George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Benjamin Franklin, 22 July 1776

From Benjamin Franklin

Philada July 22. 1776


The Bearer, Mr Joseph Belton, some time since petitioned the Congress for Encouragement to destroy the Enemy’s Ships of War by some Contrivances of his Invention.1 They came to no Resolution on his Petition; and, as they appear to have no great Opinion of such Proposals, it is not easy, in the Multiplicity of Business before them, to get them to bestow any part of their Attention on his Request. He is now desirous of trying his Hand on the Ships that are gone up the North River; and, as he proposes to work intirely at his own Expence, and only desires your Countenance & Permission, I could not refuse his Request of a Line of Introduction to you, the Trouble of which I beg you to excuse. As he appears to be a very ingenious Man, I hope his Project may be attended with Success. With the sincerest Esteem & Respect, I have the Honour to be, Your Excellency’s most obedient & most humble Servant

B. Franklin

ALS, Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg, Coburg, Germany.

1Joseph Belton, a native of Groton, Conn., who graduated from the College of Rhode Island in 1769, submitted to the Pennsylvania committee of safety during the summer of 1775 a plan for building a submersible vessel capable of attacking British warships. “I will,” he wrote the committee on 4 Sept. 1775, “make a Machine by the help of which, I will carry a loaded cannon, two or three miles up or down any of our harbours without any other assistance, and all the way there should nothing appear above the surface much larger than a man’s hat, and by attracting [contracting] my Machine, would wholely descend under warter for some time, and by expanding, would rise to the surface at pleasure, and by this means, to avoid any discovery when I had arrived within an hundred and fifty, or two hundred yards of a Ship, I could descend under the surface, and go along side of her bottom against which, I could discharge the Cannon, that should be prov’d large enough to send a ball through any ships side. . . . As experiments will speak plainer than words, and being conscious of my own abillities, I will engage to shew experimental all that I have herein asserted, and upon my non performance, I will become obligated to reimburse all that you may advance; so that the whole expence should then fall upon myself, and not the publick. And if I performed according to what is asserted, then I should be intitled to such, as you thought my ingenuity and plan merrited, though at the same time Gentlemen, I can assure you, that I am not excited so much with the view of incuring premiums, as that of sarving my country in so glorious a cause. And would readily engage, after making a few experiments, to sink, or destroy, the admirals ship now in Boston, or any other ever so difficultly situated” (Pa. Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds. Pennsylvania Archives. 9 ser., 138 vols. Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949. description ends , 1st ser., 4:650–52; see also Belton to the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety, 11 Sept. 1775, ibid., 654).

Although GW agreed to aid Belton’s efforts (see GW to Franklin, 30 July), there is no evidence that the young inventor ever conducted any experiments with an underwater vessel. David Bushnell’s development of a successful submarine about this time may have discouraged Belton from pursuing his project. In any event, Belton soon turned his attention to a scheme to make rapid-fire muskets for the Continental army. “I have discover’d,” he wrote Congress on 11 April 1777, “an improvement, in the use of Small Armes, wherein a common small arm, may be maid to discharge eight balls one after another, in eight, five or three seconds of time” (DNA:PCC, item 41). On 3 May 1777 Congress authorized Belton to make or alter one hundred muskets on his new model, but when he subsequently sought exorbitant compensation for his work, the delegates rejected his proposals (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 7:324, 361; 8:542, 566; see also Belton to Congress, 7 May, 14 June 1777, and Belton to Hancock, 8 May 1777, DNA:PCC, item 78, and Belton to Congress, 10 July 1777, DNA:PCC, item 42).

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