Robert Fulton


Robert Fulton, born in Little Britain on November 14, 1765 and died in New York on February 24, 1815, was an American engineer, painter, submariner and inventor.

Considered as the creator of the steamboat, he was in fact the one who, through his engineering talent, managed to make a process already known operational, as proven by the experiments of Denis Papin in Germany (1707), Auxiron and Jouffroy d’Abbans in France (1774), John Fitch (1787) in the United States, and Symington (1788, 1801) in England. This same engineering talent led him to realize, taking into account David Bushnell’s invention, the first military submarine having shown its capacity to destroy.

Youth and beginnings in painting

The fourth of five children of Robert Fulton and Mary Smith, Robert Fulton was born on November 14, 1765. His three older sisters were Elizabeth, Isabella, and Mary; Abraham was his younger brother. His father died in 1768 when he was only three years old.

Cultivating his taste for painting, he leaves, at the age of 17, for Philadelphia, as an apprentice to the English jeweler Jeremiah Andrews, where he makes a name for himself by painting portraits and miniatures: there he meets Benjamin Franklin whose portrait he paints.

In 1786, Fulton moved to Great Britain to study painting with Benjamin West and exhibited his paintings for years before gradually turning to industrial design.

From 1796 to 1797, he created the Fitch boat with propeller propulsion, and left, in 1797, for France, where the Marquis de Jouffroy had experimented, in 1783, with the Pyroscaphe, a steamboat equipped with paddle wheels with success.

On 5 Floréal An VII, Fulton obtained for ten years the exploitation of the patent for the importation of the panorama invented by Robert Barker in England. He had a rotunda built in Paris along the Boulevard des Capucines where the first French panorama, Vue de Paris depuis les Tuileries, painted by Pierre Prévost and Delafontaine, was displayed. Fulton then sold this patent to his fellow citizen James William Thayer (1763-1835) who had just acquired the Hôtel de Montmorency-Luxembourg, where he had the future Passage des Panoramas built, topped by a double rotunda in order to mount this attraction.

The engineer

Fulton proposed to the Directory, then at war with England, a submarine named Nautilus. His proposal was twice refused because it was inadmissible, on the grounds that others would immediately allow themselves to use it and the war would come to atrocious means. He left for Holland and returned after Bonaparte’s coup d’état, and in 1800 received permission from the First Consul to build. If Fulton had benefited from the ideas and experiences of those who had preceded him, his Nautilus would be so much superior to all the submarines proposed until then that it is to him that we owe the demonstration, with a prototype, of the possibility of using submarines as combat ships. 70 years later Jules Verne would use the name of the Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

After a first dive in the Seine in Rouen in July 1800, the tests continued off Le Havre in 1800 (year VIII), then in 1801, off Camaret, at the entrance of the roadstead of Brest. In August 1801, an old brig was anchored in the roadstead of Brest. The Nautilus blew it up after having completed an underwater course in conditions of speed, maneuverability and duration of immersion that were far superior to what David Bushnell had achieved with The Turtle, and that Fulton had met in the United States. The Nautilus succeeded in fixing its mine properly and this experience constitutes the first known example of the destruction of a building by an underwater device.

Although conclusive, these tests did not convince the political authorities and Napoleon Bonaparte, who no longer believed in Fulton, nor in the Nautilus, nor in his steamships, which might have allowed him to invade Great Britain.

However, Fulton continued his studies on steam propulsion, with the support of the American ambassador in Paris, Robert Livingston, whom Fulton met in 1800.

At the beginning of 1803, he tested a prototype of a steamboat. It was a failure: broken under the weight of the machinery, the boat sank. Fulton went back to work and built a new reinforced prototype, spreading the load of the machinery over the entire length of the ship.

On August 9, 1803, Robert Fulton operated the first steamboat, on the Seine, in the presence of several members of the Institute: Volney, Prony, Bossut Carnot and François-André Michaux. During the first voyage of this prototype, only one passenger dared to accompany Fulton, the Frenchman Andrieux, who wrote that, during the voyage, Fulton told him of the difficulties he had found in France, and blamed the Minister of the Navy Decres, an enemy of all innovation, particularly opposed to Fulton’s ideas, for the failure he had experienced with the French government. Fulton took his side of this refusal, for it was for his country that he had worked and sought at the beginning of his work. Having first thought of offering his invention to the United States, he then took the necessary steps to have his country adopt the system of transportation, the value of which experience had just demonstrated to him, by writing to the members of Congress of the State of New York to make known the results which had just been obtained in Paris. Congress then drew up a public act, by the terms of which the exclusive privilege of navigating all the waters of this State, by means of steam, granted to Livingston, by the treaty of 1797, was extended, in favor of Livingston and Fulton, for a period of twenty years, beginning in the year 1803. The only condition imposed on the partners was that they produce, within two years, a steamboat of four miles an hour (~6.5 km

Fulton was, at that time, about to leave France. His stay in Paris, the experiments he continued to carry out on the diving boat and his various submarine attack devices, caused great concern in London, which was frightened at the idea of seeing the agents of destruction that Fulton was working on perfecting directed against the British navy. Lord Stanhope having expressed his fears to the House of Peers, an association of wealthy individuals in London was formed as a result of this communication. A few months later, this association sent a long report to the Prime Minister, Lord Sidmouth. The facts contained in this report led the minister to attract the inventor to England, in order to paralyze, if possible, the harmful effects that England feared from the use of Fulton’s infernal machines. A secret agent was dispatched from London, who contacted Fulton, and told him of a reward of $15,000 for success. Fulton was taken in by this attractive offer and decided to leave Paris. He left for England in 1804.

The delays, the obstacles, the unwillingness he encountered everywhere in England finally made Fulton understand that he was mistaken about the views of the British government, which could not be interested in the success of a kind of inventions destined, if it could succeed, to cancel all maritime supremacy. The aim of the English ministry was in reality simply to judge in a positive way the value of Fulton’s inventions, and to buy the secret from him, in order to make them disappear. The commission appointed to examine his diving boat declared its use impractical. A rejected project combined two structures where the hull of a sloop contained the cylindrical watertight hull of a submarine. The space between the two hulls was used as “ballast”. This project was found much later when this mode of construction was imposed. Today, it is recognized that Fulton was the inventor.

As for his submarine explosion devices, he was required to demonstrate their effectiveness by directing them against enemy boats. At that time, many expeditions were carried out against the French fleet and the flatboats confined in the Boulogne harbor. On October 1, 1805, Fulton embarked on a ship and joined the English squadron stationed in front of this port. During the night, he launched two torpedo boats against two French gunboats, but the explosion of the torpedoes did not harm the boats. However, at the sound of the detonation, the French sailors thought they had been boarded by an enemy vessel. Seeing that the affair had come to an end, they returned to the port, without being able to realize the means that had been used to carry out this attack, in the middle of the darkness of the night. Fulton complained loudly that the failure he had just experienced had been concerted by the English themselves, and he asked to provide proof of it. On October 15, 1805, in the presence of Minister Pitt and his colleagues, he blew up, with the help of his torpedoes, an old Danish brig of 200 tons, moored, for this purpose, in the roadstead of Walmer, near Deal, at a small distance from the castle of Walmer, residence of Pitt. The torpedo contained 170 pounds of powder. A quarter of an hour after the harpoon had been fixed, the charge exploded and split the brig in two, of which only a few fragments remained floating on the surface of the water after a minute. In spite of this success, or perhaps because of it, the English ministry refused to take any further interest in Fulton’s inventions. They only offered to buy the secret, on condition that he would promise never to put it into practice, but the American engineer rejected this proposal: “Whatever your designs may be,” he replied to the government agents charged with making this overture, “know that I shall never consent to destroy a discovery which may become useful to my country.

However, while he was busy with his submarine inventions, Fulton did not lose sight, while in England, of his associate Livingston’s project for the establishment of steam navigation in the United States. He was busily engaged in the construction of the steam navigation apparatus which he had ordered from the factory of Boulton and Watt, at Soho, to be used in attempting to bring to New York an enterprise which had already failed in so many countries, and he was inspired for the model of his boat’s engine by the trials which had just been made in Scotland by William Symington for the establishment of steam navigation on the canals, and he even asked the latter for a demonstration of his Charlotte Dundas, before setting out for the United States again.

The steam engine ordered by Livingston and Fulton, in 1804, at the Boulton and Watt factory, was completed in October 1806, and Fulton embarked, on that date, at Falmouth, to return to the United States to arrive, on December 13, in New York. As soon as he arrived, Fulton worked with his associate Livingston to build the boat that would receive the steam engine that had arrived from Soho at the same time as Fulton, and ensure them the privilege promised by the United States Congress. This boat, called the Clermont, named after a country house that Livingston owned on the banks of the Hudson, was built in Charles Brown’s shipyard, was 50 meters long and 5 meters wide; she was 150 tons; the diameter of her paddle wheels was 5 meters. The power of the steam engine of this powerful river boat was 18 horsepower. It was double acting and had a condenser. The piston was twenty-four English inches in diameter and four feet in stroke. The boiler was twenty feet long, seven feet deep and eight feet wide. The Clermont was equipped with two cast iron wheels, placed on each side of the boat. The mechanical apparatus of the Clermont showed most of the arrangements which were employed later for the machines of river navigation.

Completed in August 1807, the Clermont left Charles Brown’s shipyard on the 10th of the month, and the next day, at the time fixed for her public trial, she was launched on the East River. Fulton went up on the deck of his boat, entirely devoted to the observation of his boat, in order to recognize its defects and the means to correct them. He found that the wheels were too large in diameter and that the paddles were sinking too far into the water. By modifying their dispositions, he obtained an increase in speed. This repair, which lasted a few days, having been completed, Livingston and Fulton had the newspapers announce that the Clermont, intended to establish a regular transport from New York to Albany, on the Hudson, both located on the banks of the Hudson, distant about 240 km, would leave the next day, August 17, 1807, for the latter city.

The announcement of this first regular commercial steamship service in the United States caused much surprise in New York. Although everyone had witnessed the perfect test run a few days before, the possibility of applying a steamboat to a transportation service was still not believed. No passengers showed up and Fulton had to make the trip alone with the few men employed on board, but the trip from New York to Albany left no doubt as to the advantages of steam navigation. The Clermont made the crossing in thirty-two hours and returned in thirty hours. She sailed day and night, having constantly the contrary wind, and not being able to use once the sails with which she was equipped. He left New York on Monday, at one o’clock in the afternoon, and arrived the next day at the same hour at Clermont, the country house of Chancellor Livingston, situated on the banks of the river. He left Clermont on Wednesday at 9 o’clock in the morning, and reached Albany at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. The journey had thus been accomplished in thirty-two hours, which gives a speed of two leagues per hour (~10 km

Last years

He then built other steamships, and designed the first steam warship, a sort of floating battery equipped with twenty cannons (eight on each side and two “en chasse” at the front and at the back). This ship, named Demologos, is very original: it is a kind of catamaran pontoon and the only paddle wheel for propulsion was placed in a central well, to protect it from enemy fire, which shows that Fulton was aware of the vulnerability of conventional side wheels, a problem that would be solved with the adoption of the propeller. Equipped with a rudder at each end, the Demologos was practically amphidrome, but its clumsy hull and unreliable machine confined it to a coastal defence role. Renamed after its inventor after his death, the Demologos was never used in real combat.

Fulton’s body is buried at Trinity Church Cemetery in Manhattan.



  1. Robert Fulton
  2. Robert Fulton
  3. 7 kilomètres 400 mètres.
  4. ^ a b Best, Nicholas (2005). Trafalgar: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sea Battle in History. London: Phoenix. ISBN 0-7538-2095-1.
  5. The Life of Robert Fulton. autor: Cadwallader David Colden (1817) Nueva York
  6. ^ a b c d David Lear Buckman, Old Steamboat Days on The Hudson River, The Grafton Press, 1907 (archiviato dall’url originale il 26 agosto 2010).
  7. ^ Burgess, Robert Forrest, Ships Beneath the Sea, McGraw-Hill, 1975, ISBN 978-0-07-008958-7.
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