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Robert Fulton Edit Profile

Engineer , inventor

Robert Fulton was an American inventor, civil engineer, and artist, established the first regular and commercially successful steamboat operation.

Background

Robert Fulton was born November 14, 1765, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, United States. His father worked at farming, among other jobs, and died when Robert was a small boy. By the age of 10 Robert showed promise as an artist and was employed by local gunsmiths to make designs for their work.

Education

In 1786 Fulton went to London to study painting with Benjamin West, who had been a family friend and was by this time one of the leading American painters living in England. England was already in the midst of its industrial revolution, and Fulton was fascinated by the new engineering enterprises—canals, mines, bridges, roads, and factories. His interest became professional, and after about 1793 he gave up painting as a vocation, pursuing it only for his own amusement.

Career

As early as 1794 Fulton considered using steam power to drive a boat. Seven years earlier John Fitch had successfully demonstrated his steamboat on the Delaware River at Philadelphia, but in the interim no one had been able to make both a mechanical and commercial success of the idea. Though the British government had banned the export of steam engines, Fulton wrote to the firm of Boulton and Watt about the possibility of buying a ready-made engine to be applied to boat propulsion.

Most of Fulton's energy during these years was devoted to more conventional problems of civil and mechanical engineering. He patented in England a "double-incline plane" for hauling canal boats over difficult terrain and machines to saw marble, to spin flax, and to twist hemp for rope. He built a mechanical dredge to speed the construction of canals and in 1796 published his illustrated pamphlet, A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation.

For the next 10 years Fulton devoted himself to the development of underwater warfare through the invention and improvement of a submarine and explosive torpedoes. It is thought that he believed that if warfare were made sufficiently destructive and horrible it would be abandoned—a fallacy often invoked by inventors of military devices. He tried to interest the French government in his experiments, and he obtained the promise of prizes for any British ships he might destroy with his devices. In 1801 he proceeded with his submarine, the Nautilus, against various ships but was unsuccessful. By 1804 his failure to win French money for destroying British ships led him to offer to destroy French ships for the British government. Once again he failed in combat, although he was able to blow up one ship during an experiment.

In 1802 Fulton had met Robert R. Livingston, formerly a partner in another steamboat venture but recently appointed U.S. minister to the French government. Despite the failure of Fulton's earlier ventures, Livingston agreed to support Fulton's old idea of building a steamboat. In 1803 an engine was ordered (disassembled and with many duplicate parts) from Boulton and Watt, to be delivered in New York City. But it was 1806 before permission to export the engine was obtained, the parts were assembled, and Fulton was able to sail for America.

The engine was put together in New York and set aboard a locally built vessel. One of the problems was to determine the proper proportions for a steamboat. Fulton was convinced that science dictated a very long and narrow hull, though experience later proved him wrong. Although Livingston had been an advocate of a kind of jet propulsion for steamboats (that is, a jet of water forced out the back of the boat under high pressure), the two now settled on paddle wheels as the best method. On August 17, 1807, the Clermont (as it was later named) began its first successful voyage up the Hudson River to Albany, N.Y. Under way it averaged 5 miles per hour.

After the voyage of the Clermont, steamboats appeared up and down the Atlantic Coast, and Fulton himself introduced the first steamboat on the western waters. Before his death on February 24, 1815 he had erected a large boat works in New Jersey and directed the building of one ferryboat, a torpedo boat, and 17 regular steamboats.

Achievements

  • He is widely credited with developing a commercially successful steamboat called The North River Steamboat of Clermonts. In 1800, he was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte to attempt to design 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 Royal Navy.

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

    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" in Alexandria, Virginia.

Membership

Fulton was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1814.

  • American Antiquarian Society

    1814

Connections

In 1806 Fulton married Harriet Livingston.

father:
Robert Fulton

mother:
Mary (Smith) Fulton

spouse:
Harriet Livingston