The schoolmaster had left the high stool at his high desk and was walking down among the benches where the boys sat. Most of the pupils looked up to see what he would do.
There was one who did not look up. That boy's curly head was bent over an old book in which he was drawing something. He was so busy that he seemed to have forgotten where he was.
The master stopped beside his bench and looked over his spectacles severely at the boy, who started quickly and held up his work for the teacher to look at. His eyes were glowing with satisfaction, and said as plainly as lips could say, "Is it not good?"
The drawing was well done. It was so good that the master could not scold, but he thought it was his duty to teach the boy to do more useful things. He did not praise him, therefore, but said gravely, "It would be better for thee, Robert, to spend thy time studying thy books."
"I know it, sir, but my head is so full of my own ideas that there seems to be no room in it for ideas from books," answered the boy.
This is one of the stories that the schoolmates of Robert Fulton used to tell about him after he had become famous. It happened long ago in a little Quaker school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Robert Fulton spent his schooldays.
He was born on the fourteenth of November, 1765, on a farm in the township of Little Britain, in Lancaster County. Mr. and Mrs. Fulton were quiet, modest people, and little dreamed that the name of the township would one day be changed in honor of their baby, who kicked and crowed in his old-fashioned, hooded cradle just like any ordinary baby. But the name was changed and the township where the great inventor was born is now called "Fulton."
When Robert was less than a year old his father sold the farm and moved to Lancaster, the county seat. There Mr. Fulton died about two years later, and Mrs. Fulton was left with a small income to bring up her five young children. As Robert was the oldest boy he grew up with the understanding that he must do something to support the family.
His mother knew how to read and write, and she taught him at home with his sisters until he was eight years old. Then she sent him to school.
His teacher thought him a dull pupil, but found him quick enough at everything except his lessons.
One day the worthy man punished him by striking his hands with a ruler. This was no uncommon occurrence, but it made Robert angry and he said with spirit, "Sir, I come here to have something beat into my head and not into my hand."
At another time when asked why he came late to school, he held up a lead pencil and answered, "I have been to the smith's pounding out lead for this pencil, and it is a good one too."
That was doing something useful, and it pleased the teacher. He praised Robert, and the boys begged him to make pencils for them.
Out of school he was looked upon as unusually bright and promising. He was witty and good natured, and every one liked him. He was fond of visiting shops and talking with the men. He was a great pet among them and they not only answered his questions, but sometimes let him use their tools. In that way he learned much more than most boys know about machinery and various trades.