November 14, 2012
On Nov. 14, 1765, Robert Fulton was born on a large farm in Pennsylvania. From an early age he showed mechanical aptitude and scientific interest, and his true ambition was to become a great artist. His success as an entrepreneur, inventor and tireless promoter is far more interesting.
Fulton is often falsely credited as the inventor of the steamship; James Watt patented a steam engine design in 1769 that revolutionized industry and sparked ideas including steam ships. The first American patent for a steamboat was granted in 1788, but not to the man, John Fitch, who made the first successful demonstration of a steamboat in August 1787 on the Delaware River; Fitch did receive a patent for his design in 1791. Fitch built four steamships and used them in commercial service. He died in 1798.
Fulton did not build his famous “Clermont” until 1807.
Fulton’s parents were successful Scotch-Irish immigrants. His father, a tailor, had established himself in the prosperous inland town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and eventually married Mary Smith, from a relatively prosperous local family, when he was in his forties. Fulton, Senior, was a prominent member of various Lancaster institutions, secretary of the fire department, a founding member of the Juliana Library, America’s third oldest, and assistant burgess of the borough. His house was on the central square in Lancaster.
In 1765, just months before his son was born, he moved his family to a 394-acre farm near the Susquehanna River. His success in Lancaster did not transfer to being a farmer, and in 1772, his home and most of the acreage was sold at a Sheriff’s auction. He died the next year, when Robert Jr. was eight.
His mother moved the family back to Lancaster, and the thriving town, full of tradesmen, travellers and the bustle of business as settlers were supplied with the necessities of frontier life.
The exposure to gunsmiths, wagon makers, weavers, and other artisans and craftsmen must have created an inspirational wonder in young Fulton. Stories of his youth credit him with making roman candles, an air gun, paddlewheels for a fishing boat, and other expressions of creative mechanical thought. But his real interest lay in drawing, and becoming an artist.
When he was 15, he was apprenticed to a silversmith in Philadelphia. He continued his interest in art. And when he was 23, was able to secure an introduction to Benjamin West, an American painter living in London who was a mentor to many of America’s early masters, Augustus Earle, Ralph Earl, Samuel Morse, Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, and Thomas Sully. Fulton lived with West, and fared fairly well as a painter, but his inventive mind churned out ideas and designs, including designs for a submarine.
Fulton moved to Paris in 1797, and in 1801, became friends with the new American Ambassador to France, Robert Livingston (who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase). Livingston and Fulton built a steamboat and ran it on the Seine River. It sank in 1803.
After many attempts to interest the French in his submarine design, Napoleon’s Minister of Marine commissioned Fulton to build the Nautilus; the first working submarine.
In 1804, Fulton returned to England and was commissioned to build weapons for the war against Napoleon. He designed and built the first naval torpedo.
He returned to America in 1806, married Livingston’s niece, and began building his steamship with Livingston as the financial backer. The North River Steamboat (later rechristened the Clermont) made its record setting run from New York City to Albany on the Hudson River on Aug. 17, 1807.
Fulton’s final design in 1812 was a warship, though he thought building large warships was waste of money. It was completed after his death and named the U.S.S. Fulton in his honor.
Fulton died of consumption in New York on Feb. 23, 1815, one of America’s true Renaissance men; he was 49.