Robert Edison Fulton Junior was born the fortunate son of the president of Mack Trucks. He could have easily coasted through a comfortable life of privilege, never straying far from the country club. Educated at Exter, Choate, Harvard and Lauzanne, he could easily avoid sleeping rough. But one fateful night at a dinner party he was shooting off his mouth. “Oh, I’m going to ride around the world on a motorcycle. You don’t see much architecture through a steamship porthole.”
As luck would have it, a friend of his father’s who had just bought the Douglas Motorcycle Company overheard him. He gave the young Robert a motorcycle. Fulton learned to ride it two days, and, an impetuous 23 year old, set off toto ride around the world on a motorcycle in 1932. He fell a little short, but he made it 25,000 miles and rode through 22 countries. And then later he invented the flight simulator, the airplane/car and the skyhook. Yes, the skyhook.
Robert Edison Fulton Junior – Early Travels
You could say adventure travel was in his blood. His grandfather ran stage coach lines in the old west. His uncle converted that business into Greyhound Bus Lines. When Robert was only 12, his parents took him on a flight from Miami to Havana, sparking his interest in travel and airplanes. In 1923, his parents flew with him to see the recently opened Tomb of King Tut. He went to Lausanne to board at a middle school and then to Exter and Choate preparatory boarding schools in the U.S and then on to Harvard for an architecture degree followed up with post graduate work in Vienna. So by the time he was 23, he had been living away from his parents, albeit under the loose supervision of the ivory tower, for almost a decade. When adventured called, he was ready.
One Man Caravan – A Motorcycle Trip Around the World
He took the motorcycle his father’s friend gave him and tricked it out for an expedition. He added an extra gas tank and an extra steel plate to protect the crank case. A tool box, a camera case, and hidden .32 revolver rounded out his retrofit project. He rode that Douglas 25,000 from London to Tokyo. In the process he rode through 22 countries. Starting in London, he crossed Central and Southeastern Europe. He continued through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and on to British India, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan.
Initially, he planned to focus on architecture, the focus of his education, and take photographs. But as the trip progressed, he became more interested in the people as the focus of his photography shifted. When he returned he wrote a book, One Man Caravan. Much later, in 1983 he created a movie from his footage The One Man Caravan of Robert E. Fulton Jr. An Autofilmography.
The book is full of colorful adventures. From getting shot at in the Khyber Pass by Pashtun tribesmen to being hosted in jail in Turkey and in a Palace by Indian Rajahs, he experienced a wide variety of receptions. Fulton reported: ”I found that in many cases people would greet me with a gun,” he said. ”But as long as my wavelength was peaceful, I was invariably treated like clan. They never shot at me — that I know of.” (Apparently the Khyber pass shooting did not count! Just friendly warning shots, we suppose.)
After his trip, Fulton went to work for Pan Am, producing commercial films to promote the airline. His experience at Pan Am inspired him to begin manufacturing and inventing aeronautic equipment.
Robert Edison Fulton’s Inventions: The Flight Trainer
Fulton had formed Continental Inc, producing aeronautic equipment prior to the outbreak of World War II. The patriotic Fulton wanted to contribute to the war effort. He invented and built a ground-based flight trainer. The military showed no interest in his invention, but later everyone started to use flight simulators. Undaunted, Edison modified the invention. He returned to the military with his “gunairstructor” – a ground based training aid for aerial gunners. The military adopted his new invention.
Robert Edison Fulton’s Inventions: The Airphibian Air Car
Fulton was frustrated about the time it took to travel around demonstrating the gunnery trainer. In particular, he found transferring from airplanes to cars time consuming. To solve his problem, he designed the “Airphibian” – an airplane that he could convert into a street legal car. Charles Lindbergh himself took a test flight in the Airphibian. The costs of getting his plane/car certified proved prohibitive and Fulton ended up selling the company. The new owners never produced commercial air cars. We were that close to flying cars in the 50s! Who knew?
Robert Edison Fulton’s Inventions: Sky Hook
Inspired by trains automatically snatching up mail bags as they whiz by, Fulton resolved to create a system to allow airplanes to do the same thing. The goal – retrieve stationary objects from the ground by snagging them with a moving plane. He brought his idea to the CIA and the US military. They agreed to fund the development. The skyhook has two parts. The ground system has a harness to attach to whatever you are picking up. The harness is attached to a special rope attached to a small dirigible-shaped helium balloon.
The plane system has a forked prong that catches the rope and a clamping mechanism to secure it. The air crew then snags the rope with a J-hook and hauls up the load. The plane snatches up one or two people while traveling at around 125 mph, which might seem like quite a shock. But people rescued with the sky hook, or Fulton Surface To Air Recovery System (STARS), report its not much worse than a swift kick in the pants due to slack in the rope. Dark Knight in 2008 and James Bond Thunderball in 1965 both featured Skyhooks.
Fulton died in 2004 at the age of 93. In the decade prior, he had focused on flying his mustang aircraft upside down to take aerial photographs. Forever young!
More Crazy Motorcycle Adventurers and Inventors
Unlike quite a few other motorcycle pioneers, Fulton was born wealthy and got a great education. Glenn Curtiss, in contrast, came from a struggling single parent family and had to go to work at 14 so he never graduated high school. Nonetheless, Curtiss started a motorcycle company, set a land speed record, and filed 70 patents including many aeronautics patents Read about Curtiss’ amazing accomplishments here or check out our article about Carl Clancy Stearns, also of relatively modest background, was the first person to ride around the world on a motorcycle.
Have you heard the story of the World’s Fastest Indian? Working class hero Burt Munro tinkered with his 1920 Indian for over 40 years before setting an unbreakable land speed record. You can see all our content on vintage motorcycle history and interesting pioneering personalities in The Gentleman’s Lounge.