Robert Fulton’s Dream
ROBERT FULTON INVENTED THE STEAMBOAT. In a way, the veracity of this claim matters not. Truth is what the public believes, and a widely held myth can outlast any collection of mere facts. Fulton has come down to us as the father of the steamboat, the American Leonardo, and a national hero. He surely had the right ingredients for a national hero, for he was poor, undereducated, bright, tall, handsome, and hardworking. He came from a small town, and his parents were Scots-Irish immigrants. He was blessed by being befriended by a series of older, wealthy benefactors. Little appears missing for a typical American success story. He even lost his father as a boy and was looked to for the support of his aging, widowed mother and several sisters and a brother.
He was born in Little Britain Township, Pennsylvania, on November 14, 1765, just two years after the end of the French and Indian War. His father was a tailor in nearby Lancaster who had turned to farming just before his first son was born. Robert senior found farming harder than he expected and went bankrupt within seven years. The family moved back to Lancaster with little more than the clothes on their backs, and matters only got worse when the elder Fulton died in 1774. His widow borrowed from friends and family to keep her little brood together, while the American Revolution filled the town on the western fringes of civilization with members of the Continental Congress and such celebrities as the British spy John André, who roamed the streets on parole.
Perhaps at least as interesting to Mrs. Fulton’s boy was an inventive gunsmith named William Henry, who visited England in 1761 and became fascinated with the steam engine, at the time a marvelous new power source for British industry. Henry returned to Pennsylvania with enough details to build his own steam engine, and in 1763 he installed it in a boat fitted with paddle wheels. To his considerable disgust the vessel sank into the murky waters of the Conestoga River. Some years later he set to work on a second boat, but there is little record of its fate. We have no direct proof that any of this activity attracted the attention of the young Robert Fulton, but such an unusual engineering effort would not likely have gone unnoticed by any alert citizen of so small a town. Probably the kernel of an idea was planted.
By necessity, poor boys came of age early then. When Fulton left grammar school at about 15, his formal education was at an end, and he was sent off to the big city. Philadelphia, the largest city in the former colonies in 1780, was home to about 27,500 people. Fulton was apprenticed to a jeweler and seemed destined for a secure, if not very distinguished, life as an artisan. He possessed manual and artistic skill and exhibited a special talent for hair sculpture—weavings made from the locks of deceased relatives. He also took up painting miniatures, tiny portraits that were much in demand before the age of photography. And so the young artisan was soon busy in a profitable trade. He also was in contact with high society. He learned that the upper echelon of city people dressed and spoke and generally behaved better than their counterparts in Lancaster. He liked their affluence and manners and likely wondered if he might one day rise among them, but he still signed himself as a yeoman on a legal document in 1786.
He did seek to advance himself. Friends said he should develop his natural talent as a portraitist, and not just in miniatures, and early in 1786 fate pushed him to do something. He became very ill, perhaps from pneumonia; he had been troubled by lung problems since childhood. He went to Berkeley Springs, Virginia, to take the waters. The miracles of mineral springs were likely bogus, but Fulton found himself once again in the company of the gentry.
Most of the people at Berkeley Springs were educated, polished, and well dressed. They clearly had breeding and money. It all came into focus. This was what Fulton wanted. He would aspire not just to serve the affluent but to be one of them. The transition was not impossible. He had charm, spoke well, and possessed a courtly manner. As an artist he had an entrée into polite society. And he was six feet tall, dark, and handsome. He lacked only money.
Back in Philadelphia, his health restored, he began to plan a future in the arts. He would go abroad to study. It is said he somehow prevailed upon the city’s most famous citizen, Benjamin Franklin, just returned from the French court, for a let- ter of introduction to America’s most famous expatriate artist, Benjamin West. West was a favorite of George III who painted historical canvases for the British court and somehow escaped the tarnish of being a Yankee. Moreover, he was from near Lancaster. Fulton’s life was filled with such fortuitous connections and happenstances.
Fulton was working near the waterfront in Philadelphia at the time, and on those very waters labored a rustic mechanic fully as tall as he was named John Fitch. This Connecticut tinkerer was determined to build a practical steamboat. Perhaps they never spoke, but it is unlikely they never passed each other. Did Fitch’s efforts kindle Fulton’s memory of William Henry’s 1763 boat, or was Fulton fully occupied with his plans for England and life in the art world? Whatever his thoughts, he set off by sea in the summer of 1787 with a purse filled with borrowed money.
He was kindly received by West and his wife, but he found the execution of superior paintings far more difficult than he had imagined. Simple proficiency wasn’t enough; one had to possess an extraordinary talent. By 1791 several of his paintings were chosen for exhibition, but he remained something of a journeyman. There was little glory or money in art except for the top of the line. Even while living at the estate of Viscount Courtenay, for whom he painted, he was more a hired hand than a member of the nobleman’s crowd. Around this time he wrote, “Many many a silent hour have I spent in the most unnerved study anxiously pondering how to make funds to support me till the fruits of my labors should be sufficient. ”
After six years of pushing oil around on canvas, he wondered if he needed to find a new ambition. This question was answered in part by Charles Mahon, the third Earl of Stanhope. The earl was interested in many scientific subjects, including steam technology, and at the time of their introduction was working on a steamship for the Royal Navy. Fulton was already contemplating abandoning the arts for a career in inventing and had produced plans for a marblecutting and -polishing machine that won a silver prize from England’s Society for the Encouragement of Arts. He offered advice to the Earl of Stanhope but revealed no immediate interest in developing a steamboat. Anyway, the vessel in question was a failure, as was the hope that the earl would become his patron.
From this time forward, 1793, Fulton would direct his chief energies toward mechanical innovations. He would remain an active painter, but mainly for his own pleasure or that of his friends and family. His family portraits included ones of his children, his wife, and, in a fine rendition, his mother-in-law, Cornelia Schuyler Livingston. His oils and brushes sat idle for long spells while he labored over new contrivances. He remained in England, living in cheap rooms, eating in mean taverns, and wearing old clothes. He borrowed money and lived with friends for months at a time, working up schemes for rope-making machinery, iron bridges, a canal-digging machine, and more. On June 3, 1794, he received a British patent for improvements in canals. He championed very small canals worked by inclined-plane railways, rather than large ones with conventional locks. His idea was to build an extensive system at a low first cost. The concept had some merit, at least superficially, for it could provide transport for all parts of the nation, even those without much traffic. Fulton produced an attractive booklet to promote the plan, illustrating it with his own artwork. Ever hopeful and always the promoter, he sent copies to George Washington and other notables. The response was negligible.
Next he decided to try his ideas on the French. Here was a country in the throes of revolutionary upheaval; perhaps it would go for a revolution in transportation as well. He arrived in Paris in 1797, but rather than flog away at the canal scheme, he returned to the arts and opened a panorama, a wraparound painting of Paris that circled a room. This was a moneymaking scheme that worked, and he became temporarily affluent, but he was a spender and had too many needs and interests to maintain a nest egg. He received a large sum from an American investor in April 1797 for a quarter interest in his American canal venture and spent that quickly as well. He passed much of his life in debt, but money problems rarely seemed to dampen his enthusiasm for new ideas.
Soon he was pushing ahead with plans for a submarine that would include “torpedoes” (mines) with clockwork timers. This would be a weapon so terrible it would end warfare, he insisted. (The idea was not entirely new—another American had built and tested a similar boat two decades earlier.) The French navy considered its effectiveness, and Fulton’s intended visit of six months extended to seven years. Eventually, Napoleon came forward with funding. Tests were conducted and went well, but under actual battle conditions—and the Napoleonic Wars offered several opportunities—the submarine and its torpedoes were largely a failure. The inventor never lost confidence in the idea, though, and he kept trying to interest the British and American navies in it until his death. By 1795 he had adopted the title of engineer and so made public his change of profession.
As his stay in France went on, the inventor unhappily reviewed his lifelong quest for fame, success, recognition, and wealth. Approaching his fortieth year, he was still a failure, and his powerful friends never offered lasting aid. How could he break out of this cycle? Once again, just when all seemed lost, a new white knight appeared. Robert R. Living- ston, the recently arrived U.S. minister to France, proved to be the ultimate benefactor Fulton had been seeking for so many years. Livingston and his family settled in Paris in December 1801. The two men met a few months later. Just how is not recorded.
They were unalike in many ways. Livingston was rich, well connected, a man of affairs at the forefront of American politics and society. He was, in short, everything Fulton was not but wanted to be. However, Fulton possessed skills that could prove useful to the diplomat’s passion for mechanics and industry. One of Livingston’s special interests was steamboats. Good transportation was seen by most leaders of the new Republic as key to the sprawling nation’s future. Livingston had his own ideas for steamboat construction, but most, if not all, of them were impractical. For all his brains and position he had no talent for mechanics. He had paid for two experimental boats built between 1797 and 1801, and both had been failures. But the dream would not die, and Livingston, like most rich men, was accustomed to getting his way.
Before long he and Fulton signed an agreement. Livingston would finance steamboat work by Fulton—not as lavishly as the inventor would have liked, but at least reasonably. Before any major work began, the partners agreed to buy a Boulton and Watt engine to power the boat. Having a product of the world’s leading steam-engine builders would improve the likelihood of the vessel’s success.
Fulton had never before attempted to create a steamboat, but he’d surely been in contact with others who had. Mention has already been made of Henry, Fitch, and the Earl of Stanhope, and he is also said to have spent time with James Rumsey while the Marylander was in England promoting his own peculiar steamboat plan. Rumsey advocated a kind of jetpropulsion system that was never adopted, and he and Fulton may have spent many hours discussing the details of steamboat anatomy. There had been dozens of other would-be steamboat inventors active, including old Franklin himself, and there was no lack of ideas. What Fulton needed was hard data and knowledge of boats that actually worked. He saw his task as making existing ideas work together; he once wrote that “the mechanic should sit down among levers, screws, wedges, wheels, etc., like a poet among letters of the alphabet, considering them as the exhibition of his thought, in which a new arrangement transmits a new idea to the world.”
A model built by a French inventor named Desblancs, and plans for a working steamboat from the great French mechanic Jouffroy, were available for examination in Paris, and drawings of Fitch’s work showed his boats to be very workable. In fact, Fitch’s boat of 1790 was not only durable but faster than the one Fulton would produce 17 years later. Fulton also had his own nearly four-foot-long and expensive clockworkdriven model, built by a local jeweler. He tried to estimate the projected boat’s resistance, but the results proved over-optimistic. He vacillated over how best to drive the boat. Just how much “invention” was involved in all this is debatable, for every element of it was antique in nature. Paddle-wheel propulsion had been around since Roman times, and even the steam engine had been a commercial reality since 1712. As Fulton put it, “For this invention to be rendered useful does not consist in putting oars, paddles, wheels, or resisting chains in motion by a steam engine, but in determining what must be the size of cylinder, chains, and other parts to achieve a specific speed.” Even so, months went into designing the first boat after Livingston and Fulton signed their contract, on October 10, 1802.
In the end they decided to build a prototype in France rather than England, and not to use a Boulton and Watt engine. The job was turned over to the Périer Brothers, Paris machinists who fabricated much of the vessel, including the eight-horsepower engine. The engine proved at once too small to make good speed and too heavy for the hull. The boat snapped in half and sank at its dock in the summer of 1803 before a trial could be made, possibly the victim of sabotage by people scared of the new technology. After some determined work, its machinery was installed in a new hull, and by early August it was ready to steam up. Two 12-foot-diameter sidewheels pushed the 75-foot vessel through the waters of the Seine well enough, but far slower than Fulton’s estimate of 16 miles per hour. It could not do better than 3 or 4 mph. Meanwhile, he ordered a 24-horsepower engine from Boulton and Watt and began negotiating for an export license to send the machine to the United States.
Livingston kept busy as well. He had used his considerable political leverage to obtain a monopoly for the operation of steamboats on New York State waters. Such rights were granted to protect commercial interests that served the public interest and couldn’t make a profit otherwise. Many opposed such grants as working against the public, but Livingston and Fulton envisioned a multistate or even national monopoly to compensate them for their work. And so the partners rumbled along.
Fulton would not give up on his torpedo projects; Livingston continued his diplomatic career along with his steamboat projects. He concluded the Louisiana Purchase agreement in May 1803. Fulton proved valuable in defending the steamboat monopoly and performed very well in court, so well that his lawyers were actually happy to put him on the stand. Livingston’s political influence would prove extremely important in maintaining the monopoly as time went on; the U.S. Supreme Court would finally end it in the case of Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824, after he and Fulton both were dead.
The partners were facing a deadline under their New York State monopoly to publicly demonstrate a workable boat before April 1807, and about the only lesson they had learned from their 1803 effort was that a far superior design was needed. They traveled to New York in December 1806. Fulton had been abroad for more than 20 years.
The Watt engine awaited them. It was a low-pressure engine, perhaps two or three pounds per square inch, with a 24by-48-inch cylinder, and was rated at 24 horsepower. Younger engineers agreed that higher pressure would greatly boost power and fuel efficiency, but Watt preferred to err on the side of safety. A high-pressure engine of, say, 50 psi would have given Fulton’s new boat some of the zip it clearly needed, but the inventor decided to follow the dictates of this father of the steam age.
He turned to another experienced expert for the hull. Charles Brown (or Browne or Brownne), who had a wharf on the East River at Corlear’s Hook, near the present-day Williamsburg Bridge, built the hull to Fulton’s plan, its basic shape based on the Durham boat, a conventional sort of flat-bottom vessel commonly used on rivers (and which had done immortal service 30 years earlier ferrying George Washington and his troops across the Delaware). The designer specified a very narrow and long hull, probably assuming that long boats are fast boats. No two accounts seem to agree on the exact dimensions, but the eminent marine historian Howard I. Chapelle gives the length as 133 feet, the width as 16½ feet, and the depth as 7 feet. At any rate, it was very long and narrow.
After months of labor the Steamboat , as it was simply and plainly named, approached completion. Fulton decided to give it a short test run on Sunday, August 9, 1807. By noon steam was up, and the inventor and a few crew members piloted the craft away from the wharf and up the East River about a mile and back. It did well enough, but some obvious adjustments were necessary. Exactly a week later they ran it around the Battery and up the Hudson to a dock adjacent to today’s former World Trade Center site. This would be the Steamboat ’s operating terminal in New York. On the very next day, Monday, August 17, they would risk everything by attempting a full-blown run all the way to Albany, 150 miles upriver.
At one in the afternoon that day the boat cast off and with a banner of dark smoke began its historic voyage northward. It was literally an engine on a raft. No effort had been made to finish its cabins or prepare accommodations for passengers. That would come only after a good test had been completed. And so the guests aboard arranged themselves on the deck as best they could. The machinery cranked, and progress was slow, the boat moving just under five miles an hour. Fulton wrote afterward, “My friends were in groups on the deck.… I read in their looks nothing but disaster, and almost repented of my efforts. The signal was given, and the boat moved a short distance, and then stopped and became immovable.… The boat was again put in motion. She continued to move on. All were still incredulous. None seemed willing to trust the evidence of their senses. We left the fair city of New York; we passed through the romantic and ever varying scenery of the highlands.…”
As the boat approached a stopping point well up the river at Livingston’s estate, Clermont, the patriarch stood to address the passengers. He said it was time for his partner to end his bachelor days and that his wife to be was the diplomat’s own cousin. Harriet Livingston was young, pretty, rich, and from a first family, so she brought to Fulton much that he earnestly desired. The boat docked at Clermont at 1:00 P.M. , just 24 hours after starting. It spent the night there and then proceeded another 40 miles upriver to Albany the next day. Loosely figured, the travel time was 32 hours at about five miles an hour. Not up to Fulton’s hopes, but good enough for a first try and far better than the four days the typical sailing vessel required.
Regular service would soon follow, but first the cabins must be fixed up, with berths in separate compartments for men and women, and a kitchen and dining space added. On September 4 the Steamboat was ready for revenue passengers. It had only 24 berths and charged a New York-to-Albany fare of seven dollars, a considerable sum at the time. The service was aimed at those in a hurry who would pay a premium. Business proved good, and the boat was generally fully booked once its safety and reliability were established, which took only a few weeks. Best of all, it made money. Fulton expected the boat to clear $12,000 from a year’s operation.
One of the disadvantages of navigation in northern climes was the limited sailing season. Boating was shut down during the winter, when the river froze, so the partners used that time to enlarge and refurbish. The hull was lengthened to around 150 feet, and the deck flared out to 18 feet. The cabin space was much increased, to 54 berths; the boiler was replaced; the framing was strengthened; and even the machinery was altered. Fulton, the artist, wanted the vessel to be a floating palace, so it received ornamental painting, gilding, and fancy cabinet woods. Once all this work was done, the Steamboat was reregistered as the North River Steamboat of Clermont . Popular history has rechristened it simply the Clermont .
More boats followed, and Fulton plunged ahead into dozens of other ventures. He could never seem to slow down or scale back. The inland rivers were to Fulton the El Dorado of American transportation, and he pushed to populate them with steamers. The first of these sailed from Pittsburgh in 1811. But the Ohio and Mississippi were too removed for Fulton to control. He could not work with his difficult trans-Appalachian lieutenants, so only limited operations were established.
The War of 1812 rekindled the whole business of torpedoes and large floating defense batteries to protect American harbors, and Fulton used up much of his money promoting those ideas. He also spent a lot pursuing infringers of his patents and steamboat operators who found loopholes in his monopoly. Early in 1815 he caught a chill at a boatyard while traveling, and he died on February 23 that year, at only 49.
Fulton was until about 50 years ago a major figure in our national history whose name ranked just below those of Franklin, Jefferson, and even Washington. His life was familiar to every schoolchild. Towns, counties, streets, and parks were named in his honor. He was so important because the steamboat was so important. It dominated American transportation for generations. International travel depended on it, both for the rich and famous and for all the poor immigrants who came over in steerage. The rivers, the lakes, the coastal waters, and the oceans swam in steamboats. Hence their originator, or the person popularly credited as such, was a very important person. Was he their inventor? Their rise was too gradual and complex for any one person to take that credit, but he surely is the person who made them a commercial success, even though he died, at 49, just as the steamboat age was taking off. Had he died in his eighties, perhaps he would not have appeared such a romantic figure. A statue and portrait of him were placed in the U.S. Capitol. He was in the first group selected in 1900 for the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in New York City.
But today Fulton is a relative nobody. The statue and portraits are still around, as are the place-names, but few recognize them. Steamboats play no role in modern transportation. I can find not one young person who has a clue to Fulton’s identity. When asked, young people guess that he was a state governor or invented the cotton gin. I challenge any reader to find someone of his or her acquaintance under 20 who can briefly name the man’s accomplishments.
Robert Fulton has gone from international somebody to undeserved national has-been. Yet his life story is a very understandable one even today. His one wish was to be rich and renowned. As he put it in a letter in 1806, ”… let any man place himself in my situation and then ask himself if he has not a right to convert his labors into fame and emolument, for what other objects do men labor?”