Robert Fulton was a genius–right? He invented the steamboat. They called it “Fulton’s Folly,” but they were wrong: Fulton had just revolutionized transportation.
Nevertheless, Fulton did come up with one real folly, and it was the last project he did in his life.
In 1814 Fulton got Congress to appropriate $500,000–a staggering sum, in those days–to build a steam-powered warship that would sweep the British Navy from the seas. The War of 1812 was ongoing, the British had sailed into Chesapeake Bay and burned Washington, and it was feared they would do the same to New York. The young nation looked to Fulton to prevent that.
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Fulton knew that the obvious problem for any steamboat entering a naval battle was the paddle-wheel: it would be shot to bits in a matter of minutes, leaving the ship dead in the water. So Fulton put the paddle-wheel inside the ship (see drawing, above), smack-dab in the middle, where no enemy could damage it without sinking the ship outright. And to make sure that wouldn’t happen, Fulton built the hull extra-thick and armed the vessel to the teeth with heavy guns.
As he designed it, so they built it. They finished the job a few months before the war ended.
Two things turned out to be wrong.
First, the design didn’t leave room for an engine big enough to move this monster into anything like a battle speed. It was slooooow.
But worst–you won’t believe this, but it’s true–Fulton’s design did not provide any way to steer the vessel! Again, look at the drawing: with the paddle-wheel in the middle of the boat, the boat could only go in one direction. If you really did have to turn it, you had to send men out in rowboats, with lots of strong rope, to drag the ship into another course. Not the most practical expedient during the hubbub of a battle.
How could Robert Fulton–Robert Fulton!–design and build a ship that could only go in one direction, very slowly? And given the hundreds of Navy men and shipbuilders involved in the project, why did no one ever speak up and say, “Uh, er, how are we supposed to steer this ship?”
The moral of the story: Before granting godlike powers to any moral man or woman, we do well to remember that even the wisest of us occasionally comes up with a plan that wouldn’t do credit to a monkey. The Bible tells us that “In a multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14)–and even a multitude of counselors is unsafe, once they get to thinking that they’re wise. Let the Bible and King Solomon have the last word:
“Seest thou a man who is wise in his own conceit? there is more hope of a fool than of him.” (Proverbs 26:12)
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