THE YANKEE INVENTOR PAINTERS

Robert Fulton and Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventors of the steamboat and the telegraph, began their careers as professional painters. For both, the scientific pursuits that made them world-famous were a second choice, turned to only after art had failed them. This reveals how far we must travel from the twentieth century, when painters yearn to express space in abstractions, if we are to understand the days when America's first two major inventors dreamed of becoming Raphaels.

Colonial Americans were likely to characterize their culture as a whole in comparison with the very different society of the Indians. In writings on this subject, the word "science" rarely figured. The white man's secular philosophies and all his skills ere summarized as "the arts." "The arts" included not only what we today call the fine arts, but the arts of law and government, the art of husbandry, the art of housewifery, and all the multitudinous activities of artisans.

It was the artisans who in Colonial America practiced the applied sciences, and they saw little distinction between working with paint and working with metal. Robert Fulton wrote that no mechanical invention could be complete until "the artist knows the necessary proportions."

Specialization was open only to a few men in a few large cities, but jacks-of-all-trades sprang up everywhere. The New World was large and hard to travel; and on every seacoast, up every river, against every mountain problems arose that could not be solved by any traditional knowhow. And as pressing as the problems were the needs: all the needs of civilized men entangled in wilderness or isolated in provincial towns. If a craftsman had an ingenious mind and competent hands, he was called on to practice a wide variety of "the arts," making, as he went along, little inventions to suit the old to the new. Watchmakers fashioned fire engines and astronomical instruments, painters built church organs, blacksmiths designed mills.

____________________
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Art News Annual, 27 ( 1958), 46-63, 182-86.

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