Morgan Robertson was dirt poor

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Mike Norton

Guest
Most of us know who Morgan Robertson was. He wrote the book "Futility" in 1898. It was a story about the "Titan", the largest steamer in the world that was quite similar to the Titanic. It too struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic in the month of April and a majority of the Titan's passengers perished due to a severe shortage of lifeboats.

In 1912 Futility was renamed Wreck of the Titan and remains to this day a source of great facination for many.
Well, I bought a 1915 book called "The Man" today and in it I found a letter sent out in 1915 to all subscribers of McClures Magazine. This is what the letter said:

Dear Reader:-
Last March I picked up a copy of the Saturday Evening Post, turned its pages and came upon an astounding story. It was anonymous and told about a sailor before the mast, without education, who, pushed by an inward force greater than he could control, wrote such wonderful stories that he became famous all over the world. How he never got any real reward for his work--so that today he was getting old--and poor.

A reference here and there told me that the man who wrote that anonymous autograph must be Morgan Robertson. I had admired him and wondered how a man who produced such pure literature could know so much of the sea.
The stories had appeared for many years and had been scattered.
I re-read them all, every one, because when I had started them I had to finish them. And I thought--here is the chance to give Morgan Robertson his long-deferred reward.

Morgan Robertson's stories will live after him, but he has been a poor business man. Famous he is, but fame is a poor substitute for beefsteak.

Will the American public allow the tragic end of O. Henry to be repeated?
Will they allow another of their great writers of short stories to die in want, without reward or recognition?
That is what Metropolitan and McClure's propose to find out. If this genius of the sea tale cannot get now--while he and his family are in need--the reward and recognition which are his right, it will not be from lack of proper aid.
An edition of Robertson's Works (selected from what he has written by the author himself as his best stories) is being published. Upon every book sold we shall pay him a generous royalty.
And this is our offer to you: we will send you a set of these books without charge--we will pay for them--we will pay the cost of getting them to you--and we will pay the royalty to Mr. Robertson--if you will pay for one year's subscription to Metropolitan and McClure's at the same price you would pay if you bought them from your newsdealer every month.

Send only 10 cents now. You will receive at once the set of books and the first copies of Metropolitan and McClure's. Send the blank and 10 cents today.

Sincerely yours,

Cameron Mackinzie
Managing Editor

P.S. Mr. Robertson asks us to say for him that as long as he has the strength, he will autograph every set subscribed for.


OK, this is Mike Norton again. So, there you have it. The famous red bound copies of Wreck of the Titan you see on eBay here and there were given out for free because the Managing Editor of McClure's Magazine felt sorry for poor old Morgan Robertson. Geez, you would think the guy found the cure for polio the way this guy talked about him. Kinda funny, I now sell those same sets of books of Robertson's for over $400 on a regular basis. I wonder how much ol' Robertson got from this deal? Anyone know if Robertson died rich? He died the same year that McClure's ran this deal.
 
Nov 12, 2000
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Hi Mike N

Robertson died as he lived, pretty much dirt poor. an excellent book to read more about Robertson is in the book The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility & Morgan Robertson the Man. this work was the reprint done by the 7 C's Press in the mid1990s.

This work not only reprints Futility, but also includes 11 articles written about Robertson and his life. included in this bunch are nonfiction articles by Robertson himself, one where he describes his brush with madness, another is a short autobiography. the others are by writers who knew Robertson personally.

the 7 C's edition is out of print, and you can usually find copies on the used book sites for sale in the range of $45 to $65.

there is also a biography on Robertson done by John Vess around 1990. that book is called The Titan & the Titanic: The Life, Works & Incredible Foresight of Morgan Robertson. I have not been able to acquire this book yet, though, so I can't speak as to it's worthiness as a biography.

all the best, Michael (TheManInBlack) T
 
Mar 3, 1998
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I may bring the hordes of Hell down upon me for saying this, but I don't think Robertson was all that great a writer. I've read most of his stories and I found them disjointed and unengaging. I don't see much prophecy in 'The Wreck of the Titan,' just a bit of extrapolation on his part about the direction the shipbuilding industry was heading in (Dave Brown might disagree, since Robertson foretold Brown's grounding theory). In fact, I would wager that Walter Lord's only interest in 'Titan' was for the specific items in the text which, when presented out of context, made for an interesting prologue for his story about Titanic. 'Beyond the Spectrum' is often quoted as being a prophecy about Pearl Harbour, but I found nothing of the sort therein (although Robertson does come close to describing lasers and their effect on the human eye). So, when you strip away the purported prophecy, the reader is left with what I consider to be mediocre fiction. I'm not saying that the man deserved to die poor, just that I don't consider him one of literature's greats.

Parks
 
Nov 12, 2000
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Hi Parks,

actually, I think most people would agree with you that Robertson was no great shakes as a writer. the biggest problem with his work is how 'dated' it has become. from my understanding of the times in which he wrote he was actually quite popular and moderately successful in his own time. but his work has not aged well.

it is only the 'prophetic angle' of his work that has made him famous in Titanic circles. I happen to agree with you that this prophecy angle has been blown all out of proportion, but there are others on the site who seem to feel otherwise :).

all the best, Michael (TheManInBlack) T
 
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Mike Norton

Guest
However, Mr. Robertson did give us the periscope, without which the German U-boats would've had a heck of a time sinking old Lucy to take us into WW I.

Mike Norton
 
Dec 8, 2000
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G'day all,

Interesting info re the McClures' offer. Shame it didn't work as Robertson did die in penury (and therein lies yet another Robertson myth...).

But ditto on the writing with Parks and Mike T. Robertson's extrapolations, based on his knowledge and experience, are interesting enough in their own right every now and then. Many speculative fiction writers (usually the 'hard science' brigade) speculate on future inventions, future worlds. Some get it right, some don't. Robertson was one who got some of it 'right'.

As for the periscope - I thought that was down to a bloke called Simon Lake (who designed the 'omniscope' so the Holland proto-submarine wouldn't have to surface to see what they were doing), with further refining work done by Sir Howard Grubb. (No prizes for guessing who's been reading about submarines lately. )

Mike N, I would like to read a few more of Robertson's books and was hoping you could tell me in which work he presages the periscope? That one would do to start with.

Thanks,

Fiona
 
Mar 3, 1998
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Fi, I'm with you...I was taught that Simon Lake invented the submarine periscope. This is the first I've ever heard that Robertson had anything to do with it. You wouldn't happen to be pulling our leg, would you, Mike?

Parks
 
Nov 12, 2000
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Parks wrote:

I was taught that Simon Lake invented the submarine periscope.

Hi all,

Robertson himself claimed he invented the periscope. He had rigged up a working prototype which he showed to the navy. but he was refused a patent on the grounds that a French magazine had published a story about an instrument very similar to his own shortly before he had shown his version to the navy.

this is all spelled out in the autobiography at the back of the book I mentioned previously The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility & Morgan Robertson the Man.

whether he was rightly denied the patent or not, he seems to have believed in his own mind that he was robbed of his invention by a legal technicality.

I know of no outside source that backs up Robertson's claims, however.

all the best, Michael (TheManInBlack) T
 
Mar 3, 1998
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Michael,

The only reason why I remember Simon Lake's name is because when I was in submarines, I once spent a few days aboard the tender USS Simon Lake. As usual, I was curious about where the name came from and I was told of Simon Lake's innovations.

I also remember from my Civil War readings that the Union ironclads used periscopes to allow their commanders to see without getting shot. Granted, that's not the kind of arrangement you would use for a submarine, but the concept was there.

I haven't read Robertson's bio, and I don't doubt that he probably came up with something unique. All I know is that the U.S. Navy doesn't credit him with the invention. I am surprised, though, to read that he was denied a patent because of a French article, rather than by Lake's and Holland's work.

Parks
 
Nov 12, 2000
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Hi Parks,

I agree that Robertson's version of why he was denied a patent is quite strange. unfortunately, he does not give any dates as to when he submitted his prototype, so I don't know if he was pre or post Lake & Holland.

I also mispoke in my earlier message about Robertson showing his prototype to the navy. I was speaking from memory, but I have gone back and reread the text and what Robertson actually wrote was that he showed his prototype to 'a lieutenant' with the 'submarine-boat builders'.

from statements he makes a few paragraphs later, the implication is that this 'lieutenant' worked for a commercial company, although what this might be is never identified. apparently this 'company' thought enough of Robertson's idea that they employed him, at the respectable sum of $50 a week, for two years to tinker with his idea.

the next few paragraphs do not follow at all. he describes how a story in a French magazine published prior to his patent submission earned him a patent denial. the next statement he makes is that 'the periscope was now public property and anybody had the right to proceed with its development'.

how a denial on his patent made the invention public property is never explained. it is an odd tale, and I don't really know what to make of it.

all the best, Michael (TheManInBlack) T
 
Dec 8, 2000
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Thanks for the additional information Mike (T).

Interesting life the man led. The reason for his patent being refused still sounds a bit ropey - but then I'm not familiar with the American system, so who knows?

Looks like that's a book I will have to add to the collection sometime!
happy.gif


Cheers, F
 
Nov 12, 2000
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Hi Fi,

sounds to me that what we really need is our resident lawyer, Susan M to give us the lowdown on turn of the century copyright law. bet she knows this stuff like the back of her hand, don't you Susan? Susan? ;-)

Michael (TheManInBlack) T