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William Barclay Parsons collection of Robert Fulton manuscripts

Collection Data

Writings, drawings and publications on or by Robert Fulton collected by civil engineer William Barclay Parsons for his book Robert Fulton and the Submarine, published in 1922.
Parsons, William Barclay, 1859-1932 (Collector)
Dates / Origin
Date Created: 1796 - 1919
Library locations
Manuscripts and Archives Division
Shelf locator: MssCol 18137
Fulton, Robert, 1765-1815
Civil engineers
Submarines (Ships)
Biographical/historical: William Barclay Parsons was born to prominent family in New York City in 1859. After studying abroad during his teenage years Parsons attended Columbia University where here received degrees in 1879 and 1882. In 1885 Parsons founded his civil engineering firm that is now Parsons Brinckerhoff. In 1895, after several years of civil engineering work, Parsons was appointed chief engineer for New York's Rapid Transit Commission, which was charged with designing and building a subway rail system. After spending the year 1899 in China surveying the country's railway system (which is documented in Parson's book An American Engineer in China ). Parson's returned to New York to begin the construction of the city's first subway line. The Interborough Rapid Transit line was completed in 1904. Parsons was elected to the New York Public Library's Board of Trustees in 1912, replacing Alexander Orr (Chairman of the IRT). After working on the Cape Cod and Panama Canal projects Parsons joined the 11th regiment of US Army Engineers in 1917 to report on engineering problems facing the U.S. military in WWI. After the war Parsons attained the rank of Brigadier General and published his account of the war in his 1920 book T he American Engineers in France . Shortly thereafter Parsons published Robert Fulton and the Submarine in 1922. Parson's died suddenly in 1932. The Bulletin of The New York Public Library notes that until his death Parsons maintained a deep interest in all that pertained to the welfare of the Library. In 1934 his engineering library (consisting of 1,191 volumes, 27 pamphlets, 53 boxes of maps) was purchased by the New York Public Library. In addition to his work for The New York Public Library, Parsons was a trustee of the Carnegie Institution, chairman of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center administrative board, and chairmen of the board of trustees of Columbia University.
Content: Between the years 1797 and 1804 Robert Fulton worked in France and England developing a system submarine warfare. Fulton foresaw the complete freedom of the seas from naval blockade for the free trade of nations and set about a way to obtain this through the use of submarine vessels. Fulton lived with American ambassador to France from 1797 to 1804; initially to expand on his work of as designer of canals, which he had spent the past four years designing in England. Using Barlow's connection to Napoleon, Fulton soon found himself designing his "Nautilus", a boat that was able to plunge beneath the water and fasten a torpedo to an enemy ship's hull. Although he successfully demonstrated the destructive power of his Nautilus twice and had the support of Napoleon's scientific consultants; Napoleon ultimately decided Fulton was a charlatan and extortionist due to his lack of formal scientific education and unwillingness to disclose drawings of his boats mechanisms. Not content with his treatment in France, Fulton returned to England in 1804 to petition the government to adopt his system of submarine warfare. In 1805 Fulton was unsuccessful at an attempt at destroying a French ship for the British with one of his torpedoes. Unable to secure a contract with the English, having spent the past seven years with little to show, Fulton returned to America in 1806. The Parsons collection of Fultoniana contains drawings, the manuscript treatise "Motives for Inventing Submarine Navigation" and the accompanying "Description of the Drawings of the Submarine Vessel" (1806), and facsimiles of Fulton's correspondence and writings. Also present are publications by and about Fulton. Of particular note are Fulton's watercolor and ink drawings from his treatise "On Submarine Navigation and Attack". Parsons asserts in his book that Fulton had left the treatises and paintings in England in case he died while returning to America in 1906. Several of the documents and the paintings are described in detail in Parsons' volume on Fulton's submarine.
Physical Description
Extent: 1 linear foot (2 boxes, 1 oversize portfolio)
Type of Resource
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b21177249
MSS Unit ID: 18137
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 2f72a740-50d7-0138-5c8c-04d841dd1230
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