Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton (1765-1815), American inventor, civil engineer, and artist, established the first regular and commercially successful steamboat operation.

Robert Fulton was born November 14, 1765, in Lancaster County, Pa. His father worked at farming, among other jobs, and died when Robert was a small boy. By the age of 10 Robert showed promise as an artist and was employed by local gunsmiths to make designs for their work. At 17 he went to Philadelphia, the cultural center of the Atlantic seaboard, and spent 4 years making portraits and doing miniatures. Financially successful, he was able to buy a farm near the city for his mother.

In 1786 Fulton went to London to study painting with Benjamin West, who had been a family friend and was by this time one of the leading American painters living in England. England was already in the midst of its industrial revolution, and Fulton was fascinated by the new engineering enterprises—canals, mines, bridges, roads, and factories. His interest became professional, and after about 1793 he gave up painting as a vocation, pursuing it only for his own amusement.

As early as 1794 Fulton considered using steam power to drive a boat. Seven years earlier John Fitch had successfully demonstrated his steamboat on the Delaware River at Philadelphia, but in the interim no one had been able to make both a mechanical and commercial success of the idea. Though the British government had banned the export of steam engines, Fulton wrote to the firm of Boulton and Watt about the possibility of buying a ready-made engine to be applied to boat propulsion.

Most of Fulton's energy during these years was devoted to more conventional problems of civil and mechanical engineering. He patented in England a "double-incline plane" for hauling canal boats over difficult terrain and machines to saw marble, to spin flax, and to twist hemp for rope. He built a mechanical dredge to speed the construction of canals and in 1796 published his illustrated pamphlet, A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation.

For the next 10 years Fulton devoted himself to the development of underwater warfare through the invention and improvement of a submarine and explosive torpedoes. It is thought that he believed that if warfare were made sufficiently destructive and horrible it would be abandoned—a fallacy often invoked by inventors of military devices. He tried to interest the French government in his experiments, and he obtained the promise of prizes for any British ships he might destroy with his devices. In 1801 he proceeded with his submarine, the Nautilus, against various ships but was unsuccessful. By 1804 his failure to win French money for destroying British ships led him to offer to destroy French ships for the British government. Once again he failed in combat, although he was able to blow up one ship during an experiment.

In 1802 Fulton had met Robert R. Livingston, formerly a partner in another steamboat venture but recently appointed U.S. minister to the French government. Despite the failure of Fulton's earlier ventures, Livingston agreed to support Fulton's old idea of building a steamboat. In 1803 an engine was ordered (disassembled and with many duplicate parts) from Boulton and Watt, to be delivered in New York City. But it was 1806 before permission to export the engine was obtained, the parts were assembled, and Fulton was able to sail for America.

The engine was put together in New York and set aboard a locally built vessel. One of the problems was to determine the proper proportions for a steamboat. Fulton was convinced that science dictated a very long and narrow hull, though experience later proved him wrong. Although Livingston had been an advocate of a kind of jet propulsion for steamboats (that is, a jet of water forced out the back of the boat under high pressure), the two now settled on paddle wheels as the best method. On Aug. 17, 1807, the Clermont (as it was later named) began its first successful voyage up the Hudson River to Albany, N.Y. Under way it averaged 5 miles per hour.

After the voyage of the Clermont, steamboats appeared up and down the Atlantic Coast, and Fulton himself introduced the first steamboat on the western waters. Before his death on February 24, 1815 he had erected a large boat works in New Jersey and directed the building of one ferryboat, a torpedo boat, and 17 regular steamboats.

Fulton's success, where at least a dozen other American inventors had failed, had many causes. In Livingston he had a rich and politically powerful patron who was able to obtain a lucrative monopoly on the steam navigation of the state's waters. Fulton also began his work with a first-class engine, purchased from Boulton and Watt, the world's leading engine builders. Previous inventors, including John Fitch, had had to build their own engines. Also, Fulton was able to employ mechanics and experimenters who had, over the past 2 decades, gained considerable experience with steam engines. It was Fulton's luck and genius to be able to combine these elements into a commercially successful steamboat venture.

Further Reading on Robert Fulton

The first, and still useful, biography of Fulton is Cadwallader D. Colden, The Life of Robert Fulton (1817). The best biography is H. W. Dickinson, Robert Fulton, Engineer and Artist: His Life and Works (1913). Also useful is George Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746-1813 (1960). For the prehistory of steamboats see James Thomas Flexner, Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action (1944).