The Innovation of Robert Fulton: Making Much Out of Little

Robert Fulton: Boy Craftsman by Marguerite Henry

Fulton-steamboat“Even as a boy he was the kind to see a way to improve things. He always finished up whatever he set out to do, too, and he made a fine job of it. Bob was never happy unless he was making something – something according to a plan.”

Do you have a child who’s always coming up with ideas or working on projects? My middle child is one of those. As a toddler he was always on the go, exploring things, opening doors, flipping switches, then a little later, taking things apart and fixing things. He made a pneumatic airgun that shot potatoes, a two-octave PVC pipe instrument (think Blue Man Group), a didgeridoo, a dulcimer, and a Tesla coil (from scratch, btw). It’s no surprise to those who have known this boy from childhood that his major in college is electrical engineering, and that he is currently working on a couple of patents at his job. (Please excuse my brief but shameful parental bragging.)

Robert Fulton, Boy Craftsman by Marguerite Henry is a biography for children about the boy who grew up to construct the first successful steamboat, The Clermont in 1807. Robert Fulton was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1765, and as his father died when he was only three or four years old, he became a gunsmith’s apprentice at a young age. Mrs. Henry’s story depicts Robert as a bright and inventive lad who was always coming up with ideas and finding better ways to do things. She also portrays young Robert as a helpful, responsible, hard-working boy who is thoughtful, kind, and patient towards others.

This engaging biography follows Robert Fulton as he designs and makes one thing after another: a candlestick for his mother, lead pencils, ink, paint brushes (following Benjamin West’s idea of using fur from his cat for the brush tips), fireworks, and paddle wheels for a fishing boat — all by the age of 17.  Robert demonstrates the great quality of resourcefulness as a boy who is able to “make much out of little,” as his schoolmaster remarks on one occasion. In 1778, when the American colonies were at war with Great Britain, Fulton  worked for a gunsmith repairing firearms. Because of the war, the gunsmiths were always busy, and although a sign was posted outside the shop which read “No Visitors Allowed,”

All the gunsmiths welcomed Bob. Even though he was only twelve, his head was full of ideas. And his ideas worked. When he suggested a change in the design of a gun, the men listened with respect.

Not all children like school or have a propensity for academics, and Robert Fulton appears to have been one of them, probably because he was so bright and creative. He was a hands-on learner and may have been bored with conventional learning methods. One account I read claimed that his school teacher thought he was “dull,” something I seem to remember hearing was also said of Albert Einstein. Supposedly when Robert was ten, his teacher told Robert’s mother, “Only yesterday, madam, Robert pertinaciously declared to me that his head was so full of original notions that there was no vacant chamber to store away the contents of any dusty books.” In fact, on several occasions – both in this story and in real life – he was mocked and teased for his crazy “notions” or told that a plan he had was impossible. But Robert Fulton remained tenacious and confident in his designs and never allowed the doubts of others to discourage him from moving forward.

Statue by Howard Roberts, 1889. Photo courtesy of Architect of the Capitol (

As an adult Fulton’s designs, inventions, and patents include machines for spinning flax and making rope, a mill for sawing marble, power shovels for canal digging, and a submarine torpedo-boat. And his first steamboat  became a system of steam ferryboats used to transport passengers and cargo on the Hudson River, and eventually improved navigation on other major river systems of the United States.

Based on articles and information that I found, Henry’s book seems to give quite an accurate account of Fulton’s life and achievements. Many of the incidents in the story are mentioned in the chapter on Fulton in Great Fortunes and How They Were Made (1870), so she may have used it as one of her sources. During his lifetime, Fulton was a portrait and landscape artist, an engineer, and an inventor, but one article referred to Fulton as more of an innovator than an inventor. He worked with several important famous individuals, including Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin West, Robert Livingston, and Napoleon. This biography of Robert Fulton mentions his connections with all of these men.

RFBoycraftsman-bookRobert Fulton, Boy Craftsman is a great story to show kids that persistence pays off, and to remind parents that not all children learn the same way and sometimes we just need to allow them to experiment, to express themselves, and to learn by trying and doing. I read this book aloud with my kids when they were between the ages of 5 and 9, and it’s an especially good choice for homeschoolers because it can be used to teach children about history, science, and vocabulary, as well as character building. The edition I used (published by Mile-Hi) has at the back a timeline of events related to Robert Fulton’s life, a list of vocabulary words used in the story, comprehension questions, and suggestions for supplemental activities and research.

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3 thoughts on “The Innovation of Robert Fulton: Making Much Out of Little

  1. I read lots of Marguerite Henry’s books growing up because she wrote a whole series on horses. My favorite was King of the Wind! I didn’t know she wrote others beyond that. I’ll have to check them out! Thanks!

    1. Yep, I think she is best known for those horse stories; I remember reading Misty of Chincoteague with my kids, and also Brighty of the Grand Canyon. But my favorite book by her is Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin.

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