New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Robert Foulis (A Misplaced Genius)

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From the blog at

This is the story of Robert Foulis, who invented the first steam-powered fog horn, and is by Percy G. Hall. Hall read a similar paper before the Natural History Society, at St. John, in April, 1898, and this version was published in The New Brunswick Magazine, Volume 1, Number 1, also in 1898.

Quoting from the paper, “Let us, then, remember Robert Foulis as a man of remarkable gifts, as one of our pioneer scientists, and as one who was deeply interested in the welfare, educational and otherwise, of his adopted city. He did much for others with little profit to himself. In another sphere and under other conditions he might have had both wealth and power. As it was, he seems to have been a misplaced genius.”

Original Steam Horn

Original Steam Fog Horn at Partridge Island, ca. 1880 New Brunswick Museum via the McCord Museum


Robert Foulis (A Misplaced Genius)

This first steam fog alarm in America and in the world was that invented by Robert Foulis and built at Partridge Island, at the entrance of St. John harbor. To him also is due the credit of the invention of the system of signalling by steam at sea in foggy weather. The fog alarm which is at the Island today is essentially that which was placed there by Foulis. There have been some modifications and adaptations since his time, the clockwork attachment is no longer used, but the great principle of the invention remains as it was. More than this, the Foulis’ whistle is heard along the coast of America and beyond the ocean, but the credit and the emoluments have alike gone to others who have profited by what was one of the great inventions of the time, which the inventor had not the commercial instinct to protect by patents which might have made him, or those who followed him, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice.

Here and there throughout the world the visitor to fog signal stations may read the name of this or that man as the patentee of the alarm itself or of some petty improvement. The name of Robert Foulis is not even recorded above his grave in the Rural Cemetery of the city of his adoption, and of the thousands who pass the spot scarcely any know that there rests beneath the earth the earthly frame of one who should have been a great man, and would have been one had he possessed the business instinct in even a small ratio to his ability and the extent of his scientific attainments. Had Foulis had a different environment, had he been under the guidance of a clear sighted patron, he would have been a famous man. As it was, he lived and died a misplaced genius.

Robert Foulis was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on The 5th of May, 1796. His father, Andrew Foulis, was the successor to that celebrated firm of Glasgow publishers, Andrew and Robert Foulis, which produced so many beautiful and accurate editions of the classic authors. His mother was a Miss Dewar. After passing through the usual school career he was sent to the university of his native town, where for some time he bent his energies to the study of surgery. Unfortunately his strength was overtaxed, and he was forced to abandon further study until his health should have improved. In the meantime he received and accepted an offer from a friend of his father to join a whaling expedition in the capacity of surgeon. Returning home after an extended voyage, he decided to abandon the study of surgery, and apprenticed himself to a relative named Thompson, who was engaged in the engineering business. On becoming a journeyman he removed to Belfast, where he followed the profession of a painter under the patronage of a nobleman whose name is now forgotten. Here he met his first wife, a Miss Elizabeth Leatham, by whom he had a daughter. The death of his wife occurred not long after this, however, and he determined to try his fortune in the new world, choosing Ohio as his destination. With this intention he took passage in a vessel bound for a port in the United States, but it was fated that he should never reach the point for which he had started. Very rough weather was encountered on the voyage, and the vessel was finally cast away on the coast of Nova Scotia. Making his way to Halifax, he was induced by some of his countrymen to remain. Instead of proceeding to his destination. Here he lived by his brush, where some of his portraits, it is said, may now be seen. Although he succeeded beyond his expectations, his roving disposition asserted itself, and he removed to St. John about the year 1822, where his card appears in the papers of the day as a miniature painter. In this, judged by the portraits which still exist and which show excellent work, he was well qualified to succeed, but the field for portrait painting was limited. Abandoning this vocation a little later, he devoted himself to civil engineering, making research meanwhile into the various fields of the science of chemistry. His residence was at the corner of Sydney and St. Andrews Streets.

In the year 1825, Mr. Foulis started the first iron Foundry in New Brunswick, on the premises near the corner of Prince William and Duke Streets, north of the present Custom house. His operations were on a small scale, it is true, but he was the first melter of iron in the city and province, and the premises were subsequently enlarged to accommodate an extensive foundry business by Thomas C. Everitt and others.

In 1826 the Provincial Government, having in view the application of steam-navigation to the trade connected with the upper portion of the St. John River, determined to institute a survey from Fredericton to Grand Falls. Foulis was appointed to carry on the work, received his instructions 21st June, 1826, and on the 21st August, precisely two months after, he submitted his map and report. “It is a grand map,” writes Prof. Ganong, “very detailed—gives by levels the drop in the river for the entire distance covered by the survey.” Another authority who possesses a copy declares that the map is well executed and shows that the surveyor was a capable man. Apparently it has not outlived its usefulness, for the General Report of the Minister of Public Works from 30th June, 1867, to 1st July, 1882, contains a “Tabular View of the River St. John from Fredericton to the Great Falls” which is based upon this very survey. The report is lengthy, about equal to fourteen type-written pages, and is to be found in the Journals of the House of Assembly for 1826.

Foulis was personally interested in the development of steam navigation, and was employed by the Messrs. Ward to fit up the steamer John Ward, the second boat placed on the St. John River. This wonderful steamer for those times was most expensively and thoroughly constructed, having a costly copper boiler and other parts of the machinery on a like liberal scale. It was put on the route to Fredericton in the year 1831.

Mr. Foulis was both a worker and a talker. At various periods of his career he lectured on scientific subjects, keeping in view the practical application of them to the useful arts and manufactures. One of his aims was to instruct apprentices and artisans in the higher knowledge of their vocations. After leaving the foundry, he secured premises in the Hay building, in Prince William Street, later the site of Smith’s building, on the lot south of the present Globe office. An eye witness thus speaks of the place and the lectures:—

“My earliest reminiscence of Mr. Foulis must be somewhere between 1837-1840. I recall a curious shaped building, the upper stories used as a paint shop and the roof of the lower story on sunny days displaying a variety of chairs ‘fresh from the brush.’ Opening on Prince William Street were two or three small shops in which Mr. Foulis delivered a course of lectures on chemistry. On one side of the shop, behind the counter, were shelves, upon which a pile of instruments, retorts, etc., were arranged; on the counter stood an electric machine, Leyden jars and other apparatus, all of deep interest to the lads who composed the audience principally. The other side was filled with seats rising upward on an inclined plane; a flag stretched across the front hid the operation from outside gazers and excluded draughts from the doors. As I have no recollection of door-keeper or display of admission tickets, I judge that the lecture was to a great extent free, the object being to awaken an interest in his auditors,—most of the older lads being apprentices to whom a knowledge of chemistry might prove very useful. The stiffness of a lecture was lacking, and at its close considerable discussion ensued at the counter. The audience behaved well, and if the experiments did not always meet the promise, they cheerfully accepted the apologies and hoped for better luck next time.”

This was in 1838. Though the lectures were, in some cases, free to casual visitors, as suggested above, yet Mr. Foulis evidently hoped to add to his small resources by subscriptions from those who wished to take regular courses, for his advertisement reads as follows:—


R. FOULIS intimates to his friends that he is now fitting up a commodious Room in Mr. T. Hay’s buildings, Prince William Street, where he will commence in a few days his proposed course of Lectures on Practical Chemistry. He will also open Classes for teaching Figures, Architectural and Mechanical Drawing, the principals of perspective, and the Elements of Mechanics.

Those persons who wish to attend either of the above Classes, will please make early application.

August 4th, 1838.

A week or two later, the idea of the lectures became developed into that of a School of Arts, or “a Seminary for the instruction of Youth in the rudiments of Mechanical and Experimental Philosophy and the Fine Arts; also for instructing by popular Lectures and Experimental Illustration, an Evening Class for Artisans, where the practical application of the Sciences to the useful Arts will be demonstrated.” Mr. Foulis further gives reasons why the patronage of the public should be expected, and announces that the lectures will be continued weekly for three months. The charges for admission tickets are regulated as follows:—

“Transferable Tickets for the Course, 20s; Artisan’s Tickets, (not transferable,) 5s.—Free Tickets will be given to a limited number of young men, on their producing a recommendation from a subscriber.—Ladies who accompany their friends admitted without tickets.”

Mr. Foulis offered himself for the office of assistant alderman for King’s ward at the civic elections of 1839, giving as his reason the belief that his Knowledge as an engineer would be of service to the city. It is probable that he withdrew before polling day, however, for the fight seems to have been between Messrs. John Knollin and Joseph Fairweather, the latter of whom was elected.

From letters patent, dated August 17, 1852, it is learned that Foulis “had firstly invented a new and useful apparatus for decomposing coal and other hydrocarbons for the purpose of manufacturing therefrom a superior gas for illumination, and also a new and economical mode of purifying the same, which apparatus the petitioner styled his Hydro-Olifiant Gas Generator, and secondly the petitioner had invented an apparatus for the purpose of decomposing empyreurmatic and essential oils and other liquid Hydro-carbons and for converting the same into illuminating gas. The second apparatus the petitioner styled the Unique Gas Maker, as it contained the means of decomposing the material so to be used.” This document proceeds to explain at length the workings of the apparatus, with frequent reference to diagrams without which no clear description can be given, and is signed by Colonel Freeman Murray, of the 72nd, Acting Governor, J. R. Partelow, Registrar, and John Ambrose Street, Attorney General.

Another work of Mr. Foulis was to draw attention to the mineral wealth of Albert County. He spent both time and money in sinking a shaft in that region, only to find that he could not operate it because it was on another man’s property.

Prior to the year 1854 there was no fog horn on Partridge Island, and warning was given to mariners by means of a bell, which operated by clockwork, rang out at intervals. The need of some more effective means was greatly felt. Foulis was the first to solve the problem, and between the years 1854-59 he agitated the adoption of a steam horn or whistle. It seems, however, that a gentleman named T.T. Vernon Smith became possessor of Foulis’s plans, and made application to the Commissioner of Lights in the Bay of Fundy to erect such a whistle on Partridge Island. The Commissioner finally accepted Mr. Smith’s offer, and in 1859 the erection was begun by Fleming & Humbert, engineers, under his superintendence. Mr. Foulis then petitioned the House of Assembly to inquire into his claim to the invention. The petition was presented by Hon, John H. Gray on April 2, 1864, and on the 11th a list of documents connected with the matter was laid upon the table. Later the select committee appointed to consider the claim, submitted its report. After stating the facts as outlined above, it declared that the whistle was made on the plan originally suggested by Foulis, and that Mr. Smith did not pretend to be the inventor. The committee also endorsed the scheme for “Telegraphing by means of the steam horn from vessel to vessel by a pre-concerted plan of sounds and intervals forming words.” The report was received by the House and on April 12th it adopted the following resolutions:—

“Whereas it appears in the official correspondence from His Grace the Colonial Secretary, laid before the House by His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor on 8th day of April instant, that the invention of the fog whistle or horn which has been of great practical utility in the Bay of Fundy, is claimed by other parties than the true inventors thereof: and Whereas among the papers and documents so sent down to the House, and also by the examination R. Foulis of the City of St. John, Civil Engineer, before the Select Committee of this House, that he is the inventor thereof, and it is but right that this fact should be made known to Her Majesty’s Government, in order that the credit and reward may be given to the proper party; therefore, Resolved, That an humble address be presented to His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor, praying he will be pleased to bring the claims of Mr. R. Foulis under the favorable consideration of the British Government in this behalf, as well as in regard to his invention of Telegraphing by means of steam horns or whistles while at sea, or from Light Houses on land.”

With this recognition of his claim Mr. Foulis had to be content, for he received no pecuniary reward whatever for his inventions. At a later period an enterprising American examined the invention of the fog alarm, and, recognizing it as a good thing, he had it patented in his own name and for his own advantage.

Mr. Foulis was one of the promoters of the St. John Mechanics’ Institute, in 1838, and so zealous was he for its early welfare that he devoted for its benefit a considerable sum of money which the government granted to him as a teacher of sciences. From the Institute platform he delivered many lectures on chemistry and kindred subjects. His demonstrations and experiments did not always have the expected results, but this may be accounted for by the fact that he had to work under many disadvantages, often with apparatus made by himself and which was of necessity crude and imperfect. Yet it is affirmed that his lectures were abreast of those on the same subjects in any part of the world, and indeed the complaint was sometimes made that his discourses were too technical to be enjoyed by the casual listener.

Mention has been made of the daughter who was born at Belfast, in 1817. She was sent to her grandfather’s sister in Edinburgh, with whom she lived until the death of that relation, and there she received her early education. Her father went to Scotland and brought her to St. John when she was about twelve years old, and in course of time she founded an academy for young ladies, which enjoyed considerable popularity. Her father assisted, delivering lectures on chemistry once a week, and some of the ladies of today will vividly recall his impatience at stupidity or want of attention on the part of the pupils. Miss Foulis died in Kentville on the 22nd of October 1896, and is well remembered as a gentlewoman of wide culture. Her father married a second time, and two of the five children of that union survive him.

Like his grandfather and father, Robert Foulis died in poverty; not, indeed, in such destitution as the newspaper accounts of that time (Jan. 26, 1866) would lead us to belief, but still in very poor circumstances. He lies buried in lot No. 1061 Juniper Path, Rural Cemetery, but no stone marks his resting place.

Mr. Foulis is described as a man of middle height, spare, and of rather a florid complexion. His eyes were blue, eyebrows long and well marked, hair brown and somewhat wavy. A miniature of his father is said to resemble him, particularly as regards the upper part of the face, from which I gather that he possessed a very remarkable forehead.

Surgeon, mechanical and civil engineer, artist, engraver, inventor, foundryman, lecturer, scientist,—in all more or less successful,—as a business man he was a failure. Of a trustful disposition, he sometimes placed confidence in those who took advantage of his simplicity, and to this weakness is to be attributed much of his want of business success. Let us, then, remember Robert Foulis as a man of remarkable gifts, as one of our pioneer scientists, and as one who was deeply interested in the welfare, educational and otherwise, of his adopted city. He did much for others with little profit to himself. In another sphere and under other conditions he might have had both wealth and power. As it was, he seems to have been a misplaced genius.


Written by johnwood1946

November 19, 2014 at 9:22 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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