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Robert Fulton

builder of the first financially successful steamboat

Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton was born near Little Britain in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on November 14, 1765. He spent his boyhood in Lancaster, and showed inventive talent at an early age, turning out lead pencils, household utensils for his mother, and skyrockets for a town celebration. He also developed a hand-operated paddle wheel for use on a rowboat, and constructed a rifle with sight and bore of original design.

Fulton was apprenticed to a Philadelphia jeweler at the age of 17, and soon made a name for himself as a painter of miniatures and portraits. His talents made him enough money to buy a farm for his mother. At the age of 21, he went to England to study with American artist Benjamin West.

In London, Fulton was able to make a moderate living as an artist, but he became increasingly interested in scientific and engineering developments. After 1793, he gave his full attention to this field, and painted only for amusement. He began to travel, studied science and higher mathematics, and learned French, Italian and German.

Fulton began working to solve a number of mechanical problems. He invented a machine for making rope and one for spinning flax and a labor-saving device for cutting marble. Fulton's first work in the field of naval architecture was to design new types of canal boats, and a system of inclined planes to replace canal locks. He also invented a dredging machine for cutting canal channels.

Moving to Paris in 1797, Fulton turned his attention to the submarine, a project which would claim most of his energies until 1806. In 1801, he demonstrated the Nautilus. On the surface of the water it looked like an ordinary boat, with a mast which folded away into a deck groove when underwater. There was a conning tower, ballast tanks that could be filled and emptied, and room for four men to turn an endless belt that turned a propellor shaft. The submarine was designed to contain sufficient oxygen to support four men and two small candles for three hours. Fulton's submarines were able to dive and surface, and he succeeded in blowing up anchored test craft, but he was never able to solve the problem of propulsion under water.

the Nautilus
the Nautilus

In 1802, Fulton met Robert R. Livingston, the United States Minister to France. Livingston held exclusive rights to steamboat navigation on the Hudson River, and he agreed to back Fulton in constructing a commercially practical steamship. An experimental boat launched on the Seine River in 1803 sank because the engine was too heavy, but a second boat built later that same year operated successfully. Fulton ordered an engine from the British firm of Boulton & Watt, and returned to the United States in 1806.

Fulton directed the building of a steamboat in New York in 1807. This boat, which he called The North River Steamboat, became famous as the Clermont. On August 17, 1807, this vessel began its first successful trip up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany. After some alterations, the Clermont sailed in regular passenger service on the Hudson, the first steamboat to become a practical and financial success.

the North River Steamboat (aka Clermont)
the Clermont

After the Clermont proved successful, Fulton became occupied with building and operating others, and with expanding his activities to other parts of the country. He built two steamboats similar to the Clermont, and two ferries for New York Harbor. In the process he also had to defend the monopolies that had been granted to him and Robert Livingston by a number of state legislatures.

Fulton also experimented with the firing of guns under water. His findings became the basis of later developments in this field. On October 29, 1814, the Demologos was launched at New York. Formally christened Fulton the First, the ship was a floating fort with a paddle between double hulls. Intended for use against the British in the War of 1812, it was the first ever steamship of war, even though the war ended before it ever saw action.

launching of Fulton the First, October 29, 1814
launching of Fulton the First, October 29, 1814

Robert Fulton died in New York City on February 24, 1815.

War of 1812

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This page was last updated on 06/25/2018.