Fulton, Robert (1767-1815)

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FULTON, ROBERT (1767–1815)

Robert Fulton was unique among inventors of his time, since he was born in America, apprenticed in Europe and returned to his native country to perfect his greatest invention, the steamboat. Fulton was born in 1765 of a respectable family in Little Britain, Pennsylvania, in Lancaster County. Unlike many inventors, he was not motivated by paternal leadership since he grew up fatherless after the age of three. His mother is credited for his soaring interest in the world of painting. Despite, or perhaps because of, the loss of his father, Robert's free time was spent with local mechanics or alone with his drawing pencil. By age seventeen, he was accomplished enough as a landscape and portrait artist that he earned income from it in the city of Philadelphia for four years. He earned enough to build a home for his mother in Washington County before receiving a generous offer to take his artistic talents to England in 1786, at age 21, where they were equally well received.

Over the next seven years, he made numerous acquaintances, including two who were instrumental in his transition from artist to civil engineer—the Duke of Bridgewater, famous for work with canals, and Lord Stanhope, who specialized in works of science and mechanical arts. By 1793, Robert was experimenting with inland navigation, an area that remained of interest throughout his life. A year later, he filed a patent in Britain for a double inclined plane, and spent several years in Birmingham, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution that came about thanks to the powerful engines built by James Watt as early as 1763.

Remarkable for someone so talented in the arts, Fulton was able to use his accomplished drawing skills to express his designs. As a now noted draftsman, he invented numerous pieces of equipment such as tools to saw marble, spin flax, make rope and excavate earth. Sadly, he once lost many of his original manuscripts during a shipping accident.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Fulton turned his attention to his obsession with submarines and steamships. He made no secret of his goal for submarines—he intended to build them in order to destroy all ships of war so that appropriate attention could be devoted by society to the fields of education, industry and free speech. In 1801, he managed to stay under water for four hours and twenty minutes in one of his devices, and in 1805 he demonstrated the ability to utilize a torpedo to blow up a well built ship of two hundred tons. Unfortunately for Robert, neither the French nor British government was particularly impressed with the unpredictable success, nor the importance of his innovations; so he packed his bags and returned to America in December of 1806.

By the time Robert Fulton arrived in America, he had been studying steam navigation for thirteen years. Five years earlier, he had met Chancellor Livingston, who was partly successful in building a steam vessel, but yielded to Fulton's skill by allowing him to take out a patent in the latter's name to begin his improvements. By 1807, there was much skepticism and derision expressed along the banks of the East River in New York when Fulton prepared to launch his steamship, "The Clermont," from the ship yard of Charles Brown. A few hours later, there were nothing but loud applause and admiration at the spectacular achievement that had been termed "Fulton's Folly." Finding his own design flaws, Fulton modified the water wheels and soon launched the ship on a stunning three-hundred-mile round-trip run to Albany. The total sailing time was sixty-two hours, a remarkable endurance record for so new an invention. Soon there were regular runs being made on the Hudson River and by rival ships around the country, with many disputes over the patent rights of different vessels in different states. But the industry was clearly set in motion by Fulton's uncanny designs.

By 1812, he added a double-hulled ferryboat to his credits, designing floating docks to receive them. In 1814, the citizens of New York vindicated his years of war vessel experiments by demanding a protective ship in defense of their New York Harbor. In March of that year, the President of the United States, James Madison, was authorized to enlist Fulton to design a steam-powered frigate, with full explosive battery, as a military defense weapon. He also empowered Fulton to complete a design for the defensive submarine Fulton longed to finish. Unfortunately, just three months before the completion of the steam frigate, Fulton fell victim to severe winter exposure on the river, dying on February 24, 1815, in New York City at the age of 50.

The public mourning was said to be equal to that expressed only for those who held public office of considerable acclaim. But by this time, the word 'folly' had long been dropped from his name. Just as George Stephenson followed the inventors of locomotives to gain credit for creating Britain's railways, Robert Fulton was not the inventor of the steam boat. What he was, however, was the brilliant creator of such an improved version that it made possible the many advancements of steamships in succeeding years. He took theory out of the experimentation process and designed machinery that opened the door to unlimited practical use from the technology available at the time.

Dennis R. Diehl


Howe, H. (1858). Memoirs of the Most Eminent American Mechanics: Also, Lives of Distinguished European Mechanics.New York: Harper & Brothers.