Robert Foulis, a Canadian inventor, civil engineer, and artist, is best known for inventing the steam-powered foghorn. Born on May 5, 1796, in Glasgow, Scotland, Foulis experienced the loss of his first wife, Elizabeth Leatham, during childbirth in 1817. He subsequently moved to Canada, arriving in Halifax around 1818 or 1819, where he taught drawing classes and painted oil portraits.
By 1820, Foulis had settled in Saint John and was appointed deputy land surveyor in 1822. After surveying the upper Saint John River for steamshipping feasibility, he contributed to the construction of early steamboats and the first Saint John harbor ferry. In 1825, he established the Saint John Foundry, the province’s second iron foundry, and later founded a School of Arts in 1838. Foulis also installed machinery in the second steamboat to sail on the Saint John River.
In 1852, Foulis invented a device that produced coal gas from the distillation of albertite, intended to replace whale oil in lighthouse illumination. However, it was the steam-powered foghorn that brought Foulis his most significant recognition.
In 1853, during a foggy night, Foulis noticed that he could only hear the low notes of his daughter’s piano playing. This observation led him to develop a low-frequency sound-emitting device to warn ships approaching Saint John harbour in dense fog. Despite spending six years convincing New Brunswick lighthouse commissioners to install his foghorn design on Partridge Island, engineer T. T. Vernon Smith was ultimately granted permission to install the foghorn in 1859, using Foulis’ plans. A patent dispute between the two men ensued, and Foulis never obtained any patent rights for his design. However, the provincial legislature acknowledged him as the rightful inventor.
Foulis experienced varying degrees of success in his business ventures and ultimately died in poverty.
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