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Robert, inventor, born in Little Britain township (now Fulton),
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1765; died in New York, 24 February 1815. His
father came from Kilkenny, Ireland, early in the 18th century, and settled at
Little Britain. At the age of thirteen Robert constructed paddlewheels, which he
applied with success to a fishing boat. The years 1782'5 were spent in painting
miniature portraits and landscapes, mechanical and architectural drawing, and
whatever came in his way in the line of artistic work, at Philadelphia, where he
numbered Benjamin Franklin among his friends. In 1786 Fulton went to London, and
was received into the family of Benjamin West, under whose instruction he
studied for several years. Afterward he practiced his art in Devonshire, under
the patronage of wealthy persons, among who were the Duke of Bridgewater and
his acquaintanceship with these persons begins his experiments in mechanics.
Francis Egerton Bridgewater (last duke of that name) had become famous by the
construction of a navigable canal from Worsley to Manchester, and Charles, Earl
Stanhope (third of that title), was the inventor of the Stanhope printing press,
and a student of mechanics and engineering. In 1798 Fulton actively engaged in a
project for the improvement of canal navigation, and in the following year
obtained from the British government a patent for a double inclined plane for
raising or lowering boats from one level to another on a system of small canals.
An account of this patent is in the "Repertory of Arts," vol. xvii.
1794 he patented a mill for sawing marble. Some time in 1796 he made plans for
the construction of cast-iron aqueducts, and a great work of this kind was built
for crossing the River Dee. A bridge built upon his plans was erected at
Wandsworth, and others at several points on the Surrey railway. He also patented
in England a machine for spinning flax, a dredging machine, a market or passage
boat, a dispatch boat, and a trader or amphibious boat to be used on canals. In
1796 he published his " Treatise on the Improvement of Canal
Navigation," having previously published some articles on the subject
in the London" Morning Star," advocating small canals. Copies
were sent by the author to the president of the United States and other
officials, each accompanied by a letter emphasizing the advantages to be derived
by the United States from canal navigation. In 1798 he addressed letters, or
rather essays, to Lord Stanhope, which were apparently intended for publication
one aiming to arouse English interest in internal improvements, and the other to
promote the interests of education in France. Among his manuscripts was found a
work, probably written about the same time with the above, advocating free
1794 he became a member of the family of Joel Barlow, author of the " Columbiad,"
in Paris. Here he painted a panorama, the first ever shown in the French
capital. In December 1797, Fulton made an experiment on the Seine with a boat
for submarine navigation, to be used in torpedo warfare. In 1801 he conducted
some experiments at Brest with his submarine or plunging boat, under the
auspices of the French government, which, however, on Fulton's failure to blow
up the British ships that sailed along the coast, became disaffected with the
undertaking. The government of England, at the instigation of Lord Stanhope,
determined to secure Fulton's services for that country, and accordingly he went
to London in May 1804, after a short sojourn in Holland. The submarine boat was
finally reported by the British commission to be impracticable; but the torpedo
they thought of some value, and Fulton was taken out with an expedition to try
it against the French fleet at Boulogne, where the torpedoes burst harmlessly
beside the French ships.
experiment in October 1805, with an improved apparatus, on a brig of 200 tons,
provided for the purpose by the government, resulted in the destruction of the
ship. In 1806 Fulton had returned to the United States and renewed his
experiments with torpedoes. His system was never adopted, though in 1810
congress appropriated $5,000 for testing the torpedoes and submarine explosions.
About this period Fulton invented a machine to cut the cables of ships at
1813 he; took out a patent for "Several Improvements in Maritime
Warfare, and Means for injuring and destroying Ships and Vessels of War by
igniting Gunpowder under Water." A letter from him to Jefferson,
describing his submarine gunnery, was printed from his manuscript in "Scribner's
Monthly," vol. xxii, with the reproduction of his rough sketches.
Fulton began to turn his attention to the subject of steam navigation as early
as 1793, as is shown in a letter to Lord Stanhope, dated 30 September of that
year. In 1803, having the financial assistance of Chancellor Livingston, Fulton
launched a steamboat on the Seine, which, owing to faulty construction of the
frame, immediately sank. Another boat was soon built, with the old machinery,
and a trial trip was made, but no great speed was attained.
with this partial success, Fulton shortly afterward ordered an engine of Watt
& Boulton, to be sent to the United States. Early in the spring of 1807 the
boat that was to navigate the Hudson and establish the system of steam
navigation was completed at a shipyard on the East river. (See accompanying
illustration.) The engine was put in later, and on 11 August 1807, the "Clermont"
steamed up the Hudson to Albany, the voyage occupying thirty-two hours. During
the autumn of 1807 the " Clermont" was run as a packet between
New York and Albany. The success of Fulton's enterprise excited much jealousy
and rivalry, and a number of persons disputed his claim to originality.
Litigation and competition threatened to rob him of all profit from his
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first patent for improvements in navigation by steam was taken out on 11
February 1809, and another, with fuller provisions, on 9 February 1811. The
first attempt to connect a steam engine with the screw propeller was made by
Joseph Bramah, of Piccadilly, who on 9 May 1795, patented the application of a
paddlewheel to the stem of a vessel, driven by a steam engine. A brief list of
those who used steam on boats of any description includes Rumsey, on the
Potomac, in 1785; John Fitch, first in September 1785, again in August 1787;
Patrick Millar, in 1787; Nathan Read, at Danvers, in 1789.
Fitch, in 1788, built another boat, propelled by steam from Philadelphia to
Burlington, twenty miles, being the longest trip ever made by a boat under steam
at that time. In October 1788, Millar, Taylor, and Symington put a steamboat on
Lake Dalwinston, Scotland. In 1789 a steamboat built under Fitch's directions
attained a speed of eight miles an hour on the River at Philadelphia. In 1790,
William Longstreet had a small boat on Savannah River; the same year Lord
Stanhope patented an ambi-navigator with a propeller in the form of a duck's
foot. John C. Stevens, of Hoboken, New Jersey, constructed boats sailing with a
speed of five or six miles an hour. In 1794, Samuel Morey took a boat by steam
from Hartford to New York City. Robert L. Stevens sailed a paddlewheel steamer
on the Hudson only a few days later than Fulton's "Clermont."
This boat was afterward taken by sea to Philadelphia, thus making the first
steamship voyage on the ocean.
and Stevens are Fulton's most formidable competitors for the honor of
demonstrating the feasibility of steam navigation, although many other claimants
have had partisans. So late as 1871, John H. B. Latrobe, in an address before
the Maryland historical society, entitled " A Lost Chapter in the
History of the Steamboat," urged the claims of Nicholas J. Roosevelt as
the inventor of vertical wheels over the sides of the boat, which produced, in
Fulton's hands, when propelled by steam, the first practical result. Fitch's
boat was propelled by vertical paddles, and Rumsey's by the expulsion, at the
stern, of water that had been drawn in at the bow; Fulton, in his Paris
experiments, as set forth by Colden, his biographer, preferred endless chains
with resisting boards or floats.
may have been Fulton's honors as to the invention, he undoubtedly deserves the
credit of first bringing into practical use the steamboat as a conveyance for
passengers and freight, all earlier undertakings having been inefficient
practically. The success of the "Clermont " was followed by the
rapid multiplication of steamboats. A list of those built under Fulton's
superintendence comprises the "Car of Neptune," the "
Paragon," the " Firefly," the "
Richmond," the " Washington," the "
Vesuvius," the "Olive Branch," the "Emperor of
Russia," and the "Chancellor Livingston," as well as
described his first ferryboat in an article published in the "
American Medical and Philosophical Register" for October 1812. In 1814,
Fulton submitted to the coast and harbor defense committee plans for a steam
warship to carry 44 guns, and in October of that year a boat of this
description, called the " Demologos" (subsequently named "Fulton
the First ", was successfully launched. The War
of 1812 terminated before the effectiveness of the "Fulton "
as a war vessel could be tested, and she afterward became a receiving ship.
last subject to which Fulton's energies were devoted was a modification of his
submarine boat the "Nautilus," but only the hull of the
projected craft was completed before his death. Exposure in crossing the Hudson,
after testifying in New Jersey in a steamboat case, laid the foundation of
Fulton's last illness. He left a widow (daughter of Walter Livingston) and one
son and three daughters.
The literature of the steamboat controversy is extensive. Preble’s “History
of Steam Navigation” affords the fullest list on the subject. Fulton's
published works are " A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal
Navigation" (London, 1796; French translation, Paris, 1799); the New
York historical society has a unique copy containing the original drawings from
which the engravings were made; " Letters on Submarine Navigation" (London,
1806; French translation, Paris, 1811); " Torpedo War" (New
York, 1810); "Letter to the Secretary of the Navy on the Practical use
of the Torpedo " (Washington, 1811); " Report on the
Practicability of Navigating with Steamboats on the Southern Waters of the
United States" (New York, 1813); "Memorial of Robert Fulton and
Edward P. Livingston in regard to Steamboats" (Albany, 1814); "Advantages
of the Proposed Canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson River " (New York,
1814). Copies of Fulton's original drawings, including the illustrations to the “Columbiad,"
which he designed or superintended, are contained in Reigart's "Life of
Fulton " (Philadelphia, 1856). Fulton's paintings seem to have gone out
of existence. Smith, in his catalogue of portraits, catalogues a fancy picture
of Lady Jane Grey, painted by Fulton about 1793. Fulton's life has been written
by Cadwallader D. Colden (New York, 1817), and by James Renwick in Sparks's "American
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