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Robert Fulton

The Boy of the Conestoga: 1765-1815

It was mid-afternoon on July 3d, 1778. A group of a dozen boys sat in the long grass that grew close down to the banks of the narrow, twisting Conestoga River, in eastern Pennsylvania. All of the boys were hard at work engaged in a mysterious occupation. By the side of one of them lay a great pile of narrow pasteboard tubes, each about two feet long, and in front of this same small boy stood a keg filled with what looked like black sand.

Each of the group was busy working with one of the pasteboard tubes, stopping one end tightly with paper, and then pouring in handfuls of the “sand” from the keg, and from time to time dropping small colored balls into the tubes at various layers of the sand. These balls came from a box that was guarded by the same boy who had charge of the tubes and the keg, and he dealt them out to the others with continual words of caution.

“Be careful of that one, George,” he said, handing him one of the colored balls; “those red ones were very hard to make, and I haven’t many of them, but they’ll burn splendidly, and make a great show when they go off.”

“How do you stop the candle when all the balls and powder are in, Rob?” asked another boy.

“See, this way,” said the young instructor, and he slipped a short fuse into the tube and fastened the end with paper and a piece of twine.

“There’s something’ll let folks know to-morrow’s the Fourth of July,” he added proudly, as he laid the rocket beside the keg of powder.

“What made you think of them, Rob?” asked one of the boys, looking admiringly at the lad of fourteen who had just spoken.

“I knew something had to be done,” said Robert, “as soon as I heard they weren’t going to let us burn any candles to-morrow night ’cause candles are so scarce. I knew we had to do something to show how proud we are that they signed the Declaration of Independence two years ago, and so I thought things over last night and worked out a way of making these rockets. They’ll be much grander than last year’s candle parade. They wouldn’t let us light the streets, so we’ll light the skies.”

“I wish the Britishers could see them!” said one of the group; and another added: “I wish General Washington could be in Lancaster to-morrow night!”

Just before the warm sun dropped behind the tops of the walnut-grove beyond the river the work was done, and a great pile of rockets lay on the grass. Then, as though moved by one impulse, all the boys stripped off their clothes and plunged into the cool pool of the river where it made a great circle under the maples. They had all been born and brought up near the winding Conestoga, and had fished in it and swam in it ever since they could remember.

The next evening the boys of Lancaster sprang a surprise on that quiet but patriotic town. The authorities had forbidden the burning of candles on account of the scarcity caused by the War of Independence, and every one expected that second Fourth of July to pass off as quietly as any other day. But at dusk all the boys gathered at Rob Fulton’s house, just outside town, and as soon as it was really dark proceeded to the town square, their arms full of mysterious packages.

It took only a few minutes to gather enough wood in the centre of the square for a gigantic bonfire, and when all the people of Lancaster were drawn into the square by the blaze, the boys started their display of fireworks. The astonished people heard one dull thudding report after another, saw a ball of colored fire flaming high in the air, then a burst of myriad sparks and a rain of stars. They were not used to seeing sky-rockets, most of them had never heard that there were such things, but they were delighted with them, and hurrahed and cheered at each fresh burst. This was indeed a great surprise.

“What are they? Where did they come from? How did the boys get them?” were the questions that went through the watching crowds, and it was not long before the answer traveled from mouth to mouth: “It’s one of Rob Fulton’s inventions. He read about making them in some book.”

The father of one of Robert’s friends nodded his head when he heard this news, and said to his wife: “I might have known it was young Rob; I’ve never known such a boy for making things. His schoolmaster told me the other day that when he was only ten he made his own lead pencils, picking up any bits of sheet lead which happened to come his way, and hammering the lead out of them and making pencils that were as good as any in the school.”

The fireworks were a great success; for the better part of an hour they held the attention of Lancaster, and when the last rocket had shot out its stars every boy there felt that the Fourth of July had been splendidly kept. For a day or two Rob Fulton was an important personage, then he dropped back into the ranks with his schoolmates.

It was not long after, however, that Robert set himself to work out another problem. The Fultons lived near the Conestoga, and Robert and his younger brothers were very fond of fishing. All they had to fish from was a light raft which they had built the summer before, and this cumbersome craft they had to pole from place to place. When they wanted to fish some distance down from their farmhouse, they had to spend most of the afternoon poling, and this heavy labor robbed the sport of half its charm. So, a week or two after the Fourth of July, Robert told a couple of boy friends that he was going to make a boat of his own, and got them to help him collect the materials he needed.

He liked mystery, and told them to tell no one of his plans. As soon as school was over the three conspirators would steal away to the riverside, and there hammer and saw and plane to their hearts’ content. Gradually the boat took shape under their hands, and after about ten days’ work a small, light skiff, with two paddle-wheels joined by a bar and crank, was ready to be launched.

The idea was that a boy standing in the middle of the skiff could make both wheels revolve by turning the crank, and it needed only another boy holding an oar in a crotch at the stern to steer the craft wherever he wanted it to go. Yet, even when the boat was finished, the two other boys were very doubtful whether such a strange-looking object would really work, Robert himself had no doubts upon that score; he had worked the whole plan out before he had chosen the first plank.

The miniature side-paddle river-boat was christened the George Washington, and launched in a still reach of the Conestoga. It was an exciting moment when Robert laid hands on the crank and started the two wheels. They turned easily, and the boat pulled steadily out from shore, and at a twist from the steering-oar headed down-stream. It was a proud moment for the young inventor. As they went down the river and passed people on the banks, he could not help laughing as he saw the surprise on their faces.

Fishing became better sport than ever when one had a boat of this sort to take one up-or down-stream. Very little effort sent the paddles a long way, and there were always boys who were eager to take a turn at the crank.

The Lancaster schoolmaster heard of the boat, and said to a friend: “Take my word for it, the world’s going to hear from Rob Fulton some of these days. He can’t help turning old goods to new uses. And he doesn’t know what it means to be discouraged. I met him the afternoon of the third of July and he told me that he was going to make some rockets, and I said I thought he would find such a task impossible. ‘No, sir,’ says Robert to me, ’I don’t think so. I don’t think anything’s impossible if you make up your mind to do it.’ That’s the sort of boy he is!”

A large number of Hessian troops were quartered near the Conestoga, and the Lancaster boys thought a great deal about the War for Independence, as was natural when the fathers and brothers of most of them were fighting in it. Such thoughts soon turned Rob Fulton’s mind to making firearms, and as soon as his boat had proved itself successful, he planned a new type of gun, and supplied some Lancaster gunsmiths with complete drawings for the whole, stock, lock, and barrel, and made estimates of range that proved correct when the gun was finished.

But Rob Fulton had remarkable talents in more lines than one. His playmates had nicknamed him “Quicksilver Bob” because he was so fond of buying that glittering metal and using it in various ways. The name suited him well, for he could turn from one occupation to another, and appeared to be equally good in each. Usually, however, when he was not inventing he was learning how to paint, and he had a number of teachers, one of whom was the famous Major Andre.

The little town of Lancaster was an important place during the Revolution. In 1777 the Continental Congress had held its sessions in the old court-house there, and during the whole time of the war the town was famous as the depot of supplies for the army. A great deal of powder was stored in the town, and rifles, blankets, and clothing were manufactured there in large quantities.

In the autumn of 1775 Major Andre, who had been captured while on his way to Quebec, was brought to Lancaster for safe keeping. He was allowed certain liberty on parole, and lived in the house of a near neighbor of the Fultons, named Caleb Cope. Major Andre was very fond of sketching, and spent much of his time in the fields painting pictures of the picturesque little village. No sooner had Rob Fulton heard of the English major’s skill with colors than he hunted him up and asked for a few lessons. Andre was a very amiable young man, and took a great liking to the boy. He gave him many lessons in drawing, and also in the use of colors, and young Fulton learned rapidly under his tutoring. Andre was also in the habit of playing marbles and other games with Rob and his young friends, and the boys found him delightful company.

At about the same time one of Robert’s playmates learned a new way of mixing and preparing colors, using mussel-shells to show them off. This boy carried the shells covered with his new paint to school one day and showed them to Robert. No sooner had young Fulton seen them than he begged to be taught how they were made, and immediately started to work mixing his own colors. The Revolution had made it very difficult to obtain painting materials from abroad, and almost all the paints the boys used were home-made. Fulton now began to study the making of colors, and in a very short time was able to add to his stock.

Wherever he went the young inventor and painter was popular. In the near neighborhood of his home there were several factories making arms and ammunition for the war, and guards were stationed about the doors to make sure that no trespassers entered. But “Quicksilver Bob” was allowed to come and go as he would. Whatever he saw he studied, and the first thing they knew the men in charge of the factories would find the boy submitting new plans and new suggestions to them for the improvement of guns or powder. Much to their surprise these suggestions were almost always good ones, and he became a very welcome visitor. He was paid for some of this work, but much of it he did without any reward, except the knowledge that he was in a way serving his country. To help support the little family he used his skill as a painter in making signs for village taverns and shops, very much as another boy artist named Benjamin West had done in his youth.

It happened that in 1777 some two thousand British prisoners were brought to Lancaster and quartered there. Such a large number of the enemy naturally caused some alarm among the quiet country people. The officers were lodged at the taverns and at private houses, but the soldiers themselves lived in rude barracks just outside the town, and there were so many of them that they made quite a settlement for themselves. Many of the Hessian troopers had their wives with them, and these occupied square huts built of mud and sod. The little encampment had quite a strange appearance, the small mud houses lining primitive streets and looking like some savage settlement.

Naturally the place had a great charm for the Lancaster boys, and whenever they were free from school during that time Robert and his friends were almost sure to be found in the neighborhood of the Hessian huts, watching these strange men who had come from overseas. Fulton drew countless pictures of them, some of them caricatures, but many faithful copies of what he saw. When they were finished these pictures were in great demand, and some of them were carried as far as Philadelphia, to show the people there the curious sights of the country near Lancaster.

In spite of his skill in these different lines, Robert was not a very successful scholar, and his poor schoolteacher, who was a strict Quaker of Tory principles, found him very hard to put up with at certain times. If some inventive idea occurred to the boy while he was on his way to school, he was quite as likely to stop and work it out as not. One time he came in so very late that the teacher quite lost his patience. Seizing a rod he told Robert to hold out his hand, and gave him a caning. “There!” he exclaimed, “I hope that will make you do something.” But the boy folded his arms and answered very quietly, “I came to school to have something beaten into my brains and not into my knuckles.” It was very hard for the teacher to do much with such a lad, particularly as the boy was so often really very helpful to him.

Another time when he came to school late, he had been at a shop pouring lead into wooden pencils that were better than those he had made before, and he handed several of them to the master. The man examined them carefully and said they were the best he had ever had. It was hard to scold the boy for spending his time in such ways. One time, when the teacher had tried to rouse his ambition to study history, Robert said to him: “My head’s so full of original notions that there’s no vacant room to store away the records of dusty old books.” Yet in spite of these stories, the boy could not help picking up a great deal of general information at school, for his mind was always alert, and he was eager to improve on everything that had been done before.

At this time in his boyhood it was hard to say whether the young Fulton was more the inventor or the artist, but as soon as the war ended he decided that he would become a painter, and went to Philadelphia, then the chief city of the new nation, to study his art. He made enough money by the use of his pencil and by making drawings for machinists to support himself, and also saved enough money to buy a small farm for his widowed mother and younger brothers and sisters.

Benjamin West, the great painter, had lived near Lancaster, and had heard much of Robert Fulton’s boyhood inventions, and he now hunted him out in Philadelphia, and helped him in his new line of work. The young artist met Benjamin Franklin and found him eager to aid him in his plans, and so, by his perseverance and the friends he was fortunate enough to make, he laid the foundations for his future.

When he became a man, the spirit of the inventor finally overcame that of the painter. He went abroad and studied in laboratories in England and France, and then he came home and built a workshop of his own. What particularly interested him was the uses to which steam might be put, and he studied its possibilities until he had worked out his plans for a practical steamboat. How successful those plans were all the world knows.

It was a great day when the crowds that lined the Hudson River saw the Clermont prove that the era of sailing vessels had closed, and that of steamships had dawned. But to the boys who had lived along the Conestoga it did not seem strange that Robert Fulton had won fame as an inventor; they had known he could make anything he chose since that second Independence Day when he had come to his country’s rescue with his home-made sky-rockets.