Born November 14, 1765
Little Britain, Pennsylvania
Died February 24, 1815
American engineer, inventor
"What, sir? You would make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her decks? I pray you excuse me. I have no time to listen to such nonsense.
—Napoléon Bonaparte, emperor of France, reacting to Fulton's proposal for a steamboat.
Robert Fulton was an American engineer and inventor who developed the first commercially successful steamboat, or a boat powered by steam, thereby transforming the transportation and travel industries and speeding up the Industrial Revolution, a period of fast-paced economic change that began in Great Britain in the middle of the eighteenth century.
As a child, Fulton enjoyed building mechanical devices, taking on such projects as rockets and a hand-propelled paddle wheel boat. His interest turned to art as he matured, and at the age of twenty-one, Fulton left the United States to study painting in England. Although he managed some success, the general response his work received was disappointing and convinced him to concentrate on his engineering skills. He spent a number of years designing a canal system in Europe and later worked on a concept for a submarine. But his fame was guaranteed by the Clermont, the first practical steamship, which he designed and built in 1807 to navigate the Hudson River.
By succeeding at building his steamships in the early years of the United States, Fulton made a dramatic contribution to the advancement of the Industrial Revolution. Steam-powered ships changed the nature of global commerce by making travel by sea much faster and more reliable. This made it possible for factories in Europe (especially in England) to ship goods to North America and expand their markets, just as American farms and factories could ship goods to Europe.
Childhood and youth
Robert Fulton was born in 1765. His father, also named Robert, had immigrated to the English colony of Pennsylvania from Northern Ireland. In 1759 Robert Fulton Sr. married Mary Smith of Oxford, Pennsylvania, and they raised three daughters and a son, Robert, on a 364-acre farm on Conowingo Creek, in the town of Little Britain, Pennsylvania, west of Philadelphia. When Robert was just three years old his father died, leaving the Fulton children living in relative poverty.
Young Robert was taught at home until he was eight years old, after which he attended a school run by Caleb Johnson, a strict and conservative Quaker (also known as the Society of Friends, an English religious movement) and Tory. (In Fulton's time, a Tory was someone conservative in politics who opposed the growing move for American independence from Britain.) Although Fulton would prove to be brilliant later in life, his talents were not obvious in his early schooling. He was more interested in painting and in what mechanics were doing in their nearby shops than in what Caleb Johnson was trying to teach him.
When he was seventeen years old, Fulton left home and went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was a sophisticated center of learning and the arts. It was an exciting environment for a curious and intelligent young man, and Fulton thrived. He pursued his childhood interest of painting and earned a living by creating miniature portraits, which were in some ways the equivalent of photographs in an era before photography was invented.
One person whose portrait Fulton painted was Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), perhaps Philadelphia's best-known citizen and a leader of the American independence movement. Franklin encouraged Fulton to go to England to perfect his trade as a painter, as Franklin had done as a young man to perfect his trade as a printer. Before leaving for England, Fulton bought an 840-acre farm in the town of Hopewell, Pennsylvania, for his widowed mother. She lived there until her death in 1799, as did Fulton's sister Elizabeth, also a widow, and Elizabeth's daughter.
Off to England
In 1786, at the age of twenty-one, Fulton moved to London, England, with the intention of pursuing a career as an artist. He had little money, but he did have a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin to a successful American painter working in London, Benjamin West (1738–1820), who also happened to be from Pennsylvania.
Fulton worked as a painter for five years. In 1791 his work was exhibited in the Royal Gallery. Thanks, perhaps, to introductions by West, Fulton obtained several commissions to paint portraits of English aristocrats. Despite his relative success as a painter, the general response his work received was disappointing and convinced him to concentrate on his engineering skills.
A new career
Fulton began working at designing canals, artificial waterways that were often dug to connect two rivers, at a time when canal building was expanding rapidly in England. After several years of work, Fulton devised a system to help boats move from one level of a canal to a higher (or lower) level, such as when a canal was moving over a hill, for which he was granted a British patent in 1794. He also developed a series of inventions using mechanical power to dig canals, as well as a plan to use cast iron in building aqueducts, or channels of water. In 1796, he published a summary of his ideas on improving canal navigation in his Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation.
Moving to France
Having made little progress in building canals in England, Fulton decided to try his luck in France in 1797. He began working on other projects as well, including one for fireproofing houses and another for exploding gunpowder underwater. He also developed a plan for an experimental submarine that could plant underwater mines without being detected. The submarine, or "plunging boat," as it was called, caught the eye of Robert Livingston (1746–1813), then a wealthy American ambassador to France and the owner of a twenty-year monopoly on steam navigation in New York State. Fulton shared some of his own ideas about steam power with Livingston, and Livingston agreed to provide the financing for Fulton to develop a working steamboat. If Fulton succeeded, the two would become business partners. Fulton, always in search of financing for his schemes, agreed and got to work.
A practical steam engine, a machine that converts the heat energy of steam into mechanical energy by means of a piston moving in a cylinder, was developed by Scottish engineer James Watt (1736–1819; see entry) in 1769. By the turn of the nineteenth century, steam engines had rapidly come into use. Steam engines were so bulky and heavy, however, that they were used only as stationary power sources until John Fitch (1743–1798) made the first successful trial of a forty-five-foot steam-powered boat in 1787.
In Paris, Fulton spent two and a half years working on his own design for a steamboat. One of his test models sank when a storm caused it to toss violently, and the steam engine plunged through the boat to the bottom of the River Seine. But in August 1803, Fulton succeeded in demonstrating a new model. According to H.W. Dickinson's 1913 work Robert Fulton: Engineer and Artist, a French newspaper at the time described it as follows:
During the past two or three months there has been seen at the end of the quay Chaillot a boat of curious appearance, equipped with two large wheels mounted on an axle like a cart, while behind these wheels was a kind of large stove with a pipe, as if there was some kind of a small fire engine [steam engine] intended to operate the wheels of the boat.… At six o'clock in the evening, assisted by three persons only, [the builder] put his boat in motion with two other boats in tow behind it, and for an hour and a half he afforded the curious spectacle of a boat moved by wheels like a cart, these wheels being provided with paddles or flat plates and being moved by a fire engine.
In following it along the quay the speed against the current of the Seine appeared to us about that of a rapid pedestrian, that is about 2400 toises [a French measurement equivalent to about 2.2 miles] per hour; while in going down stream it was more rapid.
Flush with success, Fulton set about making a larger boat that would be commercially feasible. He was now forty-one years old, and although he had met many influential people, he had not earned a fortune. He was, however, beginning to make a name for himself. He received an offer from the administration of President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) to develop canals in the region acquired from France in 1803 through the Louisiana Purchase (an area extending roughly from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains). But Fulton was entirely focused on the steamboat, as he explained in a letter to the secretary of war in turning down the canal project in 1811:
I now have Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, and Carpenters occupied at New York in building and executing the machinery of my Steam Boat, and I must return to that City in ten days to direct the work till finished.… The enterprise is of much importance to me individually and I hope will be of great use in facilitating the navigation of some of our long rivers. Like every enthusiast, I have no doubt of success. I therefore work with ardor, and when adjusting the parts of the machine I cannot leave the men for a day.
Upon completion of the project, Fulton named his steamship the Clermont, after Robert Livingston's estate in New York. The ship was actually built by an established shipbuilder in New York, and it used a steam engine purchased from James Watt's company in England. On August 17, 1807, the Clermont was launched, four and a half years after Fulton entered into his agreement with Livingston in Paris. The next month, the first commercial trip was launched, at a cost of $7.00 one way. The service ran for two months until ice in the river became a problem in mid-November of that year.
Fulton obtained a patent (guaranteeing an inventor the exclusive right to earn money from an invention) for his ship in 1809, as well as an exclusive license from the state of New York to operate steamboat transportation on the Hudson River. Neither his patent nor his license deterred competitors from building similar ships and launching service up the Hudson. Fulton eventually won legal battles over his patent, but in 1825, a U.S. court ruled that he could not have the business all to himself.
Fulton's success led him to build other successively larger boats and to experiment with new designs. Competitors rushed in with their own designs, and soon steamboats were used as river ferries and to carry passengers and freight along the shores of Long Island Sound from New York to New Haven, Connecticut.
The impact of Robert Fulton
As with most inventions, that of the steamboat was not the work of any one man or of any one nation. While Fulton's name will always be associated with its evolution, he was only the last in a series of individuals inspired to apply steam power to transportation. Fulton, more than any other individual, succeeded in bringing mechanical power to ships, just as others had brought steam power to manufacturing fabric, pumping water from mines, and farming. Steam applied to transportation opened up new economic opportunities and freed people from total dependence upon the wind and weather, which had restricted water transportation since the days of the first sailing vessel.
Within a decade, in 1819, the American ship Savannah claimed to be the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean, even though the vessel had sails and relied on wind power for a good deal of the journey. Fulton's invention, and later improvements, made crossing the Atlantic faster and less dangerous than voyages in sailing ships. By so doing, steamships facilitated the shipment of manufactured goods and raw materials between Europe and North America, and eventually around the world.
Fulton died in New York on February 24, 1815, of complications from a chest cold he had caught during a journey to New Jersey. Businesses in New York closed for a day in his honor.
For More Information
Morgan, John Smith. Robert Fulton. New York: Mason/Charter, 1977.
Philip, Cynthia Owen. Robert Fulton, A Biography. New York: F. Watts, 1985.
Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the AmericanDream. New York: Free Press, 2001.
Philip, Cynthia Owen. "Adventurer Armed with Fortitude." AmericanHistory Illustrated, December 1986, p. 8.
"Robert Fulton." American Heritage, May–June, 1991, p. 74.
Dickinson, H. W. "Robert Fulton: Engineer and Artist." Steam Engine Library, University of Rochester.http://www.history.rochester.edu/steam/dickinson (accessed on February 13, 2003).
Fulton, Robert. "A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation." University of Rochester. http://www.history.rochester.edu/canal/bib/fulton/1796/ (accessed on March 3, 2003).
"Fulton, Robert." Yahooligans Directory.http://www.yahooligans.com/science_and_nature/machines/inventions/inventors/Fulton__Robert/ (accessed on February 13, 2003).
"Robert Fulton." Virtuology.com.http://www.robertfulton.org/ (accessed on February 13, 2003).
Sutcliffe, Alice Crary. Robert Fulton and the Clermont. New York: Century Company, 1999. http://www.ulster.net/hrmm/diglit/sutcliffe/chapter4-5.html (accessed on January 9, 2003).
Thurston, Robert H. "Robert Fulton: His Life and Its Results." Steam Engine Library, University of Rochester.http://www.history.rochester.edu/steam/thurston/fulton/ (accessed on February 13, 2003).
Robert Fulton (1765–1815) was not the first inventor to turn his attention to the concept of the steam boat. He was the first, however, to successfully couple steam engines with a boat that could be commercially viable. Robert Fulton was a multitalented individual who began his adult career as an artist, but he showed inventive talent for most of his life.
Robert Fulton was born on November 14, 1765, on a farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, near the town of Little Britain. He grew up in Lancaster, and was a clever child, showing an inventive trait by fashioning lead pencils, household utensils, and skyrockets. For his rowboat, he put together a hand–operated paddle wheel. He also designed and built a rifle with an original bore and sight. Moving to Philadelphia at age 17, Fulton apprenticed to a jeweler and did well painting miniatures and portraits—well enough to buy a farm for his mother just outside of Philadelphia.
Fulton moved to England in 1786 to study painting with Benjamin West. He made a moderate living in England as an artist. But his true interest was in science and engineering. After 1793 he devoted his efforts to science and engineering, and relegated his painting to that of a hobby. Water transport was his main interest, and Fulton studied the problems of canals and shipping. He worked on the design of canal boats, and a system of inclined planes to replace canal locks. At the same time, Fulton invented machines for rope making and spinning flax. He made a device that cut marble, and he invented a dredging machine for cutting canal channels. In 1796, he published a work on his canal investigations, A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation.
Next Fulton turned his attention to the development of underwater warfare devices and equipment. He worked on the submarine and explosive torpedoes. Like many idealists, Fulton believed the development of efficient warfare appliances would make warfare so terrible it would no longer be pursued. This rather naive idea has been held by many who dabbled in instruments of war. Fulton was successful in some torpedo development, and built a semi-functional submarine. In 1801 his Nautilus diving boat could descend 25 feet underwater and return to the surface. Fulton attempted to enlist the patronage of the French government for his research, but was unable to demonstrate success in sinking British ships. He then attempted the same deal with the British, but failed for the same reason.
The problem of underwater propulsion frustrated Fulton and many others who came before him. For centuries sail or oar had propelled ships along the water's surface. Several men had experimented with placing steam engines on ships for propulsion, but unsuccessfully. In 1802 Fulton partnered with Robert R. Livingston (1746–1813) to work towards a practical and commercial application of steam engines on boats. Livingston was to be a key supporter and benefactor. Fulton's experimental boat sank in Paris in 1803 because of problems with the weight of the engine. But he was more successful with a second attempt.
Finally, in 1806 Fulton ordered a quality steam engine from the British firm of Boulton & Watt. Previous attempts at coupling steam engines with boats had failed, Fulton believed, because of the lack of a well-designed engine. Previous inventors had attempted to build the steam engine as well as the boat. Fulton decided to purchase a quality engine from a reputable firm and couple it with a decent boat. The result of this effort was the construction of the first successful steamboat in New York in 1807.
The ship was registered as the North River Steam Boat but it was popularly called the Claremont after Robert Livingston's home. On August 17, 1807, the paddle wheel driven steamboat made its maiden voyage up the Hudson River to Albany at an average speed of five miles per hour. The Claremont was a technical success, but more importantly, a commercial success. Fulton insisted that the ship be well attended and that the needs of its passengers be tended to.
Fulton set about expanding the steamboat business. He obtained monopolies from state legislatures. His steamboat New Orleans was the first steamboat on the Mississippi River. He erected a large shipyard in New Jersey, which built 17 steamboats as well as a ferryboat and a torpedo boat. Fulton had designed and was building a steam powered warship, Fulton the First when he died on February 24, 1815.
See also: Steamboats
Dickinson, H.W., Robert Fulton, Engineer and Artist: His Life and Works. New York: John Lane Company, 1913.
Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998, s.v. "Fulton, Robert."
Flexner, James T. Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action. Boston: Little, Brown, 1944.
Philip, Cynthia Owen. Robert Fulton, A Biography. New York: Franklin Watts, 1985.
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.
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). □
Wallace S. Hutcheon, Jr.