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Ford did not invent the automobile; Samuel
Morse did not invent the telegraph; nor did Robert Fulton invent the
steamship. But like Morse and Ford after him, Fulton used his insight and
energy to turn a challenge of engineering into a large-scale commercial
success, thereby transforming the world.
Fulton was born in a farmhouse outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1765.
At age 18, he left home for Philadelphia, hoping to make his fortune as an
artist, specializing in miniature portraits. The Revolutionary War now
over, Philadelphia was a hotbed of political, scientific, and commercial
activity. After 1785, its figurehead was
Franklin, just returned from Europe. After painting Franklin's
portrait, Fulton is said to have won his friendship and a letter of
introduction to the artistic community of London, where he moved in 1786.
After exhibiting in the Royal Gallery in 1791, Fulton suddenly abandoned
the fine arts for the "useful arts." His first efforts were in canal
construction, but by 1793 he was designing steam-powered ships. After
failing to impress the British Navy, which had designs of its own, Fulton
moved on to France (1797). There he began working on submarines like David
Bushnell's, for the French Navy to use against Britain's. In 1800,
Fulton himself piloted his "Nautilus" for 17 minutes in 25 feet of water.
But ultimately, the French Navy was not convinced to commit to the
In 1804, Fulton returned to England, where he began to build submarines for
the British Navy to use against the French. These included "torpedoes,"
floating mines that were launched, rather than propelling themselves; and
in a field test Fulton blew a 300-ton ship in half.
When he returned to the US after 19 years, in 1806, Fulton was considered a
hero of the modern age. After he sunk a ship in a demonstration in New
York Harbor, Congress forwarded him $5,000 for further experiments. On a
loftier note, President Jefferson requested Fulton's help in building
canals for the new territory of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Fulton
declined: he had decided to solve the steamboat problem once and for all.
The steam-powered ship was first proposed in 1543, and was steadily
attempted from 1707 on. One major problem was solved by a four-times more
efficient steam engine patented by James Watt in England in the year Fulton
was born (1765). Another major problem was the optimal propulsion system.
For example, James Ramsey of Virginia had achieved some success with a jet
engine that channeled the water through the length of the ship (1788).
Fulton began a twofold effort to design a steamboat that would work. He
contracted with Watt's firm in England for a special steam engine, with a
number of improvements of his own. He also used models to develop the
ideal shape for his ship. "Fulton's Folly" was flat-bottomed, wall-sided,
and square-sterned, with paddle wheels midway along each side. Watt's
engine was installed just forward of the wheels. The ship had fairly
luxurious sleeping berths, a saloon, and a ladies' lounge. With later
improvements, the total cost was about $20,000.
Fulton's efforts inspired, as he put it, "a number of sarcastic remarks."
However, on August 17, 1807, the ship made its maiden voyage, from New York
to Albany (32 hours) and back (30 hours). Finally, Fulton could declare,
"The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved." Not content
with scientific success, Fulton put "The North River Steamboat of Clermont"
into commercial service along the same route on September 4th (cost: $7
one-way). The service ran without a hitch until mid-November, when ice in
the river became a problem.
Fulton obtained a patent for his steamboat (granted in just 42 days!) in
1809, with a second the next year for improvements thereof. More
importantly, the State of New York granted him an exclusive right to
steamboat transport on the Hudson River. Neither form of monopoly deterred
Fulton's rivals from competing --- which actually resulted in games of
"chicken" and collisions in the river. Years later, Fulton vindicated his
dubious patents; but the US Court of Errors found the Hudson monopoly
Fulton's last major undertaking was the world's first steam-powered
warship. The "Demologos" was 300 feet long, 200 feet wide, 120-horsepower,
and double-hulled; with the paddles between the inner and outer hulls, 44
guns on deck, and (slightly successful) underwater cannons. Although
Fulton earned his last patents for this ship in 1813, the US Navy let the
project lie fallow after the War of 1812 was ended (1814).
In February of 1815, Fulton died from complications of a winter chest cold.
In response, both houses of the US Congress wore mourning, and businesses
in New York City closed for a day. Not everyone admired Robert Fulton:
many considered him at best a consummate opportunist. Yet Fulton the
engineer was responsible for many innovative improvements, and Fulton the
entrepreneur first made steamboat transportation a reality.
H.W. Dickinson's detailed and illustrated biography of Robert Fulton (1913)
is available on-line.
In book form, see Cynthia Owen Philip's Robert Fulton: A Biography
(New York: Franklin Watts, 1985).