Robert Fulton

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Fulton sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum

Robert Fulton (November 14, 1765 – February 24, 1815) was an American engineer and inventor who is widely credited with developing the first commercially successful steamboat. In 1800, he was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte to design the Nautilus, which was the first practical submarine in history.[1] He is also credited with inventing some of the world's earliest naval torpedoes for use by the British Navy.[2]

Fulton became interested in steamboats in 1777 when he visited William Henry of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who had earlier learned about James Watt's steam engine on a visit to England.

Early life[edit]

Robert Fulton was born on a farm in Little Britain, Pennsylvania, on November 14, 1765. He had at least three sisters – Isabella, Elizabeth, and Mary, and a younger brother, Abraham. His father, Robert, had been a close friend to the father of painter Benjamin West. Fulton later met West in England and they became friends.[3]

A drawing of Fulton's invention Nautilus

Fulton stayed in Philadelphia for six years, where he painted portraits and landscapes, drew houses and machinery, and was able to send money home to help support his mother. In 1785 he bought a farm at Hopewell, Pennsylvania for £80 Sterling and moved his mother and family into it. While in Philadelphia, he met Benjamin Franklin and other prominent figures. At age 23 he decided to visit Europe.

Education and work[edit]

Fulton took several letters of introduction to Americans abroad from the individuals he had met in Philadelphia. He had already corresponded with Benjamin West, and West took Fulton into his home, where Fulton lived for several years. Fulton gained many commissions painting portraits and landscapes, which allowed him to support himself, but he continually experimented with mechanical inventions.[3]

He published a pamphlet about canals and patented a dredging machine and several other inventions. In 1797 he went to Paris where his fame as an inventor was well known. In Paris, Fulton studied French, German, mathematics and chemistry. He began to design torpedoes and submarines. In Paris, Fulton met James Rumsey, who sat for a portrait in West's studio, where Fulton was an apprentice. Rumsey was an inventor from Virginia who ran his own first steamboat in Shepherdstown (now in West Virginia) in 1786. As early as 1793, Fulton proposed plans for steam-powered vessels to both the United States and British governments, and in England he met the Duke of Bridgewater, whose canal was 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 was aware of these developments. The first successful trial run of a steamboat had been made by inventor John Fitch on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787, 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 (18 m) 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. With this boat he carried up to thirty passengers on numerous round-trip voyages between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey.

Fitch was granted a patent on August 26, 1791, after a battle with 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. It was Fulton who would turn Fitch's idea profitable decades later.

Location and plaque of the Fulton experiment of 9 August 1803.

In 1797, Fulton went to France, where Claude de Jouffroy had made a working paddle steamer in 1783, and commenced experimenting with submarine torpedoes and torpedo boats. Fulton is the exhibitor of the first panorama to be shown in Paris, which was complete by 1800 Vue de Paris depuis les Tuilerie painted by Pierre Prévost, Jean Mouchet and Denis Fontaine. The street where his panorama was shown is still called "'Rue des Panoramas'" (Panorama Street) today.[4]

Fulton designed the first working submarine, the Nautilus between 1793 and 1797, while living in France. When tested his submarine went underwater for 17 minutes in 25 feet of water. He asked the government to subsidize its construction but he was turned down twice. Eventually he approached the Minister of Marine himself and in 1800 was granted permission to build.[5] The shipyard Perrier in Rouen built it and it sailed first in July 1800 on the Seine river in the same city.

Commemorative plaque to Robert Fulton in the port of Rouen, made in 1918 to thank the USA for their involvement in the WWI
East River Ferry, Brooklyn

In France Fulton also met Robert R. Livingston, who was appointed U.S. Ambassador to France in 1801, and they decided to build a steamboat together and try running it on the Seine. Fulton experimented with the water resistance of various hull shapes, made drawings and models, and had a steamboat constructed. At the first trial the boat 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 (20.1 m) long, 8 feet (2.4 m) beam, and made between 3 and 4 miles per hour (4.8 and 6.4 km/h) against the current.

In 1804, Fulton switched allegiance and moved 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. Among his inventions were the world's first modern naval torpedoes, which were tested, along with several other of his inventions, during the 1804 Raid on Boulogne, but met with limited success. Although he continued to develop his inventions with the British until 1806, the decisive naval victory at the Battle of Trafalgar greatly reduced the risk of invasion, and Fulton found himself being increasingly ignored.[2]

In 1806, Fulton returned to America and married Harriet Livingston, the niece of Robert Livingston and daughter of Walter Livingston. They had four children: Robert, Julia, Mary and Cornelia. In 1807, Fulton and Livingston together built the first commercial steamboat, the North River Steamboat (later known as the Clermont), which carried passengers between New York City and Albany, New York. The Clermont was able to make the 150-mile trip in 32 hours. From 1811 until his death, 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 was renamed the Fulton in his honor.

Fulton died in 1815 in New York City 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, Fulton 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 at 49 years old. He is buried in the Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City, alongside other famous Americans such as Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin. His descendants include former Major League Baseball pitcher Cory Lidle.[6] Often credited with inventing the steamboat, Robert Fulton was actually the man who put the design into practice. As a young man, Fulton dreamed of becoming a painter and went to Paris to study. His commissions were few, and he turned to engineering and inventions. In Paris, Fulton designed an experimental submarine, which caught the eye of Robert Livingston, then the wealthy American ambassador to France. Livingston convinced Fulton to return to the United States and concentrate on steamboat design.

Fulton's first boat, the Clermont, was tested on the Hudson River. The former painter had shipped a small steam engine from England and constructed a hull similar to that of fast ocean- going ships. In the hull, he placed the engine, and on each side, a primitive paddle wheel. At the test in 1807, the Clermont initially failed; however, after a few adjustments to the engine, the boat carried on its way to Albany, arriving thirty-two hours later. It had moved against the Hudson current at an average of five miles an hour.

Posthumous honors[edit]

In 1816, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania donated a marble statue of Fulton to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol Building. Fulton was also honored for his development of steamship technology in New York City's Hudson-Fulton Celebration of 1909. A replica of his first steam-powered steam vessel, the Clermont, was built for the occasion.

Many places in the U.S. are named for Robert Fulton, including:

Five ships of the United States Navy have borne the name USS Fulton in honor of Robert Fulton.

Robert Fulton (with Samuel Morse) depicted on the reverse of the 1896 $2 Silver Certificate

Bronze statues of Fulton and Christopher Columbus represent commerce on the balustrade of the galleries of the Main Reading Room in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. They are two of 16 historical figures, each pair representing one of the 8 pillars of civilization.

In 2006, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[8]

In popular culture[edit]

A probably largely fictionalised account of Fulton's role was produced by BBC children's television. In the first season, Triton (1968), two British naval officers, Captain Belwether and Lieutenant Lamb, are involved in spying on Fulton while he is working for the French. In the second season, Pegasus (1969), they are surprised to find themselves working with him after he changed sides.

In the children's TV series "TUGS" a steam powered ferry is named the Fulton Ferry, named after the Fulton Ferry company, founded by Robert Fulton in 1814.

James McGee used Fulton's experiments in submarine warfare as a major plot element in his novel Ratcatcher. Invasion, the tenth novel in the Kydd naval warfare series by Julian Stockwin, also uses Fulton's submarine as an important plot element.

Additionally, he is referenced in The Beach Boys song "Steamboat" (Dennis Wilson/Jack Rieley) from the 1973 album Holland.



See also[edit]


  1. ^ American Treasures of the Library of Congress: "Fulton's Submarine"
  2. ^ a b Best, Nicholas (2005). Trafalgar: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sea Battle in History. London: Phoenix. ISBN 0-7538-2095-1.
  3. ^ a b Buckman, David Lear (1907). Old Steamboat Days on The Hudson River. The Grafton Press. [dead link]
  4. ^ Alice Crary Sutcliffe, Robert Fulton and the "Clermont", page 63 [1].
  5. ^ Burgess, Robert Forrest (1975). Ships Beneath the Sea. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-008958-7. 
  6. ^ Lidle dies after plane crashes into NYC high-rise - MLB - ESPN
  7. ^ Fulton Elementary School website
  8. ^ National Inventors Hall of Fame


External links[edit]