A fairly well-known story is Fulton offering to build steam ships for The Emperor and Napoleon replying something like, "A ship that sails by bonfires under its decks?? Away with you, visionist!" (This story is alluded to in The Making of the Atomic Bomb when Roosevelt and an advisor are discussing the prospect of nuclear power/weapons.)

I find the story hard to believe in that I would guess that steam power was hardly a new thing in the early 1800s -- steam pumps had been used in mines for almost a century and in fact a steam-powered boat was exhibited as early as 1787. So Napoleon would have sounded very unsophisticated indeed if he spoke of steam engines as almost something magical any time after 1800 if not earlier.

Is this story real? What is the evidence about it?

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    $\begingroup$ So, what is your question? Are you asking for references to reputable historic studies supporting the story? $\endgroup$ – Moishe Kohan May 1 at 18:10
  • $\begingroup$ yes and any explanation as to why a progressive thinker who surrounded himself with scientists would take this stance. $\endgroup$ – releseabe May 1 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ For the second question, the likely answer is that "progressive" and all that doesn't imply technological competence. $\endgroup$ – Moishe Kohan May 1 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ @MoisheKohan: he had among his advisors arguably the most intelligent man in France so he did not have to rely on his own technical competence. In any case, that it was a submarine and not a steamship explains a lot. On the other hand, why did he not develop a steam navy? $\endgroup$ – releseabe May 2 at 3:18
  • $\begingroup$ I think, it is called "hubris" and Napoleon never had shortage of that. As far as your last question, that should be a separate post. $\endgroup$ – Moishe Kohan May 2 at 3:28

As Alex correctly noted, the story is about a submarine, not a steamboat (your source is just wrong).

The story is discussed in detail in the Wikipedia article Nautilus.

Here are the key paragraphs:

Through friends like Gaspard Monge and Pierre-Simon Laplace, Fulton obtained an interview with Napoleon, but was unable to garner support for his vessel; however, Fulton's friends pushed the Minister of Marine into appointing a scholarly panel, to consist of Volney, Monge, and Laplace, to assess the submarine.

So, Fulton was taken seriously.

In September, Napoleon expressed interest in seeing Nautilus, only to find that, as it had leaked badly, Fulton had her dismantled and the more important bits destroyed at the end of the tests. Despite the many reports of success by reliable witnesses, like the Prefect Marine of Brest, Napoleon decided Fulton was a swindler and charlatan. The French navy had no enthusiasm for a weapon they considered suicidal for the crews even though Fulton had had no problems(*) and despite evidence it would be overwhelmingly destructive against conventional ships.

(*) I think, Wikipedia article is too kind to Fulton here: It's clear from the above that Fulton had some pretty serious reliability issues with his design.

My take is that Fulton (and his design) failed at the worst possible time and that Napoleon decided to believe his eyes rather than arguments from his experts and subordinates (who disagreed among each other). What were his exact words, I do not know, my suggestion is to check the references given by the Wikipedia article:

Robert Forrest Burgess. "Ships Beneath the Sea." McGraw-Hill. (1975)

William Barclay Parsons. "Robert Fulton and the submarine." Columbia University Press. (1922)

  • $\begingroup$ Given the abysmal success rate of early submarines, I can't say Napoleon was entirely wrong here. $\endgroup$ – Mark May 3 at 5:29
  • $\begingroup$ How would such submarine fire, by the way? $\endgroup$ – Anixx May 3 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark: Agreed...... $\endgroup$ – Moishe Kohan May 3 at 12:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Anixx: Fulton also invented a torpedo. $\endgroup$ – Moishe Kohan May 3 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ @MoisheKohan how would energy be stored in it? $\endgroup$ – Anixx May 3 at 13:08

The thing that Fulton tried to sell to the French (and after their refusal, to the British) was not a steamship but a submarine equipped with a "torpedo". What Napoleon really said, and whether Fulton spoke personally to Napoleon is not recorded. (In France he dealt with the Minister of Marine, and obtained funds for an experimental submarine. Another experimental submarine he built in England. It was demonstrated in the presence of the prime minister (W. Pitt)). His submarines were propelled my muscular force.

And you are right: he was not the first person to propose a steamship of a submarine. Steamships were already in use at that time, mainly as tugs.

Failing in this Fulton came back to the US and made a fortune by building steamships.

Reference: N. Mostert, The line upon a wind. The great war at sea, 1793-1815, W. Norton, NY, 2007, chapter 44 is on Fulton's submarines, torpedoes and steamships.


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