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Kirkpatrick Sale
Kirkpatrick Sale
The Fire of His Genius:  Robert Fulton and the American Dream
ISBN: 068486715X
The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream
None of the well-dressed crowd that gathered on the Hudson River side of Lower Manhattan on the hot afternoon of August 17, 1808, could have known the importance of the object they had come to see and, mostly, deride: Robert Fulton's new steamboat, the North River, the boat that is frequently—and wrongly—remembered as the Clermont. But, as Kirkpatrick Sale shows in this remarkable biography of Fulton, the North River's successful four-day round-trip to Albany proved a technology that would transform nineteenth-century America, open up the interior to huge waves of settlers, create and sustain industrial and plantation economies in the nation's heartland, and destroy the remaining Indian civilizations and most of the wild lands on which they depended. The North River's four-day trip introduced the machines and culture that marked the birth of the Industrial Revolution in America.

The Fire of His Genius tells the story of the extraordinarily driven and ambitious inventor who brought all this about, probing into the undoubted genius of his mind but, too, laying bare the darker side of the man -- and the darker side of the American dream that inspired him. It depicts one of America's earliest heroes both at the pinnacle of creativity and success, fame, and fortune and in the depths of solitude, recklessness, and contentiousness that preceded his early death (Fulton spent much of his life defending patents for everything from rope-making machinery to submarines to proto-torpedoes that he attempted to sell, in succession, to the French, the British, and the American navies). All this is set against a brilliant portrait of a dynamic historical period filled with characters from Bonaparte to Jefferson, Cornelius Vanderbilt to Meriwether Lewis, Robert Livingston to Benjamin West, and events from the Lewis and Clark expedition to the War of 1812, the Louisiana Purchase to the bombing of Fort McHenry, the treasontrial of Aaron Burr to the "Great Removal" of American Indians. Here are the "taming" of America's rivers and the building of its great canals, the introduction to every body of water of Fulton's "large, noisy, showy, fast, brash, exciting, powerful, and audacious" machine that was the very embodiment of America. A biography that bears comparison to the best work of David McCullough, Dava Sobel, and Garry Wills, The Fire of His Genius is a remarkable achievement: an extraordinarily clear window into an extraordinary time told with deftness, zest, and unflagging verve.
—from the publisher's website

The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream
Program Air Date: November 25, 2001

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Kirkpatrick Sale, where did you get the title for your book, "The Fire of His Genius"?
MR. KIRKPATRICK SALE, AUTHOR, "THE FIRE OF HIS GENIUS: ROBERT FULTON & THE AMERICAN DREAM" Well, Robert Fulton, when he died at an early age, was compared to the self-consuming tree of Gambia. Now I don't know if any such tree exists, but that's what was said at his funeral. And that, `The fire of his genius ate him up like the self-consuming tree of Gambia.' And I think that's the key to Fulton's character, that fire for fame and riches. That's why I called the subtitle "Robert Fulton and the American Dream," because it was that American Dream of fame and riches, which he acknowledged right from the beginning he wanted--he didn't make any bones about it. That's what he was out for, and he would do anything to get there. And he got it, but the process ate him up.

And that's the larger theme of "Robert Fulton and the American Dream" is that getting the American Dream is one thing, but in the process, we tend to eat ourselves up and we tend to have effects on the rest of the world that we don't even pay any attention to. There are costs in the American Dream.
LAMB: Where did you get the idea to do a biography on Robert Fulton?
MR. SALE: Well, I live alongside the Hudson River, and so I've been wanting to write about the Hudson for some time. But what happened was that I wanted to write a book about computers and what was wrong with computers and the effects that computers are going to have on our lives that we have no idea about, because technology always has ripple effects that--that go on and on for decades and centuries, even, that are unintended and unknown. But I couldn't get anybody to take a book--was questioning computers as hard as I wanted to.

So I said, `Let me find another technology, back where--where--where it's not so emotive, and talk about that. And what effects did it have?' And so naturally, I thought about the steamboat and the steamboat that was first used successfully on the Hudson River. So that led me back to Fulton and the steamboat, and I saw that the steamboat was, in fact, the industrial revolution brought to America. In England, they had steam factories as--as their industrial revolution, but here, we had water-powered factories and we didn't need steam factories. But we had steamboat, and that brought the industrial revolution to America.

And so the book became, although I hadn't intended it, a kind of companion piece to a previous book I had written about the industrial revolution in England and the Luddites who resisted it in England and failed and the industrial revolution happened. So this is the industrial revolution in America and what were the consequences of that technology. That was--that was my goal, you know, while I was al--al--also writing about all the intimacies of his life--and they are quite bizarre indeed. But--but the--the larger goal was to talk about the effect of this technology on America.
LAMB: When did Robert Fulton live?
MR. SALE: He lived--he--he lived 1760 to 1815, and he created his steamboat in 1807. So he had just a few years, eight years, of--of fame and fortune, but--but he loved those eight years. But he spent so much time worrying about his fame and going to courts, going to legislatures, trying to protect his patent and the monopoly that he had on the Hudson River that that ate him up. That was the fire that co--consumed him far too early. He--he died much too early in his career and had only eight years to--to carry out the steamboat legacy.
LAMB: You say you live on the Hudson River?
MR. SALE: Yes.
LAMB: Where?
MR. SALE: In Cold Spring, New York. It's about 60 miles north of Manhattan.
LAMB: What's special about the Hudson River?
MR. SALE: Oh, my God, it's the most beautiful river in America. That's the first thing. And it's flat. Now you don't know about flat rivers. It is flat from New York to Albany, and that's the extraordinary thing about it. It--it's--it's like a Scottish loch in that sense. And it's like--it's like a lake. And then there are the--these mountains that go up on either side of it. And--and there are turns and twists. It--it's a beautiful lake--a beautiful river. But because of that beauty, it was a river that needed the steamboat.

Now the story here is interesting because the very first successful steamboat was done on the Delaware River from Philadelphia to Trenton. Now that should have been a marvelous success, except that in that river, it was--it was--there are--there are no twists and turns to it, there are no difficult curves, and so sailing boats went up and down without any trouble, and the banks of the Delaware there are easy for stagecoaches to go on. So the guy who built his steamboat didn't have any customers because nobody needed to go on a--on a frightening kind of--of a loud and ugly steamboat because they could go by sail or by carriage.

But on the Hudson, you couldn't do that. It was a long and arduous coach journey to go from New York to--to Albany because of these mountains in the way. And because the Hudson twists and the--and the curves are so treacherous, it was difficult for sailboats. That's why the steamboat was necessary for the Hudson River, as it was necessary for the Mississippi and--and the other rivers of America.
LAMB: Where was Robert Fulton originally from?
MR. SALE: He came from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and the interesting thing about that is that there was a war going on, the Revolutionary War going on, at that time. And Lancaster was the headquarters for much of the Army and for prisoners of war. And it was a major center of gun manufacturing, so that Fulton grew up with all of this material military fervor going on about him. And it went into his soul. It struck his sto--soul very deeply, so that when he began his inventive career, he turned almost immediately, after a few dodges here and there--almost immediately to weapons of war. And he invented a submarine, and he invented what he called torpedoes, which were, in fact, land mines.

But he--he created these, and he--and he proved that they could work. He went down in the submarine, came back up. He created this in France, and he tried to sell it to the French government, which was at war with England at the time. And he was trying to persuade Napoleon, `This is the great thing to blow up the ships of England.' And Napoleon thought about it and then--then he said, `Well, let me see it.' And Fultonwouldn't let him see it. Fulton said, `I destroyed it,' because he didn't want them to copy it without him getting the fame and fortune from it. So Napoleon said, `No, I'm not interested.'

And Fulton went over to England, and he said to--the same thing to the English, `I'll build it for you to--to--to destroy the French fleet.' And the English were interested for a while. Now the interesting thing here is that there's another country involved, which is Fulton's own country, the United States, and he--this was an act of treason to provide a weapon of war which would be used against the United States as well as against France or--or England. But it didn't bother him. He didn't consider it treasonous because, again, this drive for wealth and fame was--was eating a--and propelling him.
LAMB: What were his parents like?
MR. SALE: It's hard to know. The difficulty in writing a biography of someone who gets to be famous only later in life is that all that early history is pretty much forgotten. And it's--there--there's just a shadowy record there. His farm--his father, however, was a failure. That--that seems clear. He tried to establish a farm and that failed, and he was a kind of an itinerant salesman in--in Lancaster and--and without much success. And it seems clear that that was one of the motives for Fulton in his--in his drive to be a success.
LAMB: What about his mother?
MR. SALE: Know practically nothing about her. He--he wrote a few letters to her, but if she wrote to him, those letters don't survive. She's an anonymous figure.
LAMB: How much schooling did he have?
MR. SALE: Again, it's uncertain, but probably six to eight years, something like that, before he then went off to Philadelphia to apprentice to a jeweler and apparently made hair lockets with pictures in lockets that people wore. And then he became a miniature painter and set himself up in--in a studio in Philadelphia, and then--that lasted for only a couple of years before somebody gave him the money to go to England to become a real painter.
LAMB: How old would he have been when he was in Philadelphia doing the painting?
MR. SALE: That's his late teens and...
LAMB: Have you seen anything that he actually drew or any--the lockets or anything like that yourself?
MR. SALE: Well, yes, I--there are a couple of--of extant miniatures that he did, which are not bad, not distinguished and--and don't look as if they would propel someone to give him the money to go to England to become a real painter, although that's clearly what happened from--but we--again, you know, the record is so sketchy that we know very, very little about it.

When he does get to England and starts painting, w--though, we can see the same kind of thing: adequate paintings, the--the ones that survive, but nothing distinguished, nothing--nothing--nothing great about them. And he spent five or six years as--trying to be a painter and failing in England. And you could see that he--somehow he didn't put his fire into that. That wasn't what--what--what--what he thought was going to get him his fame and fortune.
LAMB: So what year would he have been in England?
MR. SALE: 1790, 1798. And at the end of that, he decided that he would be an inventor or an engineer, as he called himself. And he went around trying to invent this and that and the other. He had played with the idea of a steamboat even--even as early as 1793.
LAMB: Had the steamboat been invented in those--in '93?
MR. SALE: In a sense. In a sense, it had been invented because there was a man named John Fitch in Philadelphia who had invented a working steamboat that went up and down the Delaware, but, of course, it was a financial failure, and nobody wanted to support it for a second year. And Fitch was a disappointed man.
LAMB: Was he the first to invent it?
MR. SALE: Well, probably. There was--there was a Frenchman who had invented a boat that--that--that went for a little bit. There was a--a man in Scotland who in--invented--there--there were other inventions and, in fact, probably something on the order of 15 to 20 other steamboats that had been tried before Fulton's. But he saw that it--it might be an instrument for England, and then he went to France and tried to sell it there, but it wasn't--it wasn't a passion with him at all. He--he toyed with this invention and that invention. He kept on look--looking at things and--and borrowing other people's ideas, which--which is what you have to do, actually, when--when you're inventing.
LAMB: What book is this for you?
MR. SALE: I guess it's my ninth book. I--I think so.
LAMB: And how did you get to--interested in the business of writing?
MR. SALE: Well, it's all I knew how to do.
LAMB: When did you start it?
MR. SALE: The book or--or writing?
LAMB: No, writing.
MR. SALE: I--I began writing in college and then after college.
LAMB: Where?
MR. SALE: This was at Cornell University. I was the editor ofthe student paper, which was a daily paper, and I had to write an editorial page daily. And I--and it just seemed to be the thing that I knew how to do. And so after college, I went into newspapers and magazines and worked on The New York Times for a while, and then--then I decided that I really wanted to go off and write books because when you're working on a magazine and newspapers, there are people on top of you telling you what to do, and I grew uncomfortable with that. So--now, of course, there are always editors at publishing houses and publishers who are telling you what to do, but they're--but they're--they're kinder and gentler than people in journalism.
LAMB: What year did you graduate from Cornell?
MR. SALE: '58.
LAMB: The name Kirkpatrick Sale, where does it come from?
MR. SALE: It's my middle name and my last name. It--it's a--a Scottish-English family, and it's--that's obvious...
LAMB: What's your first name?
MR. SALE: John.
LAMB: And why did you decide to drop John?
MR. SALE: I never used John at all, ever.
LAMB: What do people call you who know you well?
MR. SALE: Kirk. But I thought that Kirkpatrick was a more elegant pen name, and--and--and there are people who still--who call me Kirkpatrick. It's--it's a question of intimacies.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
MR. SALE: In Ithaca, New York. My father taught at Cornell. And if--if you know anything about Ithaca, it's a beautiful place in the summer and an intolerable place in the winter. And so as soon as I could leave it, I did.
LAMB: How do you think you got drawn into the writing thing? Do you have anybody that got you interested in it first?
MR. SALE: Well, my father is a professor of English, so I began reading, writing. I guess that's how I--it happened. But it wa--liv--it was largely the impulse to journalism that--and--and writing every day that--that enabled me to hone the craft sufficiently to--to make a living at it.
LAMB: So what year did you get interested in Robert Fulton?
MR. SALE: Well, that was no more than about four years ago. I had been interested in doing something on--on the Hudson for a--a long time, but hitting on the idea of Fulton was about four years ago.
LAMB: What would...
MR. SALE: And I--and I assured my publisher that I would have the--the manuscript, you know, just about a year or two years or something like that with it. But when you--when you go into this, it always takes much longer doing the research than you ever anticipate.
LAMB: You point out in the book that Mr. Fulton, at his grown age, was about 6 feet tall, which is four inches taller than the average person back then?
MR. SALE: That's right.
LAMB: What do you think he would look like if he were here? I mean, is this--is this a fairly good rendition of what he would look like?
MR. SALE: That's an excellent rendition of him. And--and don't forget to notice the explosion in the background, under "The Fire of His Genius," because Benjamin West, who painted that picture, was a great American painting in England--a court painter actually for--for the king--was a friend of Fulton's and a kind of mentor of Fulton's. And he knew that Fulton had been spending his time trying to sell his floating mines to the British government, and in the course of that, he blew up a ship--a--an old ship without anybody on it in the harbor off of the coast of England. And West was so impressed with Fulton's account of this that he included that ship blowing up in the side of his picture.

But that's exactly what he would look like, a--a very handsome man. And one believes that coming from poverty, as he did, and with very little schooling, that it was his good looks and the charm that he developed that really got him his early successes.
LAMB: Total number of years he lived in England?
MR. SALE: It was about--it was nine years in--in England.
LAMB: In France?
MR. SALE: And then another six--seven--seven years in--in--in France. And then he went to England, and then he came to the United States in 1806. And in that time, he had--he had almost no success, until the--at the very end when the British government paid him a considerable amount of money, 10,000 pounds, for his floating landmines and his submarine, and with that, he became a--a wealthy man. That was a considerable amount of money at the time.
LAMB: He died in 1815, you say, at age 50. In his lifetime, did he marry?
MR. SALE: He married. He had a partner in--in his business--in his steamboat business, who was Robert Livingston, who was one of the great American statesmen, who had been involved in writing the Declaration and the Constitution. He--he was a--a representative of New York state for much of that, and he had been chiefly responsible for getting Napoleon to sign the treaty for the Louisiana Purchase.
LAMB: Is that Bob Livingston the same one that would have been related to the Bob Livingston that almost became the speaker?
MR. SALE: That's right, exactly.
LAMB: What is it? Great-great-great-grandson, something like...
MR. SALE: Not--not so clear a relationship as that.
LAMB: Not...
MR. SALE: No. But he--they--they were related, right. So is George Bush, actually, in--in another tenuous way. But that Robert Livingston had the monopoly from the New York state Legislature to run boats on the Hudson River.
LAMB: The operative word there is `monopoly.'
MR. SALE: Monopoly, right.
LAMB: 'Cause it plays a role in your whole book.
MR. SALE: And so he--he went to--to Fulton for--they got together in Paris, and Fulton says, `I'll build the--the boat.' And Livingston says, `Well, I've--I'll give you the monopoly, and together we'll be partners.' And actually they were financial equals in this because, by then, Fulton had enough money to--to go in 50:50 with Livingston. And he built the boat; it was a success. And Livingston secured the monopoly, and so nobody else was allowed to run steamboats, although other people could--could easily do so. And building a steamboat that worked was not all that difficult. Livingston was a great patroon of the Hudson Valley.

And it was a cousin of his that Fulton met during the course of his steamboat ventures and married. And she--sh...
LAMB: In what year in--in his life...
MR. SALE: Th--this is 1808, just after his success of the steamboat in 1807. She's not a--a beautiful woman, you would have to say, but she had apparently a certain charm, and she had spent some years at a--at a school, so she had a modicum of education. But they didn't get along. They--they had a--a very sour marriage, and he treated her as--as baggage. You--you get that sense; treating her as baggage that he had to lug around.
LAMB: How many kids?
MR. SALE: They had eventually three kids, but he wrote about the children as if they were Harriet's, his wife's, responsibility, her property, her baggage. He shows no warmth at all for--for his children. There is a letter of his in Paris, when he's talking about the first steamboat that he created there, and he refers to the steamboat as his child. And it's quite a warm and wonderful description of how his child is--is--is getting along and--and will--will be able to--to move about in the world. He never wrote a comparable letter about his real children ever. His affection was--was then for his steamboat and not for his children.
LAMB: What was his relationship with Joel and Ruth Barlow? And who were they?
MR. SALE: Well, that's an interesting question because we know something about it, but we don't know enough. Joel Barlow was then a famous American poet, who had written a--a--a poem about America in--in--called "The Columbiad," which was--which was revised and came out in 1807 also. Joel was living in Paris. He had gone there in a land scheme. But he stayed in Paris, and he m--had a considerable amount of money. And Harriet was his wife, and they were happily married, but they had a--a habit of bringing other people in...
LAMB: You mean Ruth.
MR. SALE: I'm sorry, Ruth--Ruth Barlow. They had a habit of bringing people into their relationship, and one of the people they brought in, as soon as they met him, was Robert Fulton. Now this is in 1800.
LAMB: Brought in means what?
MR. SALE: Well, they lived together, the three of them, a menage a trois. The French gave the word to us. It was a threesome, and they lived together for those six years in Paris.
LAMB: Age difference?
MR. SALE: Sufficient so that Barlow might have looked upon Fulton as a son; it was a--there was a 20-year age difference there.
LAMB: And with her?
MR. SALE: And w--and with her. But, clearly, it--it was more than father-son. There--there was clearly a sexual relationship among them, and we know most of this from letters that Barlow wrote while Fulton and Ruth were off on holidays in 1802 and 1803. And it's--they are baby-talk letters full of sexual images, and there's clearly a sexual feeling from Barlow to Fulton. Now we have no evidence that--that--that this was returned. Fulton's letters do not survive from--from that period. But Barlow is encouraging Fulton to have a wonderful summer of sexual pleasure with his wife, and he says that--but he must not let himself--his--his beautiful body be deranged, and--and if he does anything wrong, Barlow says, he'll come and cut off his penis. He says this in--in the baby-talk fashion o--of his letters.

They're bizarre letters, and it was a bizarre a--arrangement for these three. But there was clearly real affection at the bottom of it because when Barlow and Ruth finally go back to America and settle down in Washington, Fulton goes there often to--to see them and stay with them. And when he got married in 1808, then he took his wife down, and he thought maybe there could be a menage a quatre with the four of them in--in Washington. That was his hope, and he--he wrote so much to--to Barlow. It didn't happen. His wife, Harriet, would have none of it, and--and clearly it was a--a disaster.
LAMB: Is this well known in the history of Robert Fulton, or did you find this anew?
MR. SALE: It was--it was known, I think, but not talked about. Similarly...
LAMB: Meaning don't teach this to young kids in school ...(unintelligible).
MR. SALE: No, they don't teach them that. They--they teach them that he invented the--the steamboat and that it was called the Clermont, and neither is true. He didn't invent it; he made the first successful steamboat run. But it wasn't called the Clermont; it was called the North River. And they don't teach them about the rest of this.

There's another incident here, too, because while he was in England, Fulton stayed at the castle of the most notorious homosexual in England: Powderham Castle, down in Devon. And he stayed there for probably two years, at least a year and a half, somewhere along in that line, painting the portrait of--of the--the man who was--was the lord there, Lord Courtney, but clearly living within that menage as well.

Now there's no suggestion anywhere that there was a homosexual relationship between the two of them, but it is known that--that the--Lord Courtney flaunted his homosexual life there, and--and he had parties and brought in people. And it was--it was known. It seems impossible that Fulton could have escaped being a part of that homosexual world, and given his looks and charm, he might have been a willing partner there. And he needed that because he had no other means of support, and if Lord Courtney was going to support him, that's fine.
LAMB: On the back of your book, you have four people that praise your book and one I want to read a little bit of is Norman Rush, author of "Whites" and "Mating." Do you know Mr. Rush?
MR. SALE: Yes.
LAMB: Who is he?
MR. SALE: He's a--a novelist--a--a brilliant novelist who lives also in the Hudson Valley.
LAMB: He says, `Kirkpatrick Sale has decoupled Robert Fulton from his steamboat and yanked him out of the flattering dimness of the pantheon of American inventors, revealing an altogether surprising character and inspired self-taught tinkerer whose greater genius lay in exploiting the discoveries of others, an ethically hilarious monster of self-promotion, a failed merchant of death, a participant in a long-running avant-garde domestic arrangement. Who knew this essay, in addition to recasting the image of Fulton, offers a provocative re-assessment of some of the less noticed social consequences of his greatest achievement and does both with brevity, brio and style?'
MR. SALE: Well, thank you, Norman Rush.
LAMB: You like that?
MR. SALE: You know, I talked about Fulton to a school--classes of fifth-graders the other day. There were about 100 kids there, fifth-graders, and I told them about Fulton. I told them the truth about Fulton. I--I was gentle on--on--on much of it. But they had no trouble getting it. They could see who he was. They saw his brilliance and they saw the fire and they saw how it--it burned him up.
LAMB: Why--and do you think they deliberately, over the years, it--historians have, you know, created an image about him that wasn't accurate?
MR. SALE: Yeah. I mean, it's the--sort of the Parson Weems'treatment of George Washington and--and others that--that we want our heroes to be heroic. We don't want them to have clay feet. We wen--we want them to be perfect. That's--that's very much a part of--of American history. Probably ev--every nation's history tries to do the same. And so the--the other parts we--we don't even bother to--to examine. Now I--I have some problem with this--the question of--of Fulton's homosexuality. It was clear that--that he was involved in these--these relationships. But it's not clear that it--that had any particular effect on his creativity, on his inventiveness, on--on his work, and--and--and it's interesting that he had a passion for Ruth Barlow, because that was the only passion for a woman that he ever exhibited in his entire life, just that one and--and to an older woman. So his--his marriage was, as near as we can tell, entirely without passion, and it was a marriage of--of real convenience and power for--for Fulton.
LAMB: What do you think he would have been like to know?
MR. SALE: Charming, by all accounts charming. Ev--every--everyone said that. And...
LAMB: Was he honest?
MR. SALE: That's an interesting question. Yes, I think you could say that he was honest within his own likes. The fact that he was traitorous in offering his weapons of war all around to countries other than his own, I--I don't think that's dishonesty, exactly. And he'd ne--he never saw it as traitorous. He--and--and people actually said it to him, suggested to him that--that it was, and he--he wouldn't believe it. And e--e--even Barlow was a bit upset by--by all of that, but it--but it never touched Fulton.
LAMB: What impact did having a steamboat in this country, especially up around the Hudson and all, have on the future of the United States? Wh--and can you compare it with something that we have today? I mean, you started off talking about computers. It--was it as important as the computer is today? How did it change the life of the United States?
MR. SALE: Well, the computer is such a hydra-headed affair that it's difficult to--to think of it as a single invention. But it--it had more impact than any other invention until Colt perfected his revolver in the 1840's. It--it was--it was decisive in shaping the course of American history in the first half of the 19th century, absolutely decisive. Because not only could it work on the Hudson, but it--it worked on the Mississippi River system that America acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. And that transformed our country. It made America occupy the entire center of the continent all the way to the Rockies, and create a huge economic machine in that area, bring in massive waves of white settlers, displacing Indians and--and later the Mexicans, and--and stamping American culture and economics all over that huge area. And it became, in fact, more important than the original 13 colonies as a political and economic entity.

Then, too, in addition to allowing the destruction of the native tribes and the native flora and fauna, it enabled cotton to be a successful crop, and therefore, slavery to exist--to continue to exist. Until then, cotton was a problematic crop. It--it--it had some market in--in England, and--and some use domestically, but it wasn't significant. And it is thought by many historians that slavery was about to go out of fashion as in--in--in the Nor--in the South as it had--had in the North. There was still slavery both North and South, but it--it was d--it was diminishing. And then along comes this instrument that enables you to--to carry big loads of cotton--it requires such an instrument--big loads up and down the rivers and--and to do it quickly and economically. And so the plantation economy was secured by the steamboat, and, therefore, king cotton and, therefore, slavery, right up until the Civil War.
LAMB: What was his genius when it came to actually building a steamboat?
MR. SALE: Well, he had a vision tha--that--that--of--of what it should do and what it should--should look like, which was in some ways flawed, but it was clear enough so that he was able to build this first boat and have a success with it.
LAMB: What's this photograph right here?
MR. SALE: And--and he was also enough of an artist to be able to draw the inventions that he wanted to create. And those are drawings from his patent for the steamboat that he--he applied for in 1809. And he was a skillful artist, and he could design the inventions that he wanted built. And he--he designed the steamboat with great care, and he carried out all--all of its building with great care. He was there in the shop. He saw what his workmen were doing. He--he took care of every detail inside the engine and outside.
LAMB: What's this portrait right here?
MR. SALE: That is theoretically the North River on one of its early journeys with the wind going one way for the sails and the other way for the--the smoke. But, nonetheless, a fairly accurate rendering of what the first steamboat looked like.
LAMB: And you say it was not called the Clermont, it was called the North River?
MR. SALE: It was called the North River, that's all--the only name...
LAMB: How did that name thing then get into the m--mi...
MR. SALE: Well, it's hard to say. But in the first biography written by a friend and his lawyer, Codwilder Cauldin, Cauldin used that name. He said it was called the Clermont or the North River. And that somehow--I don't know how he--he--he got that idea, or he may have just been trying to stay on the good side of the Livingston family whose family home was called Clermont. But it was never called that in--on any paper or in any document or in any letter that Fulton wrote.
LAMB: In New York, Fulton Street--famous street, where is it and why is it famous?
MR. SALE: Well, it's an honor that's--that's rarely been accorded to anybody in New York. You can name a street after somebody. But here they made a street, and it was a street that went between Fulton's landings on the Hudson, where the steamboats--the steam ferries went to New Jersey, and the other Fulton landing on the East River, where the steam ferries went to Brooklyn and Queens. And they just plowed a road between those two points after his death and--and named it Fulton Street in his honor. There is also a Fulton Street in Brooklyn named in his honor.
LAMB: Isn't there a Fulton Market also?
MR. SALE: There was a Fulton Market that grew up at the foot of Fulton Street on the East River, though I think that was called that rather more for the street than for the--for the person.
LAMB: Go back again to the year that he invented the steamboat or invented his steamboat.
MR. SALE: 1807.
LAMB: And the country in 1807, the people, the names that were ever--on everybody's lips at tho--in those days, who would that have been? Who were the famous names? And did he know them?
MR. SALE: It was Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark were the new heroes of America, because it was in 1806 that they came back from their momentous journey to the Pacific. And there were celebrations of Meriwether Lewis in--in all the cities around, including Washington, where there was a huge banquet in his honor. And to that banquet, went Barlow and--his wife, and Fulton. And Barlow and Fulton are recorded as having given toasts, which was the then fashion, to Lewis for his achievement. And they probably also went to Philadelphia where both of them were--had--had work to do. And they undoubtedly met in Phi--Philadelphia as well. And Lewis was a kind of problematical hero, because shortly thereafter he took his own life. And that was not a good thing for a hero to do. That's--tha--that--that--that--that tainted his career.

But Fulton, by that time, was the new hero because he had created the successful steamboat, and everyone could see that that was going to be an--an instrument of--of significance. I don't think anybody saw at the time how significant. I don't think anybody was thinking just how important a--an instrument it was. It took America a few years to understand that. By 1907, the centenary year, Mark Twain, who was on the committee to celebrate this cen--centenary and celebrate Fulton, said that Fulton--Mark Twain, of course, who had--had his life on the Mississippi and--and knew a lot about the steamboat--said that Fulton's achievement had made the rivers useful, that before that they were just there. This was an instrument that made them useful.
LAMB: You also say in your book that Chief Justice John Marshall, who was the longest serving chief justice--something like 34 years--broke the monopoly.
MR. SALE: Yes.
LAMB: Now explain what the monopoly was, how long did it last, and how did Chief Justice Marshall break it?
MR. SALE: Well, the monopoly began in 1807 and was renewed for years af--even after Fulton's death. But it was challenged at every point all the time. And that took--took Fulton to court and to legislatures more often than he wished to go.
LAMB: Who gave him the monopoly?
MR. SALE: This was from Liv--Livingston, this was the part of the deal that Living--Livingston--Living...
LAMB: How did he get the monopoly?
MR. SALE: He go--he persuaded the New York state Legislature to do his bidding. And he was a rich and famous patriot, and they did his bidding. And they gave him the monopoly. If he could successfully provide a steamboat, he could have the monopoly on steamboat travel on the Hudson.
LAMB: How many boats did Fulton build in his life then?
MR. SALE: Well, there were 12, 13, and there were five of them that plied the Hudson. Then others were steam ferries, and there was one boat--boat on the--Long Island and there were some on the Mississippi, eventually.
LAMB: Was this a national monopoly that he had?
MR. SALE: No. And that's why he was so late in going to the Mississippi, because he couldn't get a monopoly on the Mississippi. He managed with the help of another Livingston to get a monopoly on New Orleans and--for--for New Orleans' waters. And that sort of gave him a monopoly on the Mississippi, but it was effectively ignored. There were other people who were putting boats on the Mississippi, and there was very little that--that Fulton could do about it.
LAMB: W--wa--was--did the Legislature of New York have to grant this monopoly to Livingston?
MR. SALE: Yes.
LAMB: Was it a money thing? I mean, did they--was there money exchanged to get the monopoly?
MR. SALE: No, it--th--this was the idea that commerce would be improved if we could get a steamboat there. And in order to get somebody to invent it and put it on the water, you had to give them a monopoly, or else they wouldn't--they wouldn't do it. And they...
LAMB: So what year was it broken?
MR. SALE: So a--after Fulton's death, a lot of people came, trying to challenge it. Co--Commodore Fulton was--was one of them who tried to--to challenge it. And--and...
LAMB: Who is Commodore Fulton?
MR. SALE: Co--I--I mean--Commodore...
LAMB: Not Perry. I mean, that's the only thing that comes to...
MR. SALE: No, the--no, the--th--the man who later founded the New York Central Railroad.
LAMB: Vanderbilt.
MR. SALE: Com--Vanderbilt. Commodore Vanderbilt was one ofthe men who--who--who began his career as a steamboat man. And he challenged the monopoly. And others did as well. And then finally, this went into a state court and finally, to the Supreme Court in 1826. And it was then that Marshall declared that this was odious--the monopoly was odious, and--and--and--and declared that there couldn't be any in American waters.
LAMB: But you say then everything went crazy. I mean, thousands of steamboats were created because the monopoly was broken.
MR. SALE: Well, that--that--that helped to--to expand the trade enormously. But it had been successfully challenged on the Hudson before that, and successfully challenged on the Mississippi and the Ohio before that. This was a--a--a le--legal assistance, but people were going to build steamboats and use them no matter what. When--when that monopoly was finally destroyed, though, it--it--it--it opened the f--the flood gates for the Hudson River. Although, by that time, there were--there were hundreds of steamboats in the Mississippi system and on other rivers in America. America needed the steamboat. It--it had these long rivers that wereotherwise, as Mark Twain said, `useless.' Not quite, but--but--but now they were useful.
LAMB: Where's the best place in the United States to find any kind of a monument to Robert Fulton or a museum that has displays about him? Anyplace?
MR. SALE: One--one place is Rondout, New York. There's a--a museum that's devoted to Hudson River maritime history. But they--but they are--they are sort of slim on--on Fulton, but--but they're very good on--on steamboats. And there is a group of people also on the--the Hudson that are building a new--a m--a monument--a new replica of the original North River.
LAMB: Where?
MR. SALE: They will be in Saugerties, New York. That's between--well, it's near Kingston--it's--it's between New York City and Albany. And they plan for 2007 to have this replica built and on the Hudson River.
LAMB: When you went about writing this and--and researching it, how did you do that?
MR. SALE: Well, there are--there's lots of correspondence of--particularly of Fulton after 1807, some of it going back into his English and French years, but--but not--not a lot. But--but considerable records of--that--that he kept on the steamboat operations--not enough. It wasn't--it wasn't a meticulous year-by-year account that--that survived, so you have to provide a lot of guesswork.
LAMB: Where do you find it? Where is it?
MR. SALE: It--it's in the New York Historical Society and the New York Public Library.
LAMB: Original letters?
MR. SALE: Original letters.
LAMB: Did you see them or...
MR. SALE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. The...
LAMB: What--what's his handwriting like?
MR. SALE: Well, it was--it--it started out as a--clumsy handwriting with--with bad spelling, and it developed into very sophisticated, very--very fluid handwriting and--and very--very little bad spelling in it as he became an educated and cultured man.
LAMB: Your book is $24. It's 242 pages. As these books go today, this would be a small book. Did you do that on purpose?
MR. SALE: No. No. I didn't think about that at all. I just wrote the story that had to be written.
LAMB: How many words did you--do you have any idea?
LAMB: And--and...
MR. SALE: I--I d--I don't use a computer so I don't know.
LAMB: You do not?
MR. SALE: I don't have a--a word count on it.
LAMB: How do you write them?
MR. SALE: On a typewriter.
LAMB: How long have you done that?
MR. SALE: Forever.
LAMB: What kind of a typewriter?
MR. SALE: It's electric.
LAMB: Has it always been electric?
MR. SALE: No, that--that--that's a concession about 10 years ago.
LAMB: And where do you write?
MR. SALE: In my home in Cold Spring, New York.
LAMB: Any time of day that you like to do this more than others?
MR. SALE: Well, you get up at 9 and you q--you quit at 5, or something like that. It--it's a--a 9-to-6 job, basically. You do it every day. And...
LAMB: Are you already working on your next book?
MR. SALE: I am. I'm trying to convince the publishers of this Fulton book...
LAMB: Free Press?
MR. SALE: be--to be interested in a book on a somewhat larger theme of where did Homo sapiens go wrong. And I've--I've located the--the time 40,000 years ago. And I want to write about the Stone Age and how Homo erectus lived for two million years one way and then Homo sapiens evolved and--and taught us to live a different way.
LAMB: What's the difference between a Hopo sa--Homo sapien and a Homo erectus?
MR. SALE: The large difference is an attitude toward nature, and it's--it's--it's astonishing...
LAMB: How do you define a Homo sapien and how do you define a Homo erectus?
MR. SALE: Well, that's easy--that's--skeletal re--records pro--provide that. And we can s--tell pretty much how the Homo erectus lived without hunting--probably without hunting, certainly without hunting large animals. The Homo sapien comes out and develops spears and spear throwers and goes after the large animals and exterminates the large animals in a wholly different attitude toward nature than existed for the previous two million years of human life. And this leads, eventually, to the domestication of animals and domestication of plants, which we call agriculture and husbandry. And--and that creates a whole new attitude to--to nature and a whole new way of distancing ourselves from nature, so that we can use it. And I--I would say that this is where we went wrong. And that's what I'm trying to--to create a book about at the moment.
LAMB: What was your best-selling book?
MR. SALE: Probably the book on Christopher Columbus that I wrote that came out in time for the quincentennial in 1992. And I had expected that quincentennial to be just a grand and glorious affair, on everybody's lips and on every newspaper. But it turned out that the book--my book, which came out in 1990, got people thinking that maybe Columbus wasn't really all that great a fellow, and what he did was maybe really not all that celebratory.
LAMB: You say he never really landed in the United States.
MR. SALE: Of course, he wasn't--didn't come to the United States, no. He--but he did--he did land in--in the Americas. And he had an immediate and disastrous effect, and part of it was intended, his enslavement and killing of Indians. Part of it was unintended, the diseases that he brought over. But it was just a mo--momentous event, and--and--and it changed the world forever. But he, himself, wasn't all that grand a fellow. And so the bandwagon that I expected to be there in 1992 was somewhat derailed by--by people paying attention to what I was saying in the years before that.
LAMB: You do--dedicate this book for Dehlila, my American dream. Who is she and why is she your American dream?
MR. SALE: Dehlila is my granddaughter, three-and-a-half years old, and she was born while I was writing this book. And she is my American dream for the future. And if anybody is going to be able to survive the very troublesome future that this country and this species has before it, it will be somebody with the--the fire and the joy of Dehlila.
LAMB: You said earlier, you'd written for a number of publications, including The New York Times. When were you at The Times and for how many years?
MR. SALE: In the '60s, for about three years or more.
LAMB: Where else have you written?
MR. SALE: All across the country. Every--lot--lots of places. I--I--at one time, I was writing for lots of popular magazines, and then more recently I--I've tried to--to narrow that down. I write for The Nation. I'm a contributing editor there.
LAMB: What kind of things?
MR. SALE: Essays, I guess you would call them.
LAMB: Political?
MR. SALE: Political. Not--not so much journalism as--as essays on contemporary events.
LAMB: Define your politics.
MR. SALE: I am an anarchical communalist.
LAMB: What does that mean?
MR. SALE: What it means is that I believe in small scale, human scale communities within confined natural regions. Tho--these are called bioregions where I come from. But these natural regions are where our efforts should be confined, and within them, to communities of a fairly small size so that a human can have a real influence on the events of--of one's daily life. And this is a dream that many people have had. This is called essentially decentralization. The decentralization power, the diffusion of power, out of--out of the centers, down back to the people at small community levels. And I am the secretary of the E.F. Schumacher Society which is devoted to that same vision, that same dream of trying to bring power and politics and economies back to a smaller scale.
LAMB: Who was E.F. Schumacher?
MR. SALE: E.F. Schumacher was an English economist who wrote a book called "Small Is Beautiful" in the 18--in the 1970s and it became a quite popular book, putting forth the notion of small is beautiful, decentralization, alternative energy, alternative technologies. And I think still that this is the way we have to go, and--and I--I have go--have gotten some encouragement about this because I think it's increasingly clear that nationalized systems are fragile and in trouble, and that we had better bring power back down to the people at a human scale if we want to have a--an efficient and survivable future.
LAMB: We only have a couple minutes left. Robert Fulton had a not too comfortable ending to his life, age 50, 1815, when he died. You say there was this facial boil that even closed an eye. Can you ex--what was that all about?
MR. SALE: Don't know. It's--it's hard to say. I mean, he--he had several episodes of that kind of thing. He ended dying essentially of--of pneumonia. It was called various other kinds of things at the time, but that wh--that's how we would think of it now. And he--he didn't take care of himself, in short. Again, that fire in his soul was driving him to--to achieve this, that and--and more fame and more fortune. He had a restless soul that--that--that would not even learn to take care of his own health.
LAMB: What did he leave his wife and his kids?
MR. SALE: Well, that's--that's a question. It's--it's not certain what he left. There is no will, we don't know. What is certain is that 10 years after his death, they were destitute. And it's not certain where that money went to. Probably his widow had some of it, and she married a--a r--a rather unscrupulous man who might have taken it all for himself. But what is clear is that his family was destitute within 10 years after his death.
LAMB: When you finished your book, did you end up liking him?
MR. SALE: Not much. Not much. I--I...
LAMB: Were you surprised about that?
MR. SALE: I--I think I would have been overcome by his charm if I--if I, in fact, met him.
LAMB: You would guess...
MR. SALE: You know, I--I had no idea at the beginning that--that he was quite the scallywag that he was.
LAMB: Did he get the fame that he wanted, when he was alive?
MR. SALE: He certainly got it, yes. And--and he is known to this day to--by every child in America, I believe, and that is a considerable amount of--of fame. And Fulton Street is still there plowing through the middle of Manhattan.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book. It's called "The Fire of His Genius", Robert Fulton is the subject. And our guest has been Kirkpatrick Sale. Thank you very much.
MR. SALE: Thank you. I appreciate it.
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