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Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton
Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton (November 14, 1765February 24, 1815) was an American engineer and inventor widely credited with developing the first steam-powered ship.

Fulton was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He may have become interested in steamboats in 1777 when (at the age of 12) he visited William Henry of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Henry had found out about Watt's steam engine on a visit to England, on return made his own engine and in 1763 tried putting it in a boat, which sank.

When he came of age Fulton went to England to study painting. As early as 1793 he proposed plans for steam vessels to both the United States and the British Governments, and in England he met the Duke of Bridgewater, whose canal would shortly be used for trials of a steam tug, and who later ordered steam tugs from William Symington. Symington had successfully tried steamboats in 1788, and it seems probable that Fulton would have been well aware of these developments.

In 1797 Fulton went to France (where the Marquis Claude de Jouffroy had made a working paddle steamer in 1783) and commenced experimenting with submarine torpedoes and torpedo boats. He designed the first practical submarine, Nautilus, commissioned by Napoleon. Nautilus was first tested in 1800. In that year he met Robert Livingston, United States Ambassador, and they decided to build a steamboat to try out on the Seine. Fulton experimented with the water resistance of hull shapes, made drawings and models and had a steamboat constructed. At the first trial it sank, but the hull was rebuilt and strengthened, and on August 9, 1803, this boat steamed up the River Seine, watched by a large crowd. The boat was 66 feet (20 m) long, 8 feet (2.4 m) beam and made between 3 and 4 miles an hour (5 and 6 km/h) against the current.

At about this time Fulton wrote to Boulton & Watt, ordering an engine to be built to his plans, and in 1804 he returned to England. In 1802 Symington's Charlotte Dundas had towed two 70 ton barges along the Forth and Clyde Canal, demonstrating the practicality of steam power. Although Fulton probably never saw this boat, he apparently had correspondence with Henry Bell who was taking a keen interest in it. Fulton now worked on torpedo experiments, and when his Boulton & Watt steam engine was completed had it delivered to New York and sailed there himself, arriving at the end of 1806. A suitable hull was built for what would be the first commercially successful Paddle steamer.

The name of Fulton's first steamboat is often given as the Clermont. In fact, he never called it by that name, generally referring to it simply as the North River Steamboat, but the name often appears in the literature. The Clermont left New York City for Albany, New York on the Hudson River on August 17, 1807, inaugurating the first commercial steamboat service in the world. The initial voyage of Fulton's monster was described as follows in an 1870 publication [1]:

The surprise and dismay excited among the crews of these vessels by the appearance of the steamer was extreme. These simple people, the majority of whom had heard nothing of Fulton's experiments, beheld what they supposed to be a huge monster, vomiting fire and smoke from its throat, lashing the water with its fins, and shaking the river with its roar, approaching rapidly in the very face of both wind and tide. Some threw themselves flat on the deck of their vessels, where they remained in an agony of terror until the monster had passed, while others took to their boats and made for the shore in dismay, leaving their vessels to drift helplessly down the stream. Nor was this terror confined to the sailors. The people dwelling along the shore crowded the banks to gaze upon the steamer as she passed by.

The New York legislature granted Fulton the privilege to be the sole provider of all steamboat traffic for thirty years. Competition was forbidden by law. Thomas Gibbons, a steamboat entrepreneur, hired Cornelius Vanderbilt to ferry passengers for a cheaper fare in defiance of the law in an attempt to compete with Fulton for about six months. In 1824, in Gibbons v. Ogden, the Supreme Court struck down Fulton's government-granted monopoly ruling that states cannot legally regulate interstate commerce. Steamboat fares almost immediately dropped from seven to three dollars after the decision and traffic increased dramatically. Fulton was unable to successfully compete with the low fares offered by Gibbons and Vanderbilt, which resulted in his bankruptcy.

Fulton patented his design for a steamboat on February 11, 1809, built more steamboats and designed the first steam powered warship, the Fulton the First. The keel was laid in 1814, but he did not live to see it completed.

Fulton is accused by Robert W. Folsom, Jr. in The Myth of the Robber Barons of being what he calls a "political entrepreneur" --a businessperson who seeks to gain profit through subsidies, protectionism, government contracts, or other such favorable arrangements with government(s) through political influence rather than competing fairly in the marketplace.

Robert Fulton is interred in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery in Manhattan, New York.

Fulton County, Ohio is named for him.

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Last updated: 08-16-2005 11:32:54