Robert Fulton was born November 14, 1765 on a farm in Little Britain, Pennsylvania.
Robert grew up with an interest in art inspired by a friend of his fathers, whose son Benjamin West had become a famous painter.
When he and his family visited William Henry of Lancaster,Pennsylvania, Robert became interested in steamboats when Henry described James Watt’s steam engine from one of his visits to England.
By the age of 14, Robert began painting portraits and landscapes in Philadelphia, helping to support his mother after his father had passed away.
While in Philadelphia, he met Benjamin Franklin and other prominent Revolutionary War figures.
In 1785, twenty year old Robert bought a farm at Hopewell, Pennsylvania and moved his mother and siblings onto it.
On August 22, 1787, inventor John Fitch successfully tested the first steamboat on the Delaware River in the presence of delegates from the Constitutional Convention. It was propelled by a bank of oars on either side of the boat.
The following year, Fitch launched a 60-foot boat powered by a steam engine driving several stern mounted oars. These oars paddled in a manner similar to the motion of a swimming duck’s feet.
In 1788, James Rumsey also began successfully testing steamboats in Shepherdstown (now West Virginia).
Then, at the age of 23, Robert Fulton decided to visit Europe.
He took several letters of introduction with him in 1788, all from individuals he had met in Philadelphia.
Benjamin West took Robert into his home, where he lived for several years.
West had become well known in Europe and introduced Robert Fulton to many others.
Robert acquired many commissions painting portraits and landscapes, which allowed him to support himself, while he began to experiment with mechanical inventions.
Soon, Robert had published a pamphlet himself about canals and patented a dredging machine along with several other inventions.
John Fitch was granted a patent on August 26, 1791, after a battle with James Rumsey, who had created a similar invention. Unfortunately the newly created Patent Commission did not award the broad monopoly patent that Fitch had asked for, but a patent of the modern kind, for the new design of Fitch’s steamboat. It also awarded patents to Rumsey and John Stevens for their steamboat designs, and the loss of a monopoly caused many of Fitch’s investors to leave his company. While his boats were mechanically successful, Fitch failed to pay sufficient attention to construction and operating costs and was unable to justify the economic benefits of steam navigation.
However, it would be Robert Fulton who would turn Fitch’s idea into a profitable endeavor decades later.
By 1793, Robert proposed plans for steam-powered vessels to both the United States and British governments.
While in England, he met the Duke of Bridgewater, whose canal was used for trials of a steam tug.
In 1797, Robert Fulton went to Paris where his fame as an inventor had become well known. While in Paris, Robert studied French, German, mathematics and chemistry.
Robert designed the Nautilus, the first working submarine in history while in France.
He proposed to the Directory that they subsidize its construction as a means to balance British seapower, but he was turned down.
His second proposal was that he be paid nothing until the Nautilus had sunk British shipping, and then only a small percentage of the prize money.
Again, Robert’s design was rejected.
Robert Fulton directed his next proposal to Napoleon Bonaparte’s Minister of Marine, who finally granted him permission in 1800 to build the Nautilus.
The shipyard Perrier in Rouen built the Nautilus.
It was first tested in July of 1800 on the Seine river.
When tested, Robert’s Nautilus went underwater for 17 minutes in 25 feet of water.
Then in 1801, Robert met with Robert R. Livingston who had been appointed U.S. Ambassador to France.
They soon decided to build a steamboat together.
Robert began experimenting with the water resistance of various hull shapes, made drawings and models, and had a steamboat constructed.
At the first trial their steamboat ran perfectly, but the hull was later rebuilt and strengthened, and on August 9, 1803, this boat steamed up the River Seine, but sank.
The boat was 66 feet long, had an 8 feet beam, and made between 3 and 4 miles per hour against the current.
In 1804, Robert Fulton switched allegiance and moved back to England, where he was commissioned by Prime Minister William Pitt to build a range of weapons for use by the Royal Navy during Napoleon’s invasion scare.
Today, Robert Fulton is also credited with inventing some of the world’s earliest naval torpedoes for use by the British Navy.
Although he continued to develop naval weapons with the British until 1806, the decisive naval victory at the Battle of Trafalgar greatly reduced the risk of invasion and Robert Fulton found himself being increasingly ignored.
In 1806, Robert Fulton returned to America and married Harriet Livingston, the niece of Robert Livingston and daughter of Walter Livingston. They would go on to have four children.
Earlier in 1803, Livingston had obtained from the New York legislature the exclusive right to steam navigation on the Hudson River.
Then in 1807, Livingston contracted with Robert to build a larger version of his steamboat he designed in France to take advantage of his Hudson River monopoly and start a commercial steamboat service.
Robert named this new steamer the “North River Steamboat” (later known as the Clermont).
The North River Steamboat was built at the Charles Browne shipyard in New York and was fitted with Robert’s innovative steam engine design, manufactured for Livingston and Fulton by Boulton and Watt in Birmingham, England.
The vessel’s original dimensions were 150 feet long x 12 feet wide x 7 feet deep; she drew a little more than 2 feet of water when launched.
The steamer was equipped with two paddle wheels, one on each side, each with eight spokes.
She also carried two masts with spars, rigging, and sails, likely a foremast with square sail and a mizzen mast with fore-and-aft sail (spanker), with the steam engine placed amidships, directly behind the paddle wheel’s drive gear machinery.
Skeptics at the time ridiculed this venture, often referring to the boat as “Fulton’s Folly.” Livingstone and Fulton soon silenced the critics with their very successful and innovative vessel.
Then on August 17, 1807, the North River Steamboat left New York City for Albany, New York.
The ship’s 150 mile inaugural run was helmed by Captain Andrew Brink, and left New York with a complement of invited guests aboard.
They arrived in Albany two days later, after 32 hours of travel time and a 20-hour stop at Livingston’s estate, Clermont Manor.
The return trip was completed in 30 hours with only a one-hour stop at Clermont; the average speed of the steamer was 5 mph.
Robert Fulton wrote to a friend, Joel Barlow:
I had a light breeze against me the whole way, both going and coming, and the voyage has been performed wholly by the power of the steam engine. I overtook many sloops and schooners, beating to the windward, and parted with them as if they had been at anchor. The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved. The morning I left New York, there were not perhaps thirty persons in the city who believed that the boat would ever move one mile an hour, or be of the least utility, and while we were putting off from the wharf, which was crowded with spectators, I heard a number of sarcastic remarks. This is the way in which ignorant men compliment what they call philosophers and projectors. Having employed much time, money and zeal in accomplishing this work, it gives me, as it will you, great pleasure to see it fully answer my expectations.
The 1870 book Great Fortunes quoted a former resident of Poughkeepsie who described the scene:
It was in the early autumn of the year 1807 that a knot of villagers was gathered on a high bluff just opposite Poughkeepsie, on the west bank of the Hudson, attracted by the appearance of a strange, dark-looking craft, which was slowly making its way up the river. Some imagined it to be a sea-monster, while others did not hesitate to express their belief that it was a sign of the approaching judgment. What seemed strange in the vessel was the substitution of lofty and straight black smoke-pipes, rising from the deck, instead of the gracefully tapered masts that commonly stood on the vessels navigating the stream, and, in place of the spars and rigging, the curious play of the working-beam and pistons, and the slow turning and splashing of the huge and naked paddle-wheels, met the astonished gaze. The dense clouds of smoke, as they rose wave upon wave, added still more to the wonderment of the rustics.
Scheduled passenger service began on September 4, 1807.
In its first year, the new steamer differentiated itself from all of its predecessors by turning a tidy profit. The quick commercial success of North River Steamboat led Livingston and Fulton to commission a second very similar steamboat in 1809, Car of Neptune, followed in 1811 by Paragon. An advertisement for the passenger service in 1812 lists the three boats’ schedules, using the name North River for the firm’s first vessel.
From 1811 until his death, Robert Fulton was a member of the Erie Canal Commission.
Fulton’s final design was the Demologos the world’s first steam driven warship built for the US Navy for the war of 1812. The vessel was not completed until after his death and renamed the Fulton in his honor.
Fulton died February 24, 1815 at the age of 49 from tuberculosis.
He had been walking home on the frozen Hudson River when one of his friends, Addis Emmet, fell through the ice. In the attempt to rescue his friend, Robert got soaked with icy water and on the journey home he caught pneumonia.
When he got home his sickness worsened. He contracted consumption and died.
He is buried in the Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City, alongside other famous Americans such as Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin.
When Robert Fulton died in 1815, he had built a total of seventeen steamboats, and a half-dozen more were constructed by other ship builders using his plans.
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