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Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton


American Inventor and Engineer

Robert Fulton is best known as the inventor of the first operational steamboat. However, he also developed an early submarine, canal designs, and patented machines for sawing marble and twisting hemp into rope. As one of America's first civil and military technologists, Fulton helped shape the worldview and ideals of modern mechanized society.

Fulton was born on November 14, 1765, in Little Britain Township, Pennsylvania. He spent most of his life in Lancaster, then the largest inland city in the American colonies. Lancaster was a hub of intellectual and technological activity during the American Revolution. Many historians believe the stimulation of this environment had a great impact on the young Fulton.

After the Revolution Fulton worked in Philadelphia as a portrait painter, and in 1786 traveled to England to study art; there he was a student of American painter Benjamin West. However, enamored by the marvels of industrial technology, Fulton turned to engineering instead during the early 1790s. While in England Fulton also took up residence with socialist Robert Owen (1771-1858), poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and chemist John Dalton (1766-1844), who together greatly influenced Fulton's worldview. They all believed that it was within the capacity of society to perfect the human condition. This could be achieved by developing strategies that were based on the interconnection among economics, science, and the humanities.

Fulton's vision of the future rested upon the free and inexpensive movement of material goods. Domestically, he envisioned the population centers in the United States and Europe linked by an extensive network of canals. Small, uniformly constructed steamboats would transport people and goods throughout the nations of the Western world. Science and technology would improve the efficiency of transportation and increase the availability of products, which in turn would result in a better life for all. Fulton published these ideas in his first major work, The Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation.

Fulton held the same view for the global market. He believed that the idea of international trade based on the concept of freedom of the seas would create international agreements similar to the modern North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA), which would facilitate the free flow of goods between nations. Oceangoing steamboats were the backbone of his plan and served a twofold purpose. First, they would lead to the creation of a global marketplace. Secondly, if every nation had steamboat technology, the ability of the English navy to control the sealanes would be curtailed. Fulton believed the acceptance of the concept of total freedom of the seas would allow the nations of the world to disarm and to concentrate their wealth on social expenditures for the betterment of humankind. He fervently believed that the British navy was the main obstacle to this utopian view. His first major marine engineering project was to construct a submarine that would neutralize the British warship.

His first chance at significant government funding for this project came from France during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), when they were facing a British naval blockade. Fulton constructed an operational model run on human power, and on two occasions he unsuccessfully tried to use it against the British navy. Both times English intelligence became aware of his plan and the Royal Navy was able to move their ships out of harm's way.

The British then sent a secret agent to Fulton with a proposal to fund further research. The navy wanted to use the research information to create a series of countermeasures against future submarine attacks. His ethic of freedom of the seas was strained, then torn when he decided to take the money from the very organization he had originally wished to neutralize. The British government cut off funding when they became convinced that submarine warfare was not a possibility. They paid Fulton about $70,000 in today's money and allowed him to bring a fully operational Watt steam engine back to the United States.

When Fulton returned to America, he aggressively looked for money to develop an operational steamboat. He finally received backing from the wealthy New Yorker Robert Livingston. Combining his knowledge of earlier research and hard work, he successfully launched his first steamboat, the Clermont, in 1803. This revolutionized transportation in the United States and Europe. It helped propel the westward movement across North America and set the stage for Western expansion into the rest of the world.


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