Biography of Robert Fulton, Inventor of the Steamboat

Portrait of Robert Fulton
Portrait of Robert Fulton (1765-1815) American inventor. Robert Fulton / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Robert Fulton (November 14, 1765—February 24, 1815) was an American inventor and engineer who is best known for his role in developing the first commercially successful steamboat. America’s rivers opened to commercial trade and passenger transportation after Fulton's steamboat, the Clermont, made its maiden voyage along the Hudson River in 1807. Fulton is also credited with inventing the Nautilus, one of the world’s first practical submarines.

Fast Facts: Robert Fulton

  • Known for: Developed the first commercially successful steamboat
  • Born: November 14, 1765 in Little Britain, Pennsylvania
  • Parents: Robert Fulton, Sr. and Mary Smith Fulton
  • Died: February 24, 1815 in New York City, New York
  • Patents: US Patent: 1,434X, Constructing boats or vessels which are to be navigated by the power of steam engines
  • Awards and Honors: National Inventors Hall of Fame (2006)
  • Spouse: Harriet Livingston
  • Children: Robert Fulton, Julia Fulton, Mary Fulton, and Cornelia Fulton

Early Life

Robert Fulton was born on November 14, 1765, to Irish immigrant parents, Robert Fulton, Sr. and Mary Smith Fulton. The family lived on a farm in Little Britain, Pennsylvania, which was then still a British American colony. He had three sisters—Isabella, Elizabeth, and Mary—and a younger brother, Abraham. After their farm was foreclosed on and sold in 1771, the family moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Though he had been taught to read and write at home, Fulton attended a Quaker school in Lancaster at age eight. He then worked in a Philadelphia jewelry shop, where his skill at painting miniature portraits for lockets inspired the young Fulton to pursue a career as an artist.

Fulton remained single until age 43 when in 1808, he married Harriet Livingston, the niece of his steamboat business partner, Robert R. Livingston. The couple had a son and three daughters together.

From Artist to Inventor

In 1786, Fulton moved to Bath, Virginia, where his portraits and landscapes were so well-appreciated that his friends urged him to study art in Europe. Fulton returned to Philadelphia, where he hoped his paintings would attract a sponsor. Impressed by his art, and hoping to improve the city’s cultural image, a group of local merchants paid Fulton’s fare to London in 1787.

Though he was popular and well-received in England, Fulton’s paintings never earned him more than a meager living. At the same time, he had taken note of a series of recent inventions that propelled a boat with a paddle, which was moved back-and-forth by jets of water heated by a steam boiler. It occurred to Fulton that using steam to power several connected rotating paddles would move the boat more effectively—an idea he would later famously develop as the paddlewheel. By 1793, Fulton had approached both the British and United States governments with plans for steam-powered military and commercial vessels.

In 1794, Fulton abandoned his career as an artist to turn to the very different, but potentially more profitable area of designing inland waterways. In his 1796 pamphlet, Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation, he proposed combining existing rivers with a network of manmade canals to connect towns and cities throughout England. He also envisioned methods for raising and lowering boats without the need for costly mechanical lock-and-dam complexes, specially-designed steamboats for carrying heavy cargo in shallow water, and designs for more stable bridges. While the British showed no interest in his canal network plan, Fulton succeeded in inventing a canal dredging machine and obtaining British patents for several other related inventions.

The Nautilus Submarine

Not daunted by England’s lack of enthusiasm for his canal ideas, Fulton remained dedicated to building a career as an inventor. In 1797, he went to Paris, where he approached the French government with an idea for a submarine he believed would help France in its ongoing war with England. Fulton suggested a scenario in which his submarine, the Nautilus, would maneuver undetected beneath British warships, where it could attach explosive charges to their hulls.

“Should some vessels of war be destroyed by means so novel, so hidden and so incalculable the confidence of the seamen will vanish and the fleet rendered useless from the moment of the first terror.” —Robert Fulton, 1797

Considering the use of Fulton’s Nautilus submarine to be a cowardly and dishonorable way to fight, both the French government and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte refused to subsidize its construction. After another failed attempt to sell the idea, Fulton was granted permission by the French Minister of Marine to build the Nautilus.

Drawing of inventor Robert Fulton’s submarine Nautilus
Robert Fulton’s submarine Nautilus. Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The first tests of the Nautilus were conducted on July 29, 1800, in the River Seine at Rouen. Based on the success of the trial dives, Fulton was granted permission to build a revised model of the Nautilus. Tested on July 3, 1801, Fulton’s improved Nautilus reached a then-remarkable depth of 25 feet (7.6 m) carrying a crew of three and remaining submerged for over four hours.

Fulton’s Nautilus was eventually used in two attacks against British ships blockading a small harbor near Cherbourg. However, due to winds and tides, the British ships eluded the slower submarine.

Designing the Steamboat

In 1801, Fulton met then-U.S. ambassador to France Robert R. Livingston, a member of the committee that had drafted the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Before Livingston had come to France, his home state of New York had granted him the exclusive right to operate and profit from steamboat navigation on rivers within the state for a period of 20 years. Fulton and Livingston agreed to partner up in order to build a steamboat.

On August 9, 1803, the 66-foot-long boat that Fulton designed was tested on the River Seine in Paris. Although the French-designed eight-horsepower steam engine broke the hull, Fulton and Livingston were encouraged that the boat had reached a speed of 4 miles per hour against the current. Fulton started designing a stronger hull and ordered parts for a 24-horsepower engine. Livingston also negotiated an extension of his New York steamboat navigation monopoly.

In 1804, Fulton returned to London, where he tried to interest the British government on his design for a semi-submersible, steam-powered warship. However, after British Admiral Nelson’s decisive defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805, the British government decided it could maintain its then undisputed mastery of the seas without Fulton’s unconventional and unproven steamships. At this point, Fulton was close to poverty, having spent so much of his own money on the Nautilus and his early steamboats. He decided to return to the United States.

The Steamboat Clermont

In December 1806, Fulton and Robert Livingston reunited in New York to resume work on their steamboat. By early August 1807, the boat was ready for its maiden voyage. The 142-foot-long, 18-foot-wide steamboat used Fulton’s innovative a one-cylinder, 19-horsepower condensing steam engine to drive two 15-foot-diameter paddlewheels, one on each side of the boat.

On August 17, 1807, Fulton and Livingston’s North River Steamboat—later known as the Clermont—began its trial voyage up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany. A crowd gathered to watch the event, but the onlookers expected the steamboat to fail. They jeered at the ship, which they called "Fulton's Folly." The ship stalled at first, leaving Fulton and his crew scrambling for a solution. A half-hour later, the steamboat's paddlewheels were turning again, moving the ship steadily forward against the Hudson’s current. Averaging nearly 5 miles per hour, the steamboat completed the 150-mile trip in just 32 hours, compared to the four days required by conventional sailing ships. The downstream return trip was completed in just 30 hours.

Clermont steamship
Clermont, the first steam ship, designed by Robert Fulton, 1807. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

In a letter to a friend, Fulton wrote of the historic event, “I had a light breeze against me the whole way, both going and coming, and the voyage has been performed wholly by the power of the steam engine. I overtook many sloops and schooners, beating to the windward, and parted with them as if they had been at anchor. The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved.”

With the addition of additional sleeping berths and other improvements, Fulton’s North River Steamboat began scheduled service on September 4, 1807, carrying passengers and light freight between New York and Albany on the Hudson River. During its initial season of service, the North River Steamboat suffered repeated mechanical problems, caused mainly by the captains of rival sail-powered boats who "accidentally” rammed its exposed paddlewheels.

During the winter of 1808, Fulton and Livingston added metal guards around the paddlewheels, improved the passenger accommodations, and re-registered the steamboat under the name North River Steamboat of Clermont—soon shortened to simply Clermont. By 1810, the Clermont and two new Fulton-designed steamboats were providing regular passenger and freight service on New York’s Hudson and Raritan rivers.

The New Orleans Steamboat

From 1811 to 1812, Fulton, Livingston, and fellow inventor and entrepreneur Nicholas Roosevelt entered into a new joint venture. They planned to build steamboat capable of traveling from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, a journey of over 1,800 miles through the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. They named the steamboat New Orleans.

Just eight years after the United States acquired the Louisiana Territory from France in the Louisiana Purchase, the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers were still largely unmapped and unprotected. The route from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Cairo, Illinois, on the Ohio River required the steamboat to navigate the treacherous “Falls of the Ohio” near Louisville, Kentucky—a 26-foot elevation drop in about one mile. 

Map showing the route of the maiden voyage Robert Fulton’s steamboat New Orleans.
Route of the maiden voyage of the steamboat New Orleans. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The New Orleans steamboat left Pittsburgh on October 20, 1811, and arrived in New Orleans on January 18, 1812. While the trip down the Ohio River was uneventful, navigating the Mississippi River proved a challenge. On December 16, 1811, the great New Madrid earthquake, centered near New Madrid, Missouri, altered the position of previously-mapped river landmarks, such as islands and channels, making navigation difficult. In many places, trees downed by the earthquake formed dangerous, constantly moving “snags” in the river channel that blocked the ship's path.  

The successful—albeit harrowing—first voyage of Fulton’s New Orleans proved that steamboats could survive the numerous perils to navigation on America’s western rivers. Within a decade, Fulton-inspired steamboats would be serving as the main means of passenger and freight transportation throughout America’s heartland.

First Steam-Powered Warship

When the English navy began to blockade U.S. ports during the War of 1812, Fulton was hired by the U.S. government to design what would become the world’s first steam-powered warship: the Demologos.

Essentially a floating, mobile gun battery, Fulton’s 150-foot-long Demologos featured two parallel hulls with its paddle wheel protected between them. With its steam engine in one hull and its boiler in the other, the heavily armed, armor-clad vessel weighed in at a hefty 2,745 displacement tons, thus limiting it to a tactically dangerous slow speed of about 7 miles-per-hour. Though it underwent successful sea trials during October 1814, the Demologos was never used in battle.

Drawing of inventor Robert Fulton’s steam-powered warship Demologos
Robert Fulton’s steam-powered warship Demologos. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

When peace came in 1815, the U.S. Navy decommissioned the Demologos. The ship made its last voyage under its own power in 1817, when it carried President James Monroe from New York to Staten Island. After its steam engines were removed in 1821, it was towed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where it served as a receiving ship until it was accidentally destroyed by an explosion in 1829.

Later Life and Death

From 1812 until his death in 1815, Fulton spent most of his time and money engaged in legal battles protecting his steamboat patents. A series of failed submarine designs, bad investments in art, and never-repaid loans to relatives and friends further depleted his savings.

In early 1815, Fulton was soaked with icy water while rescuing a friend who had fallen through the ice while walking on the frozen Hudson River. Suffering a severe chill, Fulton contracted pneumonia and died on February 24, 1815, at age 49 in New York City. He is buried in the Trinity Episcopal Church Cemetery on Wall Street in New York City.

Upon learning of Fulton’s death, both houses of the New York State legislature voted to wear black mourning clothes for the next six weeks—the first time such a tribute had ever been paid to a private citizen.

Legacy and Honors

By enabling affordable and dependable transportation of raw materials and finished goods, Fulton’s steamboats proved essential to the American industrial revolution. Along with ushering in the romantic era of luxurious riverboat travel, Fulton’s boats contributed significantly to America’s westward expansion. In addition, his developments in the area of steam-powered warships would help the United States Navy become a dominant military power. To date, five U.S. Navy ships have born the name USS Fulton.

A 1965 issued 5 cent United States postage stamp showing American engineer Robert Fulton
Robert Fulton 5 cent United States commemorative postage stamp. Getty Images

Today, Fulton’s statue is among those displayed in the National Statuary Hall Collection inside the U.S. Capitol. At the United States Merchant Marine Academy, Fulton Hall houses the Department of Marine Engineering. Along with telegraph inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, Fulton is depicted on the reverse of the 1896 United States $2 Silver Certificate. In 2006, Fulton was inducted into the “National Inventors Hall of Fame” in Alexandria, Virginia.

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