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FULTON, Robert jr. [1765-1815] -- American inventor (steamboat) and engineer, artist

Relationship to me: 14C7 (by marriage)
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FULTON, Robert, engineer, was born in Little Britain, Lancaster county, Pa., in 1765; the son of an Irish emigrant who came from Kilkenny and settled in Lancaster county, Pa., about 1730. When thirteen years old Robert made toy boats propelled by paddle wheels and afterward became a painter of miniature portraits and landscapes in Philadelphia where he resided, 1782-85. He went to London in 1786 with a letter of introduction to Benjamin West, and studied art with him, residing with his family in London for several years. He then made an itinerary through the larger estates of Devonshire, England, where his letters of introduction from West procured for him the patronage of the nobility, who employed him in painting miniature portraits and landscapes.

While thus engaged he made the acquaintance of the Duke of Devonshire and the Earl of Stanhope, who were interested in the subjects of internal water communication by means of canals, of printing, and of general mechanics and engineering. Fulton had many original ideas on these subjects and thus he gained their confidence and was advised by them to study civil engineering, which he did.

In 1793 he actively engaged as a civil engineer and in 1794 devised a double inclined plane for raising and lowering boats from different levels in the canal, which he patented. In 1794 he also patented an appliance for sawing marble and in 1796 he planned cast-iron aqueducts used subsequently in carrying water across the river Dee. Bridges were also built upon his plans. During his residence in Birmingham he proposed to the Earl of Stanhope the use of paddle wheels in applying steam to the propulsion of vessels in 1793, and assisted James Watt in constructing steam engines.

In 1794 he became an intimate* of the family of ¤Joel Barlow, author of "Columbiad," who had gone to Paris to escape the displeasure of the British government. While there Fulton painted a panorama, the first exhibited in Paris. In 1797 he made experiments in the river Seine with a submarine torpedo boat and in 1801 continued his experiments off the French coast at Brest under patronage of the government. His efforts to blow up passing English ships proved abortive and the French government became disinterested; but through the offices of Lord Stanhope, Fulton was permitted to continue his experiments in England and he went to London in May, 1804.

His submarine boat was pronounced to be impracticable by a board of British experts, but his torpedo was given a new trial against the French fleet at Boulogne, where it proved harmless. In October, 1805, however, with an improved torpedo, he destroyed a brig of 200 tons provided by the British government for the purpose. When the government exacted a condition that the invention should be communicated to no other nation, Fulton refused to comply and as he had already arranged with ¤Robert R. Livingston to go to the United States and build a steamboat, he sailed in 1805.

While in Paris in 1801 he had made the acquaintance of Livingston, U.S. ambassador to France and a friend of Joel Barlow with whom Fulton was then stopping. Barlow had in his possession certain plans and specifications left in his care by John Fitch who had gone to England in the interest of steam navigation, having failed to obtain aid from the French government. Livingston became interested in the subject and Fulton narrated to him the plans of Earl Stanhope which had been discussed in 1793, when he proposed to the earl the substitution of a paddle wheel for his contemplated paddle after the design of a duck's web-foot. Under the patronage of Livingston Fulton made experiments at Plombiers in 1802. In 1803 he made a working model of his boat which he deposited with a commission of French savants, and in the meantime built a boat sixty feet in length and eight feet in breath, supplied with a steam engine and propelled by a paddle wheel in the stern, which was moderately successful on its trial.

Livingston then determined to transfer the future experiments to the Hudson river at New York. John Stevens of Hoboken, N.J., had begun to make experiments in applying steam to navigation in 1791 and in 1799, with Nicholas Roosevelt and Robert R. Livingston, had obtained from the legislatures of New York and New Jersey exclusive right to navigate the waters of the state. Fulton made the specifications and plans for an engine, which were submitted to Watt, and an engine was built by Watt and Boulton to be transported to the United States, but without giving the Englishman any inkling as to its destined use.

The engine reached New York in 1806. In August, 1807, it was in place on the deck of the Clermont, and on Aug. 11, 1807, the first steamboat on the Hudson river left New York city and made the passage of 150 miles to Albany, N.Y., in thirty-two hours, after which regular trips were made between New York and Albany during the season and hundreds of passengers were transported between the two cities and to points on the river.

In the winter of 1807-08 the boat was fitted for passenger traffic and after a new boiler was substituted steam navigation was regularly established and maintained.

Fulton was beset with opposition and the right to navigate the waters of New York, granted by the legislature, was questioned and caused him to expend large sums of money. Other inventors also questioned his right to the invention of the steamboat, and claimed priority in the use of steam for the purpose.

He established steam ferries between New York and Brooklyn, also between New York and New Jersey; and before he died five steamboats were navigating the waters of the Hudson.

He was married in the spring of 1808 to Harriet, daughter of ¤Walter Livingston of Clermont-on-the-Hudson, and at the time of his death he was engaged in experimenting with a submarine boat, the Nautilus, similar in construction to the one so successfully operated by him in France. He had built for the U.S. navy a steamship-of-war, the Fulton, the pioneer vessel of its class in the world.

He died in New York city, Feb. 24, 1815. He received a place in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1900. BDNA  -30-

Selected Works

  • Advantages of the Proposed Canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson River (1814).
  • Improvement of Canal Navigation (1796)
  • Letter to the Secretary of the Navy on the Practical Use of the Torpedo (1811)
  • Letter's on Submarine Navigation (1806)
  • Memorial of Robert Fulton and Edward P. Livingston in Regard to Steamboats (1814)
  • Report on the Practicability of Navigating with Steamboats the Southern Waters of the United States (1813)
  • Torpedo War (1810)
  • Bookmarks (off-site links)

    Bookmarks:2010-05-31 10:34:34


    * Indeed, a ménage-à-trois.
    A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
    image related to subject
    Robert Fulton
    USPS 1965 5¢; Scott #1270


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