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Morgan Andrew Robertson (September 30, 1861 – March 24, 1915) was a well-known American author of short stories and novels and the self-claimed inventor of the periscope. He was the son of Andrew Robertson, a ship captain on the Great Lakes, and Amelia (Glassford) Robertson.
Morgan went to sea as a cabin boy and was in the merchant service from 1866 to 1877, rising to first mate. Tiring of life at sea, he studied jewelry making at Cooper Union in New York City and worked for 10 years as a diamond setter. When that work began to impair his vision, he turned to writing sea stories, placing his work in such popular magazines as McClure's and the Saturday Evening Post. Robertson never made much money from his writing, a circumstance that greatly embittered him. Nevertheless, from the early 1890s until his death in 1915 he supported himself as a writer and enjoyed the company of artists and writers in a small circle of New York's bohemia. Robertson was found dead of heart disease in an Atlantic City hotel room.[when?]
He is best known for his short novel Futility, first published in 1898. This story features an enormous British passenger liner called the SS Titan, which, deemed to be unsinkable, carries an insufficient number of lifeboats. On a voyage in the month of April, the Titan hits an iceberg and sinks in the North Atlantic, resulting in the loss of almost everyone on board. There are some similarities to the real-life disaster of the RMS Titanic. The book was published fourteen years before the actual Titanic hit an iceberg on the night of April 15, 1912 and sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic. Like the Titanic, the Titan was trying to break the speed record.
In 1905, Robertson's book The Submarine Destroyer was released. It described a submarine that used a device called a periscope. Despite Robertson's later claims that he had "invented" a prototype periscope himself (and was refused a patent), Simon Lake and Harold Grubb had perfected the model used by the U.S. Navy by 1902, three years before Robertson's "prescient" novel.
In 1914, in a volume that also contained a new version of Futility, Robertson included a short story called "Beyond the Spectrum", which described a future war between the United States and the Empire of Japan, a popular subject at the time. Japan does not declare war but instead launches sneak attacks on United States ships en route to the Philippines and Hawaii; an invasion fleet about to launch a surprise attack on San Francisco is stopped by the hero using the weapon from a captured Japanese vessel. The title refers to an ultraviolet searchlight used by the Japanese, but invented by the Americans, to blind American crews. Some readers have compared the searchlight's effects (blindness, intense heat, and facial burns) to those of the atomic bomb.
Robertson was the author of Primordial / Three Laws and the Golden Rule, a novella about shipwrecked children growing up together and falling in love on a desert island. Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs acknowledge Robertson's contribution to the works of Henry De Vere Stacpoole, particularly The Blue Lagoon. They believe that both Robertson's and Stacpoole's writings influenced Burroughs in his creation of Tarzan of the Apes.
A letter sent out to all subscribers of McClure's Magazine in 1915 (officially unverified).
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.
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.
Episode 17 (segment "Titan") of the American television show Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction tells the story of Robertson (Harris Fisher) writing Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan/Futility.
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