Robert Fulton Biography (1765-1815)


Robert Fulton, best known for his work in steamboat technology, was born in Little Britain, Pennsylvania, in 1765. As a child, Fulton enjoyed building mechanical devices, taking on such projects as rockets and a hand-propelled paddle wheel boat. His interest turned to art as he matured, and by the age of seventeen, Fulton was supporting himself through his sales of portraits and technical drawings. In 1786, Fulton left the United States to study painting inEngland. Although he managed some success, the general response his work received was disappointing and convinced him to concentrate on his engineering skills.

The first project to capture his attention revealed his emerging interest inwater transportation. His assignment involved designing a canal system to replace the locks that were then in use. After several years of work, Fulton came up with a double inclined plane system for which he was granted a British patent in 1794. His creative ideas continued to flow as he developed a plan for cast iron aqueducts and invented a digging machine; in 1796, he published asummary of his ideas on improving canal navigation in his Treatise on theImprovement of Canal Navigation.

In 1797 further research on canals took Fulton to Paris, France. While he wasthere he became fascinated with the notion of a "plunging boat," or submarine, and began designing one based on the ideas of American inventor David Bushnell. Fulton approached the French government, then at war with England, withthe suggestion that his submarine could be used to place powder mines on thebottom of British warships. After some persuasion, the French agreed to fundthe development of the boats and, in 1800, Fulton launched the first submarine, the Nautilus, at Rouen.

The 24 1/2 foot (7.5 m) long, oval-shaped vessel sailed above the water likea normal ship, but the mast and sail could be laid flat against the deck whenthe craft was submerged to a depth of twenty-five feet by filling its hollowmetal keel with water. Fulton's plan was to hammer a spike from the metal conning tower into the bottom of a targeted ship. A time-released mine attachedto the spike was designed to explode once the submarine was out of range. Although the system worked in the trials, British warships were much faster than the sloop used in the experiments and thus managed to elude the slower submarine. The French stopped funding the project after the failed battle attempt, but the British, who considered the technology promising, brought Fulton over to their side. Unfortunately, once again the submarine worked well in tests, but proved unsatisfactory on practical situations. After its failure in the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), the British too abandoned the project.

After these experiences, the undaunted Fulton turned to a new area of exploration--steam. Correspondence indicates that he had been aware of work on the movement of ships by steam power since at least 1793. Through his contacts inParis, Fulton met Robert Livingston (1746-1813), the American foreign minister to France who also owned a twenty-year monopoly on steam navigation in NewYork State. Fulton shared some of his ideas about steam power with Livingstonand, in 1802, the two decided to form a business partnership. The followingyear, they launched a steamboat on the Seine river that was based on the design of fellow American John Fitch. The vessel traveled at a speed of three miles per hour and, although some adjustments were necessary to make the craft sufficiently seaworthy, it was clear that the basic technology worked well.

Fulton returned to New York later in 1803 to continue developing his designs,conscious of the fact that his partner's monopoly was contingent on their development of a boat that could travel at least four miles per hour. After four years of work, Fulton launched the Clermont, a steam-powered vesselwith a speed of nearly five miles per hour. The partnership between Fulton and Livingston thrived, and Fulton had at last achieved a recognized success. During the ensuing years, Fulton designed thirteen more steamboats, includingthe Demologus, a warship; and he established an engine works in New Jersey that produced steam engines.

Fulton died on February 24, 1814. His persistence and belief in his ideas helped steamboats become a major source of transportation on the rivers in the United States, and resulted in a significant reduction of domestic shipping costs.

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