builder of the
first financially successful steamboat
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
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.
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.
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.
Robert Fulton died in New York
City on February 24, 1815.
War of 1812
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