Robert Fulton
American inventor, mechanical and civil engineer, and artist

1765 - 1815

Robert Fulton was an American inventor, mechanical and civil engineer, and artist. He is best known for designing and building the Clermont, the first commercially successful steamboat. The Clermont ushered in a new era in the history of transportation. In addition to his work with steamboats, Fulton made important contributions to the development of the submarine and to canal transportation.

Fulton was born Nov. 14, 1765, on a farm near Little Britain in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He spent his boyhood in Lancaster, and showed inventive talent at an early age. He turned out lead pencils, household utensils for his mother, and skyrockets for a town celebration. Fulton developed a hand-operated paddle wheel for use on a rowboat. He also built a rifle that had sight and bore of original design.

Fulton went to Philadelphia at the age of 17, and was apprenticed to a jeweler. He soon began to win fame as a painter of miniatures and portraits. He saved enough money to buy a farm for his mother.

At the age of 21, Fulton went to England to study with the fashionable American artist Benjamin West. In London, Fulton made a moderate living as an artist. But he became increasingly interested in scientific and engineering developments. After 1793, he gave his full attention to this field, and painted only for amusement.

Fulton's first enthusiasm was for canal development. He designed new types of canal boats, and a system of inclined planes to replace canal locks. Other mechanical problems challenged him. He invented a machine for making rope and one for spinning flax. He made a labor-saving device for cutting marble, and invented a dredging machine for cutting canal channels. In 1796, Fulton published "A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation."

About 1797, Fulton turned his attention to the submarine. In 1801, he built a diving boat, the Nautilus, which could descend 25 feet underwater. Fulton's work with submarines continued until 1806. He realized the dangers that submarines would bring to naval warfare but thought that they might serve to limit sea war and piracy, for that very reason. Fulton's experimental submarines were able to dive and surface, and he succeeded in blowing up anchored test craft. However, the problem of propulsion underwater was never satisfactorily solved. Fulton's ideas interested both Napoleon Bonaparte and the British Admiralty, but neither ever adopted them wholeheartedly.

In 1802, Robert R. Livingston, the United States minister to France, interested Fulton in turning his attention to the steamboat. Fulton had been interested for many years in the idea of steam propulsion for a boat. An experimental boat, launched on the Seine River in Paris in 1803, sank because the engine was too heavy. But a second boat, which was built in the same year, operated successfully. Fulton ordered an engine from the British firm of Boulton & Watt and returned to the United States in 1806.

Fulton directed the construction of a steamboat in New York in 1807. Registered as the North River Steam Boat, the ship was generally called the Clermont after the home of Robert Livingston. On Aug. 17, 1807, the steamboat started on its first successful trip up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany. After some alterations, the boat began to provide regular passenger service on the Hudson.

The Clermont was not the first steamboat to be built, but it was the first to become a practical and financial success. Part of Fulton's success was due to his concern for passenger comfort. His handbills announced: "Dinner will be served at exactly 2 o'clock ... Tea with meats ... Supper at 8 in the evening" and "A shelf has been added to each berth, on which gentlemen will please put their boots, shoes, and clothes, that the cabin will not be encumbered."

After the success of the Clermont, Fulton became occupied with building and operating other boats. He also defended the monopolies that state legislatures had granted to him and Robert Livingston.

Fulton designed and built a steam-powered warship, Fulton the First, for the defense of New York harbor in the War of 1812, but he died before the completion of this remarkable craft. The statue of Fulton in Statuary Hall, Washington, D.C., honors his achievements.

Related document: The H.L. Hunley
Contributor: J. P. Hartman, Ph.D., Prof. of Engineering, College of Engineering, Univ. of Central Florida, Orlando.

Additional resources

Flexner, James T. Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action. 1944. Reprint. Fordham Univ. Pr., 1992.

Landau, Elaine. Robert Fulton. Watts, 1991. Younger readers.

Morgan, John S. Robert Fulton. Mason/Charter, 1977.

Philip, Cynthia O. Robert Fulton. Watts, 1985.


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