As Robert Fulton grew older he did better work at school. His quickness in numbers often surprised his teacher, and his school papers were always neat and beautiful.
Still he found more to do out of school than in school. He spent much time drawing; and he improved in that art constantly, although he had no instruction in it.
When he was eleven years old a terrible war broke out between the American colonies and England. A few of the colonists were loyal to the king, but many wanted a new and independent government.
In Lancaster there were Tories, who took the king's part, Quakers, who thought war wicked, and patriots, who were ready to fight for liberty.
There was great excitement everywhere. British or colonial soldiers encamped in many of the towns. Men and boys went to war, leaving behind weeping wives, mothers, and sisters.
Robert Fulton's father was dead, and he and his brothers were not old enough to go to the war. But young as he was he loved his country and wished the colonists to win. He never missed an opportunity to show his patriotism.
Just before the Fourth of July, 1778, a notice was put up requesting the citizens of Lancaster not to illuminate their houses as usual in celebration of the day, since candles were very scarce.
Robert was sorely disappointed. The Fourth was a great day to him. He remembered the first Fourth-of-July just two years before. How the bells had rung! How the windows had gleamed with candles! How the streets had blazed with bonfires and how joyous the people had been!
This year he had his candles ready, and had been anxiously awaiting the day. He was not the kind of boy to act against the wishes of the city officers. That would have been a poor way to honor his government's birthday. Yet he did not want to give up his celebration altogether.
After thinking about it for a while he took the candles back to the shop and exchanged them for pasteboard and gunpowder. He took these to the barn and worked quietly the rest of the day.
On the evening of the Fourth he brought out some queer-looking pasteboard tubes with slender sticks in them. When a lighted candle was applied at one end—whizz! away went the stick with a great train of sparks against the black sky.
The home-made rockets were a surprise to the people of Lancaster. Robert thought them much better than candles.
It would not be safe for every thirteen-year-old boy to make his own fireworks, but Robert knew something about gunpowder. He understood just how much to use and where to put it. He had heard about sky rockets and had an idea how they were made. He drew a plan of one and, before attempting to make any, found out by arithmetic how large a charge of powder to use.
In the war times there were many gunsmiths in Lancaster whose shops were kept open day and night; for the government was in great need of arms for the soldiers.
Robert was so deeply interested in guns that he soon knew more about the making of them than many of the craftsmen who did the work. He made nice drawings of guns, showing all the parts and the use of each. In some of the drawings he showed how the pieces might be made stronger or more beautiful by the addition of certain new parts or ornaments.
When he showed these pictures or plans to the gunmakers they often made use of his suggestions, and found that they improved their arms by doing so.
But there were other ways in which Robert surprised the gunmakers. He could estimate with figures the distance that a musket of given measurements would send a ball. When the gun was finished and the men went out into the field to try its power, they usually found that young Fulton's figures were correct.
At this period of his boyhood he frequently went to a drug store to buy quicksilver. His friends were curious to know what he wanted it for, but no one could find out. They questioned and teased and joked in vain. At last they gave up trying to discover his secret. But they paid him for his silence by calling him "Quicksilver Bob." It was not a bad nickname for him, for his brain and his fingers were as active as quicksilver.
In his sixteenth summer Robert was invited by one of his boy friends to go on a fishing trip. His mother was willing to have him go, for the other boy's father would be with them. Moreover they were going up the Conestoga River to a point not far from the home of one of Robert's aunts, and he promised to make her a visit.
He started off in high spirits. For a while he enjoyed the view of the clear stream with its wonderful reflections of grassy hill slopes and overhanging trees. He forgot about gun shops and was content to sit by the hour holding a fishing rod. But at length he began to think of making something, and became restless.
When he and his friends went out on the river to fish they were obliged to use a clumsy square fishing boat. In order to move it from one place to another the boys had to pole it. That is, they stood on the boat and pushed against a long pole with which they could reach the bed of the stream. That was a slow way of getting along and it was a hard one, too.
One afternoon it occurred to "Quicksilver Bob" that the boat could be moved in a much easier way. He was anxious to try it, and started off at once to his aunt's to make the promised visit and some experiments.
While there his aunt saw but little of him. He spent his time tinkering in the attic, and before he left he had made a toy boat that could be moved about on the water with tiny paddle wheels. He showed it to his aunt and asked her to take good care of it till he came again. He then got together such materials as he wanted and bade good-by to his relative.
As soon as he rejoined his comrade he told him that he had a plan for moving the fishing boat without so much labor. When the boy learned what the plan was, he was as anxious as Robert to try it.
Both went to work making paddle wheels. They were very rough wheels, made by fastening together at the center two slender poles at right angles to each other. At the four ends of the two poles the boys nailed flat boards or paddles. They put one of those wheels on each side of the boat and fastened them to the ends of a long rod running through the boat. The rod was bent so that it could be turned by a double crank.
"She goes ahead all right," said Robert's friend, Christopher, as the young inventor tried the new craft for the first time. "But how shall we guide her?"
"Oh, I have thought of that," answered Robert. He took a contrivance, not unlike an oar-lock, out of his pocket and fastened it to the stern of the boat. By the help of a paddle working in this socket one could guide the boat while the other turned the crank. They found the paddle wheels a great improvement on the pole.
Fulton's First Experiment with Paddle-Wheels
"Why didn't you think of that, Christopher?" asked Christopher's father, looking on with admiration.
"I wonder why I didn't," answered the boy. "It looks easy enough now that Bob has shown me how."
Robert might have told them this story of Columbus and the egg: One day at the table some men were saying that it was no great thing to sail across the Atlantic Ocean; they could do it themselves. In reply to their remarks Columbus picked up a boiled egg and asked which of them could make it stand on end. All tried in vain. "And yet," said the great man, "it is easy enough, and you can all do it when I have shown you how." With that he set it down so hard as to crush the end a little. And the egg stood in its place straight and steady.