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. He is also credited with inventing some of the world's earliest naval torpedoes for use by the British Navy.
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.
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 onto it. While in Philadelphia, he met Benjamin Franklin and other prominent Revolutionary War figures. At age 23 he decided to visit Europe.
Education and work
He 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.
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.
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 inventor 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.
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. The shipyard Perrier in Rouen built it and it sailed first in July 1800 on the Seine river in the same city.
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.
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 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.
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:
- Fulton Dixon Cider New York City
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 popular culture
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.
- Torpedo war, and submarine explosions published 1810.
- A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation, 1796. From the University of Georgia Libraries in DjVu & layered PDF formats.
- A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation 1796. From Rare Book Room.
- American Treasures of the Library of Congress: "Fulton's Submarine"
- Best, Nicholas (2005). Trafalgar: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sea Battle in History. London: Phoenix. ISBN 0-7538-2095-1.
- Buckman, David Lear (1907). Old Steamboat Days on The Hudson River. The Grafton Press.[dead link]
- Alice Crary Sutcliffe, Robert Fulton and the "Clermont", page 63 .
- Burgess, Robert Forrest (1975). Ships Beneath the Sea. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-008958-7.
- Lidle dies after plane crashes into NYC high-rise - MLB - ESPN
- Fulton Elementary School website
- National Inventors Hall of Fame
- This article contains content first published in 1909 as Old Steamboat Days on The Hudson River.[dead link]
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Robert Fulton.|
- Robert Fulton Birthplace
- Photos of Fulton's Birthplace
- An article on Fulton and the War of 1812[dead link]
- William Symington[dead link]
- CHAPTER XIII: ROBERT FULTON in Great Fortunes, and How They Were Made (1871), by James D. McCabe, Jr., Illustrated by G. F. and E. B. Bensell, a Project Gutenberg eBook.
- 1911 Britannica biography
- Buckman, David Lear (1907). Old Steamboat Days on The Hudson River. The Grafton Press.[dead link]
- Examples of art by Robert Fulton[dead link] at the Art Renewal Center
- Robert H Thurston, A history of the growth of the steam-engine. Chapter V The Modern Steam Engine
- Iles, George (1912), Leading American Inventors, New York: Henry Holt and Company, pp. 40–75
- Booknotes interview with Kirkpatrick Sale on The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream, November 25, 2001.