On this date in 1803, American inventor Robert Fulton launched a paddle steamboat he had built for a test run on France’s River Seine. Unfortunately, Fulton’s steamboat sank…

Early years

Robert Fulton. (Image: National Inventors Hall of Fame)
Robert Fulton. (Image: National Inventors Hall of Fame)

Fulton was born in Pennsylvania in 1765 and grew up near Philadelphia. His family was poor; he went to work in a Philadelphia jewelry shop as a young boy. His skill at painting miniature portraits for lockets inspired him to become an artist. WIth backing from some Philadelphia merchants, Fulton moved to England in 1788 to be a painter. However, his interest in painting and art was only to earn enough money to focus on developing his inventions. While he was well-liked in England, Fulton did not earn a great deal from his paintings. 

Meanwhile, John FItch staged the first successful trial of a steamboat in 1787 on the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey.  

While Fulton was in England, a number of canals had been built across western Europe to move agricultural and industrial products. This led Fulton to abandon his career as an artist to turn to the very different, but potentially more profitable area of designing inland waterways in 1794. Fulton developed a canal design using inclined planes that raised and lowered boats without the need for costly mechanical lock-and-dam complexes. Then in his 1796 pamphlet, “Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation,” he proposed combining existing rivers with a network of man-made canals to connect towns and cities throughout England. 

A primary focus on inventions

Fulton also developed ideas for steamboats that could carry heavy cargo in shallow water, as well as designs for more stable bridges. Although the British showed no interest in his canal network plan, Fulton succeeded in inventing a canal dredging machine and obtaining British patents for several other related inventions.

Fulton also had learned of an invention that propelled a boat with a paddle. That led him to the idea of using steam to power several connected rotating paddles; this would move the boat more effectively. He later developed his idea as the paddlewheel, and also spent time developing his ideas for a paddle steamboat. 

A rendering of the Nautilus. (Image: American Society of Mechanical Engineers)
A rendering of the Nautilus. (Image: American Society of Mechanical Engineers)

The Nautilus 

In 1797 he moved to Paris to collaborate with Claude de Jouffroy, a French inventor. That year he approached the French government with the concept for a submarine. He sought to convince French officials that a submarine could help France in its war with England. Fulton laid out a plan in which the Nautilus would move undetected under British warships and attach explosive charges to their hulls.

He wrote, “Should some vessels of war be destroyed by means so novel, so hidden and so incalculable the confidence of the seamen will vanish and the fleet rendered useless from the moment of the first terror.” 

Although Napoleon and others in the French government thought the idea of a submarine as “a cowardly and dishonorable way to fight,” the French Minister of Marine authorized Fulton to build the Nautilus.

Fulton made the first tests of the Nautilus in the River Seine at Rouen (about 85 miles northwest of Paris) on July 29, 1800. The trial dives were successful, and Fulton received permission to build a better Nautilus. This submarine was tested on July 3, 1801; carrying a crew of three men, it reached a depth of 25 feet and stayed submerged for over four hours.

The Nautilus was used in two attacks against British ships that blockaded a small harbor near Cherbourg. Because of winds and tides in the harbor, the slower Nautilus was unsuccessful in attacking the British ships.

A portrait of Robert Livingston. (Image: UShistory.org)
A portrait of Robert Livingston.
(Image: UShistory.org)

However, the tests of the Nautilus led to Fulton’s introduction in 1801 to Robert Livingston, the U.S. Ambassador to France. Livingston had been a member of the committee that drafted the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Prior to coming to France, his home state of New York had granted him the exclusive right to operate and profit from steamboat navigation on rivers within the state for a period of 20 years. Fulton and Livingston agreed to a partnership to build a steamboat.

Livingston encouraged Fulton to experiment with various hull shapes, to draw up plans and to construct models.

Fulton did as Livingston suggested, and the steamboat was completed in 1803. On this date in 1803, Fulton’s 66-foot long boat was tested on the River Seine. The French-designed eight-horsepower steam engine was too heavy for the boat and broke the hull, causing it to sink. However, before that occurred the boat had reached a speed of 4 miles per hour against the current. 

Undeterred, Fulton designed a stronger hull and ordered parts for a 24-horsepower engine. Concurrently, Livingston negotiated an extension of his New York steamboat navigation monopoly. 

Fulton returned to London in 1804. He attempted to interest the British government in his design for a semi-submersible, steam-powered warship. However, because of the decisive defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805 by Admiral Horatio Nelson, the British government decided against Fulton’s unconventional and unproven steamships. 

Fulton was impoverished; he had spent much of his own money on the Nautilus and his early steamboats. He decided to return to the United States.

Another portrait of Robert Fulton and an early drawing of a paddleboat steamer. (Image: PBS.org)
Another portrait of Robert Fulton and an early drawing of a paddleboat steamer. (Image: PBS.org)

Success with the Clermont 

Fulton returned to the U.S. in 1806. In December, Fulton and Livingston resumed work on their steamboat. By early August 1807, it was ready for its maiden voyage. The ship was 142 feet long and 18 feet wide. The steamboat used Fulton’s one-cylinder, 19-horsepower condensing steam engine to drive two 15-foot diameter paddlewheels, one on each side of the boat. 

On August 17, 1807, their North River Steamboat (later named the Clermont) began its trial voyage up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany. At the time spectators expected the steamboat to fail; they called it “Fulton’s Folly.” The ship initially stalled, but 30 minutes later the steamboat’s paddlewheels were turning again. Fulton’s paddlewheels moved the ship forward against the river’s current at an average of nearly 5 miles per hour. Fulton’s steamboat completed the 150-mile trip upriver in 32 hours; ships equipped with sails took four days to make the same trip! The return trip downstream took 30 hours.

Following the round-trip, Fulton wrote, “I had a light breeze against me the whole way, both going and coming, and the voyage has been performed wholly by the power of the steam engine. I overtook many sloops and schooners, beating to the windward, and parted with them as if they had been at anchor. The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved.”

Fulton and Livingston fit additional sleeping berths on the ship and made other improvements. The North River Steamboat began scheduled service just three weeks later (September 4, 1807). The paddlewheel steamboat carried passengers and light freight between New York City and Albany. In its first season, the boat had repeated mechanical problems, which were mainly caused by sail-powered boats that “accidentally” rammed its exposed paddlewheels.

A painting of the Clermont, with an inset of Fulton. (Image: Southern Lancaster County Historical Society)
A painting of the Clermont, with an inset of Fulton. (Image: Southern Lancaster County Historical Society)

These incidents led Fulton and Livingston to add metal guards around the paddlewheels during the winter of 1808. They also improved the accommodations for passengers. In addition, they re-registered the steamboat as the North River Steamboat of Clermont, which was soon shortened to simply Clermont. By 1810, the Clermont and two new steamboats designed by Fulton provided regular passenger and freight service on New York’s Hudson and Raritan rivers.

The Clermont was the first commercial steamboat. Because of Fulton’s invention, many of the navigable rivers in the United States were opened to commercial trade and passenger transportation.

The New Orleans 

During 1811-12, Fulton, Livingston and another inventor/entrepreneur (Nicholas Roosevelt) began a new joint venture. They built a new steamboat – one capable of traveling from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. This was a trip of over 1,800 miles along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The new boat was named the New Orleans.

A drawing of Fulton's steamship New Orleans. (Image: Sen. John Heinz History Center)
A drawing of Fulton’s steamship New Orleans. (Image: Sen. John Heinz History Center)

Note that this was less than 10 years after the U.S. acquired the Louisiana Territory from France with the Louisiana Purchase. This vast area now includes multiple states in the Southeast and Midwest. At that time, the Ohio and Mississippi rivers were largely unmapped. Along its route, the New Orleans had to navigate the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Cairo, Illinois. This included the “Falls of the Ohio” near Louisville, Kentucky; the falls dropped 26 feet in about one mile. 

Earthquakes cause shifts in the Mississippi River

Nonetheless, the New Orleans left Pittsburgh on October 20, 1811; it arrived in New Orleans on January 18, 1812. Although the trip down the Ohio River and the Falls of Ohio went well, navigating the Mississippi River was much more difficult. During the trip (on December 16, 1811), several of the great New Madrid earthquakes struck. According to the U.S. Geological Service, the three major earthquakes likely ranged between 6.0 and 6.5 on the Richter scale, which had yet to be invented. A total of seven earthquakes of magnitude 6.0-7.5 occurred during the period December 16, 1811 through February 7, 1812. 

In total, more than 200 moderate to large aftershocks in the New Madrid region occurred between December 16, 1811, and March 15, 1812. Ten of these were greater than 6.0; about 100 were between 5.0 and 5.9; and 89 were in the magnitude 4 range. There were an additional 1,800 earthquakes of about 3.0 to 4.0 during the same period. These earthquakes altered the position of previously mapped river landmarks, such as islands and channels, making navigation difficult. In many places, trees downed by the earthquake formed dangerous, constantly moving “snags” in the river channel that blocked the ship’s path.  

Although it was difficult, the New Orleans’ voyage was successful. The trip proved that steamboats could survive various navigational perils on America’s western rivers. Fulton-inspired steamboats would be the primary means of passenger and freight transportation throughout America’s heartland within 10 years.

The War of 1812

Less than 30 years after the end of the Revolutionary War, the U.S. and Great Britain were at war again. The English navy blockaded U.S. ports during the War of 1812. The U.S. government hired Fulton to design what became the world’s first steam-powered warship. 

A drawing of the Demologos by Samuel Ward Stanton. (Image: navsource.org)
A drawing of the Demologos by Samuel Ward Stanton. (Image: navsource.org)

The ship was named the Demologos. It was “essentially a floating, mobile gun battery.” The ship was 150 feet long and had two parallel hulls; its paddlewheel was protected between them. Its steam engine was placed in one hull and its boiler in the other. The heavily armed, armor-clad steamship was very heavy; this limited it to a speed of about 7 mph. The Demologos completed successful sea trials in October 1814, but was never used in battle (the war ended in February 1815). The U.S. Navy decommissioned the ship; its last voyage under its own power was made in 1817, when it carried President Monroe from New York to Staten Island. 

Fulton’s last years

From 1812 until his death, Fulton spent most of his time and money on legal battles protecting his steamboat patents. In addition, failed submarine designs, poor investments and never-repaid loans he made to relatives and friends shrank his savings.

In early 1815, Fulton rescued a friend who had fallen through the ice while walking on the frozen Hudson River. Soaked and with a severe chill, Fulton developed pneumonia and died on February 24, 1815. He was only 49.

When they learned of his death, both houses of the New York State legislature voted to wear black mourning clothes for the next six weeks; this was the legislature’s first tribute to a private citizen.

Fulton’s legacy

Fulton invented the first commercially successful steamboat, one of the world’s first practical submarines and the first steam-driven warship. 

In particular, the steamboat ushered in an era of affordable and dependable transportation for passengers, raw materials and finished goods. Therefore, Fulton’s invention was of critical importance to the Industrial Revolution in the United States. His steamboats also contributed significantly to America’s use of its rivers for navigation; which contributed to the nation’s westward expansion. 

Fulton’s work on steam-powered warships helped the U.S. Navy transform itself into a major military power. In recognition for his contributions, five U.S. Navy ships have carried the name USS Fulton.

The U.S.S. Fulton (Photo: USSFulton.org)
The USS Fulton (Photo: USSFulton.org)

Other honors and awards recognizing Fulton’s contributions include: Fulton’s statue is among those Americans displayed in the National Statuary Hall inside the U.S. Capitol; a 1965 5-cent U.S. postage stamp; at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, the Department of Marine Engineering is located in Fulton Hall; and with telegraph inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, Fulton is depicted on the reverse of the 1896 U.S. $2 Silver Certificate. More recently, Fulton was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. 

The stamp issued to honor Fulton in 1965. (Image: USPS)
The stamp issued to honor Fulton in 1965. (Image: USPS)

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