FULTON, Robert. Autograph manuscript signed ("R. Fulton"), Washington, D. C. 27 December 1811. 4½ pp., 4to WITH TWO DRAWINGS BY FULTON IN THE TEXT
"THERE IS NOT A PRINCIPLE OR SOUND MECHANICAL IDEA BELONGING TO IT"
BY TURNS ANGRY AND SARCASTIC, FULTON DEFENDS THE PRIORITY OF HIS STEAMBOAT DESIGN against jealous rivals in this impassioned attack on the merits of an earlier, supposedly comparable craft. He analyzes Edward Thompson's 1796 "fire ship"--an unmanned vessel powered by mechanical oars that was intended to ram and explode against enemy ships--and rejects the idea that it precedes his own steamboat design (which also incorporated side paddle wheels). He begins by transcribing a portion of Thompson's own account of his device from the Reportory of Arts, "Volume 10th page 399": "...I thought of the possibility of inventing some machinery assisted by steam that should row the vessel and conduct her to a given place without any person on board..." Fulton even sketches out in an elegant hand the design of Thompson's proposed ship, and schematizes a scenario of how the ship might steer its way into a harbor filled with enemy ships. Then, switching to his own voice, he heaps scorn on Thompson: "this curious piece of imagination," he writes, "without either theory or practice, gives no description for the size of the vessel or power of the engine to drive her a given distance in a given time. He does not say whether it must be a 5 or a 50 horse power engine or the resistance of the vessel while running 1, 2, 3 or 4 miles an hour... All this is left to be found out, to find out which is all the merit of the invention of steamboats." Fulton thinks Thompson's "whole project is the most wild and impracticable. There is not a principle or sound mechanical idea belonging to it." If rival steamboat companies truly thought Thompson's design preceded his own, Fulton asks, then why had they not put it into practice in the 13 years since Thompson first published? "The reason is plain," he writes. "Such abortive thoughts give no aid in producing an efficient steam boat such as I have built... As to myself I never saw the plan until 1808 in the presence of Mr. Stevens, but I am inventor even before it, as my letter to Lord Stanhope in 1793 will shew."
The rival Albany steamboat company sought to use Thompson's design to destroy the validity of Fulton's patent for the steamboat, and by extension Fulton's monopoly on the lucrative Hudson River route. Nine years after Fulton's death his opponents finally prevailed over his heirs in court, when Chief Justice John Marshall declared Fulton's steamboat monopoly an unconstitutional infringement on interstate commerce, in the landmark case of Gibbons v. Ogden (1824).