Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: McConnellsburg, Lancaster County
Inventor of the Steamboat, the Clermont, Robert Fulton was born in the township now named for him.
Robert Fulton was born in 1765 in a Pennsylvania farming community called New Britain, later named Fulton in his honor. He was an inventor and an engineer, most famous for engineering the first practical steamboat, which spurred American commerce first in New York and then on all major American waterways and along the Atlantic coast. His literary contributions came in the form of practical treatises on canal navigation, submarines, and steamboats, which were too far ahead of their time to be appreciated. He died of complications after saving his friend from drowning in the icy Hudson River in 1815.
Robert Fulton was born to a farming family near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on November 14, 1765. He learned to read and write at home and then was sent to a Quaker school for his early education. According to John Steele Gordon in the Reader’s Companion to American History, Fulton showed early aptitudes for invention, building a rocket when he was a teenager for Independence Day and building a human-powered paddle-wheel boat for his friends to fish in. In his adolescence, he learned the art of a gunsmith and then was an apprentice to a jeweler in Philadelphia, where he specialized in creating miniature portraits on ivory for lockets and rings. His painting skills were noted, and he was taken on as a student by the great painter Benjamin West in London. However, when he failed to succeed as an artist, he turned to engineering.
His main interests lay in boats and water travel. Virginskii reported in Robert Fulton that in 1796, Fulton published his first literary work: “Report on the Proposed Canal between the Rivers Harl and Helford, London.” Later that year, he published his second and most famous work, Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation, in which he laid out his plans for a complete American water transportation system. The American government did not implement his plans; France also did not implement his plans when Fulton detailed a canal system for them. In 1797, he wrote another well-known treatise, Thoughts on Free Trade, in which he declared that duties on importation are “injurious to Nations,” according to Hutcheon in Robert Fulton. Fulton wrote other works on canals and submarines in various languages. In 1800, he built a submarine called the Nautilus to sell the idea to the French navy for warfare against the British. According to Gordon, the Nautilus worked better than any previous submarine, yet bad weather ruined his demonstration, and the idea was rejected. Later, the British and American navies also rejected his submarine invention.
Fulton was then introduced to Robert R. Livingston, a politician who also was establishing himself as a pioneer in shipbuilding. Livingston had a 20-year monopoly of steamboat navigation in New York, provided that he could build a steamboat that could reach speeds of four miles per hour. Steamboats had already been invented, but were not successful enough for commercial travel. Fulton teamed up with Livingston to build the qualifying boat. In Paris, the two American inventors began testing steamboats that Fulton designed. According to Phillips in American History, the design called for a 66-foot long boat that would use side paddle-wheels and an 8-hp French steam engine. After solving problems with a weak hull, Fulton was able to build a successful but slow boat in France. He continued his work in America, ordering a 24-hp engine from James Watt’s company in England, according to Phillips.
Construction on his boat (named simply “a steamboat”) began in December 1806 at the Charles Browne shipyard in New York. Phillips describes the boat as being between 130 and 140 feet long, 14 to 16 feet wide, and drawing between 28 inches and 4 feet of water. It had a large funnel for the engine and two masts for sail power in case the engine failed. The paddle-wheels on each side were 15 feet in diameter with 4 foot long blades and were driven by the 24-hp British engine. On August 17, 1807, the steamboat had its test run. About 40 of Livingston and Fulton’s acquaintances were on-board for the ride. Although others’ attitudes were pessimistic, everyone was soon very impressed when the boat traveled at an average speed of 5 miles an hour for both directions of its 150 mile trip. This surpassed the needed speed of 4 miles an hour to keep the steam boat monopoly.
Fulton’s steamboat was a major contribution to the boating industry. According to Phillips, not only was the steamboat’s speed about 4 times faster than the sailing sloops that previously navigated the New York waterways, but more importantly, the steamboat also allowed on-schedule water travel for the first time because the boat speeds were no longer dependent on wind conditions. In 1808, Fulton built an improved steamboat, which he named The New North River Steamboat of Clermont (nicknamed The Clermont), which was 149 feet long with boxed paddle wheels and seats for passengers. Also in 1808, Fulton married Robert Livingston’s niece, Harriet Livingston. Using The Clermont, Fulton and Livingston operated successful commercial travel with three round trips between New York City and Albany fortnightly, eventually building other steamboats and ferries to expand their venture.
Fulton and Livingston obtained another monopoly. This monopoly was over the Mississippi River in the New Orleans Territory, a territory that Livingston (in his role as President Jefferson’s minister to France) acquired for the United States as part of his negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase. In Phillips’s account, within 20 years of the maiden voyage of The Clermont, more than 200 steamboats were operating on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, under the ownership of various entrepreneurs.
Near the end of his life, Fulton finally received military recognition. His last major project was a floating fortress in the New York City harbor, which was launched to aid in the War of 1812. However, it never saw action. In 1815, after visiting the construction of new ships, Fulton and his business partners walked back home across the frozen Hudson River. Sale tells of Fulton’s death in Robert Fulton: The Fire of his Genius. Fulton’s friend Thomas Addis Emmet fell through the ice, and Fulton pulled him out and saved him. In the process, however, Fulton was soaked with icy water, and on the remainder of the journey home he became very sick. He came down with pneumonia. He was not content with recuperating in bed, so his illness worsened, and he caught consumption. He passed away from consumption in New York City on February 24, 1815, leaving behind his widow, his four children, and the legacy of his steamboats.
Report on the Proposed Canal between the Rivers Harl and Helford, London, 1796.
A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation, London, 1796.
Recherches sur les moyens de perfectionner les canaux de navigation. [Research on the Means of Perfecting Navigation Canals] Paris, 1799.
Tratado Melhoramento da Navegacao por Canaes. [A Tract on the Improvement in the Navigation of Canals] Lisbon, 1800.
Letters on Submarine Navigation, 1806.
Torpedo War and Submarine Explosions, New York, 1810.
De la Machine Infernale Maritime, ou de la Tactique Offensive et Défensive de la Torpille. [On the Infernal Maritime Machine, or On the Offensive and Defensive Tactics of the Torpedo] Paris, 1812.
Concluding Address of Mr. Fulton’s Lecture on the Mechanism, Practice, and Effects of Torpedoes. Delivered at Washington, February 17, 1810.
Report on the Practicality of Navigating with Steamboats in the Southern Waters from the Chesapeake to the St. Mary, New York, 1814.
Advances of the Proposed Canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson River, 1814.
Memorials of Robert Fulton and Edward Livingston in Regard to Steamboats, 1814.
Gordon, John Steele. “Fulton, Robert.” Reader’s Companion to American History. Eds. Eric Foner and John Arthur Garraty. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1991. 434.
Hutcheon, Wallace. Robert Fulton. Annapolis: The United States Naval Institute, 1981.
Phillips, Charles. “August 17, 1807.” American History 29 (2004): 20-25.
Sale, Fitzpatrick. Robert Fulton: The Fire of His Genius. New York: The Free Press, 2001.
Virginskii, V. S. Robert Fulton. New Delhi: Amerind Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd., 1965.