Robert Fulton



Occupation 1


Occupation 2



steam engine design


NA/Mid-Atlantic region


Maritime Republic (1751-1815)








Artist, engineer, and entrepreneur

The artist's transition to engineer began during the years 1791-1794� The political radical and inventor Charles Mahon, third earl Stanhope's interest in Fulton's ideas, albeit condescending, encouraged the artist to direct his full energies to canal design and construction�

[Later,] Fulton� devoted most of his energies to� the Nautilus, a weapon to defeat the all-powerful British navy and to break up its blockade of the French Republic� The design derived from the earlier "diving boat" of David Bushnell, a Yale graduate from Connecticut, with which Barlow was familiar. Fulton's experiments, however, went well beyond anything previously contemplated and demonstrated for the first time the seaworthiness of submersible vessels and their value as instruments of naval warfare�

Work on the submersible boat was permitted to proceed in secret. The small sailing craft, elliptical in shape, some twenty feet in length, was constructed� and tried out on the Seine on 13 June 1800. After further trials Fulton and the Nautilus went into action against the British fleet off Le Havre on 12 September 1800. The British ships, apparently alerted by spies, evaded each of his efforts to attach a "torpedo" or contact mine to one of their hulls.

Fulton continued to experiment with the Nautilus the following year, but, just as Napol�on's interest in the weapon appeared to warm, the boat began to fall apart from wear and tear�

Fulton turned his attention to steamboats in the summer of 1802� he sketched a steamboat moved by an endless chain of float boards to run "from New York to Albany in 12 hours" and experimented with a working model that had probably been constructed to such a design�

[Fulton] gathered any information he could of previous efforts then tried to find a better working design� Fulton made no claim to originality in the invention at this point, touting only his engineering skill� His first working boat, roughly 74 by 8 feet, employed side waterwheels, one of P�rier's double-acting steam engines, and a pipe boiler based on a design patented in France by Barlow. It was tried out successfully on the Seine the following August but at speeds of less than three miles per hour�

He pushed ahead�with the construction of a flat-bottomed craft, 146 feet by a narrow 12 feet, with side wheels, powered by his imported low-pressure, coal-fired steam engine. TheNorth River Steam Boat, as he registered it (writers later celebrated it as the Clermont), made a successful if not much publicized trial run from New York to Albany in August 1807. Fulton gained more notice the following year, when the rebuilt boat (with wider hull) made regular weekly runs between the two cities. He built a second boat in 1809 and began to expand his operations� In 1813-1815 Fulton adapted the steam ferry, a catamaran, into the first steam warship or "steam battery�"

[Rival] Thornton's view that their state monopolies (and those of their rivals) conflicted with provisions of the federal Constitution eventually prevailed, but only after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), in which a license granted by the Fulton-Livingston interest was at issue.

Despite its rapid expansion, Fulton's steamboat business remained fragile� The following month he died of pneumonia in New York City�

Related Images

external image head6_robert_fulton_1874.jpg
Image Id: 428

Related People

Watt, James

Related Vessels

Clermont, Fulton the First,

Related Events

1807 - Beginning of steamboat navigation on a commercial basis, 1813 - Construction of first catamaran steam frigate,

Related Source

History of the Growth of Steam Engines
Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action
Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746-1913

Related Documents

Washington, 1797/Canals-->
Fulton --> Washington, 1797/Canals

Record ID: 336