Who was Robert Fulton?

Robert Fulton is an American artist, engineer, and inventor who transformed the transportation and travel industries and thereby speed up the Industrial Revolution. 

Fulton was born on a small farm in Pennsylvania on November 14, 1765, to an Irish immigrant who was also named Robert and his wife Mary Smith of Oxford Pennsylvania. Fulton was just three years old when his father died, leaving them in poverty.

Young Inventor

Fulton was known for his love of experimenting with mechanical objects during his childhood. He always believed that “Nothing is impossible.” Some of the items he experimented with included  lead pencils, a hand-propelled paddlewheel boat, rockets, and even an air gun. He also experimented with mercury earning himself the nickname ‘Quicksilver Bob’.

As an Artist

As he got older, Fulton turned his interest to art. It was through art that he was able to make a living. He sold portraits, landscapes, and architectural blueprints that he created. When he earned enough money, he purchased a small farm for his family in Pennsylvania. One of the portraits he painted was of Benjamin Franklin, one of the well-known leaders of the American independence movement. It was Franklin who encouraged Fulton to go to England to pursue his art career. So, Fulton left the United States at the age of 21 to study painting in England under a painter known as Benjamin West. Despite some success, his painting career made little impact. So, he went back to his first love, which is engineering. 

Benjamin Franklin

As an Engineer

From the arts, Robert shifted to engineering. It was when canal building was becoming more common in England that Fulton started working on designing canals. After a few years of work, Fulton was granted a British patent in 1794 for developing a system for raising boats. His design was also used in building a few bridges in the British Isles. 

In 1796, Fulton authored and published a book titled “A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation” which is a summary of his ideas on improving canal navigation. He illustrated it by himself, and it contains drawings of many mechanical designs and even boats to show ‘the numerous advantages to be derived from small canals’.

The Nautilus

Nautilus by Robert Fulton

From building canals in England, Fulton decided to move to Paris, France in 1797. He began working on other projects such as fireproofing houses and developing a plan for an experimental submarine that could plant underwater mines without being detected. He called it the Nautilus and successfully tested it several times. He became famous for that project and caught the interest of Robert Livingston (1746–1813), who was then an American ambassador to France and owner of a twenty-year monopoly on steam navigation in New York State. 

Clermont Success

Clermont replica

Fulton shared some of his ideas about steam power with Livingston who then agreed to provide the financing in developing a working steamboat. Fulton also agreed to work on the project with a condition that if he succeeded, they would become business partners.

Fulton spent two and a half years working on his design of a steamboat in Paris. His first model sank quickly when it was violently tossed by a storm, but he never gave up. In August 1803, Fulton succeeded in demonstrating a new model in England. 

Because of his success, Fulton started making larger steamboats that can be used commercially. Upon completing the project, Fulton named his steamship the North River Steamboat of Clermont, after Robert Livingston’s estate in New York. The ship was built by an established shipbuilder in New York and used a steam engine bought from England. The North River Steamboat’s (Clermont) first voyage was on August 17, 1807. The following month, the first commercial trip was launched at $7.00 one way. 

Legal Battles

Although Fulton gained a patent that guarantees an inventor an exclusive right to earn from an invention and an exclusive license to operate steamboat transportation on the Hudson River, competitors built similar ships and started serving up the Hudson. Fulton won legal battles over his patent, however, in 1825, a U.S. court declared that the business should not be exclusive all to himself.

Soon, competitors came up with their designs, and steamboats were used as river ferries and to carry passengers and cargo along the shores of Long Island Sound from New York to New Haven, Connecticut.

Impact of Robert Fulton’s Invention

Fulton may not have invented the steam nor was the first to make a steamboat, but he was the one who thought of applying steam power to commercial transportation which offered new economic opportunities. With steam power, people became less dependent on wind and good weather.

Fulton’s innovation, and later improvements, made crossing the Atlantic faster and less dangerous compared to journeys in sailing ships. Steamships helped the manufacturers transport raw materials and finished goods quickly from Europe to North America, and vice versa. Eventually, steamships were used around the world.

On February 24, 1815, Fulton died at the age of 49 in New York.  Fulton developed pneumonia after getting soaked in icy water trying to save a friend. His condition worsened and died from consumption, now known as tuberculosis. In his honor, both houses of the United States Congress wore mourning clothes. Businesses in New York were also closed for a day. 

In 1909 a Hudson-Fulton Celebration commemorated the success of the North River Steamboat of Clermont. A “Robert Fulton” commemorative stamp was also issued in 1965, the bicentenary of his birth. Five U.S. Navy ships bore the name USS Fulton in his honor. Fulton was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) in Alexandria, Virginia in 2006. 

Although steamships are no longer the main vehicles for transatlantic cargo shipping as well as passenger travel, Fulton’s legacy lives on.

Fulton’s life is a perfect example that one should not be disheartened when one door closes.  He is proof that perseverance can eventually lead to success. He has faced a lot of obstacles since childhood, but he never let all his misfortunes stop him from trying harder. Fulton also showed us that there is always something new for you to try and discover.