part of that city's transformation from a major city in America to an international cosmopolis. (The creation of the Erie Canal in 1820 would really propel that metamorphosis.) But Sale's book also looks beyond the borders of the East and North (or Hudson) Rivers. It takes a long hard look at the westward spreading nation that needed new forms of transportation and a new navy. How Fulton was inextricably wrapped in both concerns is a major component of this very readable book. It helps complete the picture of an era of American History--and of a great American like Robert Fulton--that sorely needed investigation. We are all indebted to Kirkpatrick Sale for this scholarly examination.

Today with jet passenger aircraft crisscrossing the country, with nuclear powdered naval craft sailing for months without refueling, and with cruise ships carrying more passengers than the populations of some American Colonial villages, Robert Fulton and the first practical steamboat is largely forgotten. However, the author, Kirkpatrick Sale, states "....the steamboat would be the single most important instrument in the transformation of America in the first half of the nineteenth century: it promoted the penetration and settlement of the American interior...." The text narrates Fulton's life placing him in proper historical context.

Chapter 1 is an account of the very successful August 1807 maiden voyage of the Fulton's steamboat, North River (erroneously called the Claremont in textbooks), from New York to Albany and return. Following this successful trip, Fulton initiated regular steamboat service on the Hudson from New York to Albany which ceased only when the Hudson River froze. While not the inventor of the steamboat, Fulton was successful because he built the North River "on sound engineering principles and scientific techniques."

The text states that little is known about Fulton's early life, He was born on a farm in 1765 in Pennsylvania to Irish immigrant parents. He developed a strong drive to avoid his father's poverty, and in his mid-teens he moved alone to Philadelphia and was apprenticed to a jeweler. In 1787 he arrived in London (source of funds unknown) for further art study under Benjamin West. It was a difficult time for would-be artists and in 1793 he began devolving into engineering concentrating first on canals. He conceived many inventions such as a marble-cutting saw, a canal-digging engine, prefabricated iron bridges, etc. In 1797 he went to France. Sale gives an intriguing account of Fulton's attempt to sell a submarine and mines (Fulton called them torpedoes) first to Napoleon in France; then later to England when he was rejected by France. Amazingly Fulton tried unsuccessfully to blackmail both countries by threatening to reveal his work to their enemies.

In Paris in 1802 Fulton met Robert Livingston who wanted to build and operate a steamboat on the Hudson River. A partnership was formed and Fulton was obligated to build a steamboat to ply the Hudson; however, the author notes "Fulton knew from the outset that it would be on the Mississippi and its major tributaries that the steamboat would have its most consequential impact...." In 1803 he conducted a successful trial run of a prototype steamboat on the Seine, and in December 1806 Fulton returned to America where in 1807 Fulton's commercially successful North River began operations. The book gives a good account of how Fulton and Livingston with state granted monopolies developed steamboat traffic on the Hudson and Mississippi Rivers plus steam ferries to New Jersey. Incredibly, in 1808-09, he lobbied for his torpedoes in Washington.

For the 1808 season, Fulton refurbished the North River "offering accommodations of some taste and luxuriousness" rather than the somewhat spartan 1807 conditions. Later steamboats would continue this luxurious accommodation pattern. By early 1813, he had six steamboats at work and six more ready to launch.
The author notes "Steamboating was too obviously lucrative an enterprise-everyone of Fulton's boats was making money, some robustly so-not to attract any craftsman or entrepreneur who could find a source of modest capital and a machine shop with a few experience hands. By 1814 at least a dozen other men had launched vessels of their own...." Fulton and Livingston would spend the last years of their lives defending their monopolies with Fulton carrying on alone after Livingston's death in 1813. When Fulton died in 1815 his monopolies were essentially ended. Strangely, until the end of his life, his passion was his weapons of war, none of which were successful, rather than the steamboat.

The book's last chapter, titled Legacies, is most interesting as it outlines the history of the steamboat after Fulton's death noting that the steamboat was central to drawing people to middle America. Mark Twain wrote "The 19th Century began the most prolific age of invention, bringing into our daily life the convenience of machines which were recently unknown but in our dreams. At the beginning of that period of material progress stands the name of Robert Fulton." The author notes sadly on page 176 "No lasting monuments, not even a gravestone, were erected [to Robert Fulton] until 1901 when the American Society of Mechanical Engineers put up a bronze plaque on a squat column along the south wall of Trinity churchyard."

The book's closing sentence states "And none who ever rode its throbbing decks, or watched its majestic motility on the water, ever failed to realize that it was this the symbol, as it was for many years the agency, of the American dream."

pre-industrial genius  Feb 9, 2003
What stands out to me in this biography are his early years as a portrait painter in England; the attempts to sell his inventions, the submarine and his mines, to Napoleon and later to the British, for profit; the erotic tryst he had with his friends the Barlows in Paris; his later attempts to maintain his patents on his steamboats on the Hudson and in New Jersey ,which he operated for his own profit, against competition; and the surrounding American history, which included the Lousiana Purchase and the Lewis & Clark expedition. Fulton was a true American entrepreneur who died at a premature age, burned out by his efforts. The final chapter on his legacy to the commerce of the American heartland, the effects of which took place largely after his death, is also very impressive.

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