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Robert Fulton and the Invention of the Steamboat

On August 17, 1807, a curious crowd of people in New York gathered at a boat landing. Tied to the dock was a strange-looking craft. A smokestack rose above the deck. From the sides of the boat, there stood out queer shaped paddle wheels. Of a sudden, the clouds of smoke from the smokestack grew larger, the paddle wheels turned, and the boat, to the astonishment of all, moved. It was "Fulton's Folly," the Clermont, on her first trip to Albany.

The First Boats

The first boat used by man was probably the trunk of a fallen tree, moved about by means of a broken branch or pole. Then some savage saw that a better boat could be made by tying a number of logs together to make a raft. But rafts are hard to move, so the heart of a log was hollowed out by means of a stone ax or fire, to make a still better boat, or strips of birch bark were skillfully fastened together to form a graceful canoe. Boats were constructed also of rough-hewn boards. With such primitive craft, voyages of hundreds of miles were made up and down great rivers like the Mississippi, or along the shores of inland seas like the Great Lakes.

The Phœnicians were the first great sailors. Their boats, called galleys, were sometimes two to three hundred feet long. These were of two kinds, merchantmen and war vessels. The merchantmen were propelled partly by sails and partly by oars, but on the war vessels, when in battle, oars only were used. On a single boat there were often several hundred oarsmen or galley slaves. These galley slaves were as a rule prisoners of war. They were chained to the oar benches, and to force them to row, they were often beaten within an inch of their lives. In enormous sail-and-oar vessels the Phœnicians crossed the Mediterranean in every direction, pushed out into the Atlantic Ocean, and went as far north as England.

Medieval Galley

The chief improvement in boat making, from the time of the Phœnicians until the first trip of the Clermont, was to do away with oars and to use sails only.

It was not until about fifty years before the time of Columbus that oars were generally discarded and large boats were propelled entirely by sails. Sailboats were, to be sure, a great improvement over oar boats. Yet at best they were slow and unreliable, held back alike by calm and storm. The Pilgrims were ten weeks in crossing the Atlantic, and the regular trip, in the time of Washington, required six weeks.

Santa Maria

Boats were thus from the very earliest times important in trade and travel. For this reason it is not surprising that Watt's engine was scarcely perfected, before men tried to make it propel a boat.

The First Steamboats

The first American to attempt the propelling of a boat by steam was William Henry, a gunsmith of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In 1760, Mr. Henry was in England on business. He took great interest in the talk going on then about the use of steam to drive machinery, propel boats, and the like. On his return to America, he built an engine fashioned after one of Newcomen's engines, and so placed it in a boat that it worked a number of paddles. The boat did not go well, and a little later was accidentally sunk. Though unsuccessful, Henry never lost his interest in steamboats.

The first American to propel a boat by steam successfully was John Fitch. Fitch was a frequent visitor at the home of Henry, and probably got the idea of building a steamboat from him. However that may be, Fitch built a better boat than Henry, and he is regarded by some people as the real inventor of the steamboat.

Fitch Steamboat

Fitch built his first boat in 1787. The engine was made in America, but was copied from that of Watt. Along each side of the boat stood two sets of three paddles. To move the boat, these were given a motion like the stroke in paddling a canoe. Six paddles entered the water, while six came out. Fitch had great difficulty in obtaining the money to build the boat, and even after it was built the boiler had to be made larger. Finally, after much delay and anxiety, all was ready for a public trial. This took place at Philadelphia. Men like Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin came to see the new wonder. It was marvelous to see a boat propelled by steam, but the speed was only three or four miles an hour, so there was no great enthusiasm over the steam oar boat.

The next year, Fitch built a second boat, with the paddles placed at the stern. But the boat could not be made to go faster than a man could walk, and it was no more of a success than the first. Fitch succeeded, however, in 1790, in making a boat sixty feet long and eight feet wide with paddles at the stern, which had a speed of seven miles an hour. After a trial at Philadelphia, it made regular trips, during the rest of the summer, between Philadelphia and Trenton running between two and three thousand miles with no serious accident. But it cost more to run the boat than the fares amounted to, and the venture failed.

Fitch found his way to New York, and might have been seen there in 1796, working on a screw steamboat. He had long since spent all his own money. Nobody would help him, and therefore the screw steamboat had to be given up. Completely discouraged, Fitch retired to a farm in Kentucky. He believed in the steamboat until the last, and was confident that the day would come when steamboats would be running on all our large rivers and across the ocean. "The day will come," said he, "when some more powerful man will get fame and riches from my invention; but now no one will believe that poor John Fitch can do anything worthy of attention."

Driving along the shore of the Delaware one day, John Stevens of New Jersey saw Fitch's little steamboat puffing slowly along between Philadelphia and Trenton. He followed it to the next landing and examined it with care. He had long been interested in steamboats and now decided to build one. He set to work with great energy, and by his enthusiasm he induced Robert R. Livingston of New York to share in the enterprise. After almost ten years of planning and experimenting, these men thought they were on the point of success. The boat of which they expected so much was launched in 1798. But alas! it could run only three miles an hour in still water, and was soon given up as a failure.

Stevens, undaunted, continued his experiments year after year. Model after model was made. Some of these boats had paddle wheels extending from the sides; some were propelled by a single revolving screw at the stern, and others had two screws. Stevens experimented also with different kinds of boilers. So successful was he that he came very near winning the prize that was afterwards awarded to Robert Fulton. The very next month after Fulton's first boat made its trial trip, Stevens launched the Phoenix, which was quite as good a boat as the Clermont. His screw propeller, as well as his boilers, afterwards came to be used extensively on ocean steamships. Thus, after Fulton, Stevens did more than any other man to make the steamboat a practical success.

Inventors in England were likewise busy. The most successful of these was William Symington. The money to build the trial boat was supplied by Lord Dundas, who hoped that steam might take the place of horses in towing canal barges. The Charlotte Dundas, Symington's boat, was ready for trial in 1802. She was a stern-wheeler, that is, she was propelled by a paddle wheel at the stern. An engine built by Boulton and Watt supplied the power. The new boat took two barges of seventy tons burden each, and in the face of a strong wind towed them down the canal twenty miles in six hours.

Lord Dundas was delighted. He wanted this way of towing adopted. The other owners of the canal were not convinced, however, that there would be much saved by the change, and besides, they feared that the new boat would damage the banks of the canal. Lord Dundas finally succeeded in interesting the Duke of Bridgewater, who gave Symington an order for eight boats like the Charlotte Dundas. Had these been built, Symington would to-day probably be known as the inventor of the steamboat. Unfortunately the Duke died about this time, and the boats were never built. The Charlotte Dundas  was anchored in a side creek to rot, and Symington gave up the project in despair.

Though men had been working and experimenting for many years, a practical steamboat, that is, one which could be used at a good profit to its owners, was yet to be built. There was great need of such a steamboat, and Watt's engine was strong enough to propel it. But no one seemed able to build a boat of the right shape, to make the right kind of a propeller, or to harness Watt's engine to it in the right way. So many attempts had been made, and there had been so many failures, that most men came to believe it was impossible to make a successful steamboat. The man who first succeeded in accomplishing the "impossible" was Robert Fulton.

Fulton's Early Life

Robert Fulton was born at Little Britain, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1765. His father, though not successful in money matters, was highly respected; he was a leader in the Presbyterian Church, and held a number of minor public offices of honor. His mother was an excellent woman who had more education than most women of the time, for she taught Robert reading, writing, and ciphering, until he was eight years of age.

Robert Fulton

Robert was then sent to school, where he acquired a good elementary education. He was not a superior scholar. Books interested him much less than painting or the shop of the gunsmith. Nobody knows who taught him to paint, unless it was Major André, who was later hanged as a spy. Major André lived for some months at Lancaster and gave painting lessons there. It is possible that Robert was one of his pupils. At all events, the boy learned, when quite young, to draw and to paint.

He had some talent, and perhaps was inspired to become an artist by the example of Benjamin West, one of America's greatest painters. Mr. West when a boy was often in Lancaster, and he painted a portrait of Robert's father and mother. Mr. Henry, of whom mention has already been made, had a number of Mr. West's pictures, and Robert used to go to his home to look at them. It may be true, also, that Mr. Henry talked to Robert, when on these visits, about his steamboat, and how fine it would be to invent one, and that these talks did much to lead him to give up art and become an engineer and inventor.

Besides being fond of drawing and painting, Robert was fond of tools. Not far from his home, there were shops where muskets were made for the soldiers of the Revolutionary War. Robert was a frequent visitor there, and he spent much time in making drawings of guns and tinkering with broken muskets.

His turn for making things showed itself early. One day, Robert was very late at school. "Robert, why are you so late?" asked the teacher.

"I was making a pencil out of a piece of lead," he replied.

Robert Fulton

The teacher looked at the pencil and found it a good one. Before many days, all the children had lead pencils.

At the age of seventeen, Fulton left Lancaster and went to Philadelphia. He gave his attention principally to painting portraits and miniatures, but he turned his hand to anything that came along. He drew plans for machinery and for carriages, and even houses. In this way he not only made his own living, but by the time he was twenty-one he had saved four hundred dollars.

While living in Philadelphia, Fulton became acquainted with Benjamin Franklin. Knowing that Fulton would never succeed as an artist unless he prepared himself better, Franklin advised him to go to London and study. Fulton decided to do this; but just then his father died, leaving his mother without a home. He therefore took a part of the four hundred dollars which he had planned to spend on his art education, and bought his mother a farm, where she lived in contentment and plenty for many years.

Studying Art in London

With a letter from Franklin to Benjamin West, Fulton set out for London, where he landed early in 1787. He had about two hundred dollars in his pocket, not a large sum with which to get an education; but lack of money has never been a bar to young men of character and energy. Benjamin West received the young man with kindness, and in addition to giving him instruction, helped him in other ways.

The story of Fulton's life at that time is told in a letter to his mother. "I had an art to learn by which I was to earn my bread, but little to support me while I was doing it. Many, many a silent, solitary hour have I spent in most anxious study, pondering how to make funds to support me until the fruits of my labor should be sufficient. . . . Thus I went on for nearly four years—happily beloved by all who knew me, or I had long before now been crushed by poverty's cold wind and freezing rain. When last summer I was invited by Lord Courtney down to his country seat to paint a picture of him, . . . His Lordship was so much pleased that he introduced me to all his friends. And it is but just now that I am beginning to get a little money and pay some debts which I was obliged to contract. So I hope in about six months to be clear with the world, or in other words out of debt, and then start fair to make all I can."

Engineer and Inventor

After four years of study, Fulton felt that he was ready to take up his life work. Among the friends to whom Lord Courtney introduced him was the Duke of Bridgewater, who became one of Fulton's good friends. Whether it was the talks about steamboats and about canals with the Duke of Bridgewater; or whether Fulton was carried away by what was then being written in England and America in regard to boats and waterways; or whether it was his talent for mechanics and invention grown strong, we do not know,—but Fulton suddenly gave up the idea of being an artist and decided to become an engineer.

Whether Fulton would have become a great artist or not, no one can tell. He surely had artistic ability. He had been taught by the best teachers of England, and had gained some recognition and honor as an artist. At all events, if the world lost a great artist, it gained a great inventor. Nor was his training as an artist entirely lost when he turned engineer. He was able to make his ideas clear by means of drawings, and was also able to draw his own plans and designs.

Immediately after making his decision, Fulton went to Birmingham, where he lived for two years. There he studied the great canals which were being built. He became acquainted with Watt and his engines, and saw the best mechanics in Europe at work. His active mind soon began to turn out invention after invention. He invented a double inclined plane for raising and lowering canal boats from one level to the other, a machine for spinning hemp, and one for twisting hemp rope.

A project to which he gave a great deal of time was his submarine or plunging boat. Fulton was able to go down into the water in this diving boat twenty feet or more, and move about. In this way he could get near a vessel without being seen, and then by means of a cigar-shaped torpedo which he invented could blow it up. In an experiment at Brest, in 1805, he succeeded in doing this. Fulton thought his diving boat and torpedoes would make war vessels useless, and would do away with war on the seas. He tried in turn to get the French and English governments to adopt this invention; he also offered it to the United States. Nothing, however, came of his efforts. Submarine and torpedo boats have since come into general use, but they have not put an end to naval war, as Fulton hoped they would.

Experimenting with Steamboats

We do not know when Fulton first began to think of making a steamboat. But we have his own words for saying that in 1802 he began "experiments with a view to discover the principles on which boats or vessels should be propelled through the water by the power of steam engines." Fulton did not undertake to make a successful steamboat without knowing of the failures of Fitch, Stevens, Symington, and others; and without understanding that after so many failures, men who still thought a practical steamboat could be built were looked upon as madmen. Yet it has ever been so. The men who win fame and fortune do what other people say cannot be done. Fulton learned all he could from the mistakes and failures of others. To make sure that he was right before he went ahead, he did what was still more important, he made experiment after experiment.

He built a model boat, four feet long and twelve inches wide, provided with two strong clock springs for power. Experiments were made with propellers which opened and shut like a duck's foot, with side paddle wheels, stern paddle wheels, side oars, screws, and paddles fastened to an endless chain passing over two wheels. Fulton was convinced that side paddle wheels were the best. He learned also that the propelling surface of the different paddles combined should be twice the exposed surface of the bow. In addition, he worked out a table to show the power that was needed to move boats of different sizes at different speeds. With this information, Fulton was ready to experiment on a larger scale, and he began to dream of boats that should make the trip between New York and Albany in twelve hours.

Robert R. Livingston was at this time United States minister to France. Fulton, then living in France, succeeded in getting him to advance the money to make the larger experiment, and the two formed an agreement that if the experiment proved successful, they would construct and run steamboats between New York and Albany. To protect themselves in their invention, Livingston secured from the State of New York, in the name of himself and Fulton, the exclusive right for twenty years to navigate steamboats on all waters of the state. No one thought, even in 1803, that there was any danger that such an invention would be a success.

Fulton at length set to work on a boat seventy feet long, eight feet wide, and with three feet draft. The paddle wheels were twelve feet in diameter, and the engine was about eight horse power. When the boat was nearly ready for the trial trip, a violent storm arose one night, and so beat the boat about that it broke in two and sank to the bottom of the Seine. Fulton was awakened from an anxious sleep by the shouts of his servant, who exclaimed, "Oh sir! the boat has broken to pieces and has gone to the bottom."

Fulton hurried to the river, to find that this was all too true. He labored for twenty-four hours without stopping, to raise the boat. The machinery was little harmed, but the hull was such a wreck that it had to be entirely rebuilt. This occupied several months, and the boat was not again ready for trial until August, 1803.

Robert Fulton

The trial trip was thus described in one of the French newspapers: "At six o'clock in the evening, aided by only three persons, he (Fulton) put his boat in motion . . . and for an hour and a half he produced the curious spectacle of a boat moved by wheels, . . . these wheels being provided with paddles or flat plates, and moved by a fire engine. In following it along the wharf, the speed against the current of the Seine was about that of a rapid walker, that is about four miles an hour. . . . It was maneuvered with ease, turning to the right and left, came to anchor and started again." Not only was the new boat declared a success by the French newspapers, but the success was such as to lead Livingston and Fulton to begin the building of a boat for actual service on the Hudson.

Building the Clermont

A twenty-four horse power engine was ordered, in August, 1803, from Boulton and Watt, to be shipped to New York. Boulton and Watt at first refused the order, because the British government would not let them ship the engine. The government probably feared that the engine was to be used in a torpedo boat by the French. After much delay, permission was secured, and the order was accepted. Fulton, who was then in England, went to Birmingham to see that the engine was built just as he wanted it; for he was right in feeling that the success of his boat depended upon how the engine worked. Fulton arrived at New York in December, 1806. He at once hired a famous shipbuilder, whose yards were on the East River, to build the hull of the boat. The boat was to be one hundred and fifty feet long, thirteen feet wide, and was to draw two feet of water.

When it became known that the new boat was to be a steamboat, idle crowds used to collect around, and in derision they called it "Fulton's Folly." Nor did these crowds take kindly to the idea of a steamboat; they even went so far as to try to destroy it. Neither did the owners of the sailboats on the East River like the idea, so when they were passing by in their sloops they would bump into the Clermont. To protect the boat, it became necessary for Fulton to hire men to watch her both by day and by night.

No one had any faith in the success of the venture. When, in 1806, Livingston and Fulton offered to take Stevens into partnership with them, he refused, and said, "Mr. Fulton's plan can never succeed."

At another time, when it became necessary to raise a thousand dollars to complete the Clermont, Fulton went to some of his friends for aid. Most of them told him they were too wise to sink good money in such a wild scheme. After much difficulty, however, Fulton succeeded in obtaining the needed money, but only by promising his friends to keep their names secret. They feared that they would be ridiculed for their folly.

The Clermont, when completed, was a queer-looking craft. There was a mast at each end, but these carried very small sails. A little to the front of the center stood the smokestack and the working beam and piston. Projecting from the center over each side was a great uncovered paddle wheel. "She looked," said one observer, "like a backwoods sawmill mounted on a scow and set on fire."

First trip of Clermont

First Trip of the Clermont

The Clermont was ready for her first trip up the Hudson, August 17, 1807. Here is Fulton's own story of the trip:

"The moment arrived at which the word was to be given for the boat to move. My friends were in groups on the deck. There was anxiety mixed with fear among them. They were silent, sad, and weary. I read in their looks nothing but disaster, and almost repented of my efforts. The signal was given, and the boat moved on a short distance and then stopped. . . . To the silence of the preceding moment, now succeeded murmurs of discontent and agitation, and whispers, and shrugs. I could hear distinctly repeated, 'I told you it was so; it is a foolish scheme; I wish we were well out of it.' "

"I elevated myself on a platform; I stated I knew not what the matter was, but if they would be quiet and give me half an hour, I would either go on or abandon the voyage for that time. . . . I went below and found. . . . the cause. . . . In a short time it was fixed. 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 own senses. We left the fair city of New York; we passed through the romantic and ever varying scenery of the Highlands; we descried the clustering houses of Albany; we reached its shores,—and then, even then, when all seemed achieved, I was the victim of disappointment. . . .

"It was then doubted if it could be done again, or if done, it was doubted if it could be made of any great value."

In another letter Fulton wrote:

"My steamboat voyage to Albany and back has turned out rather more favorably than I had calculated. The distance from New York to Albany is one hundred and fifty miles. I ran it up in thirty-two hours and down in thirty. 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. The morning I left New York there were not perhaps thirty people in the city, who believed that the boat would ever move one mile an hour, or be of the least utility, and while we were putting off from the wharf, I heard a number of sarcastic remarks. . . .

"Having employed much time, money, and zeal in accomplishing this work, it gives me, as it will you, great pleasure to see it fully answers my expectations. It will give a cheap and quick conveyance to the merchandise on the Mississippi, Missouri, and other great rivers, which are now laying open their treasures to our countrymen; and although the prospect of personal gain has been some inducement to me, yet I feel  . . . more pleasure in reflecting on the immense advantage that my country will derive from the invention."

Clermont on the Hudson

The passage of the Clermont  caused great excitement among the people along the way. Here is a description written by one who stood on the bank and saw the boat go by:

"It was in the early autumn of the year 1807, that a knot of villagers was gathered on a high bluff just opposite Poughkeepsie, on the west bank of the Hudson, attracted by the appearance of a strange, dark-looking craft which was slowly making its way up the river. Some imagined it to be a sea monster, whilst others did not hesitate to express their belief that it was a sign of the approaching judgment. . . . The dense clouds of smoke, as they rose, wave upon wave, added still more to the wonderment of the rustics.

"On her return trip, the curiosity she excited was scarcely less intense,—the whole country talked of nothing but the sea monster, belching forth fire and smoke. The fishermen became terrified and rowed homeward, and they saw nothing but destruction devastating their fishing grounds; whilst the wreaths of black vapor and rushing noise of the paddle wheels, foaming with the stirred-up waters, produced great excitement amongst the boatmen."

On her return from Albany, the Clermont was put in dock. The paddle wheels were covered, decks were made over the boilers, the rudder was repaired, and three cabins of twelve berths each were fitted up to accommodate forty to fifty passengers. Thus equipped, the Clermont started in September, 1807, to make regular trips between Albany and New York, and continued to do so until the Hudson froze over late in November. As a passenger packet, she was a success from the first. To be sure, people were in great fear that the boiler would burst, or that the boat would catch on fire. There was also a vague feeling that something terrible must surely happen to the "monster which defied storm and tide and belched forth fire and smoke."

The fare was just the same as that on the sailboats, three dollars, but it took sailboats, on the average, forty-eight hours to make the trip, and the average time of the Clermont  was only thirty-six hours. It was not long before she was crowded.

Steamboats on River and Ocean

Most great inventions are a long time in coming, but when once their utility is demonstrated they are quickly adopted. This was true of the steamboat. During the winter of 1807 the Clermont  was made better and larger, and renamed the North River. So great was the demand, that within the next eight years Fulton constructed, or there were built according to his plans, no less than ten other boats for service on the Hudson River, Long Island Sound, and the Potomac. Fulton also designed and built great steam ferryboats to cross the East River and the Hudson River. Steven's Phoenix  began in 1807 to make regular trips on the Delaware, and by 1810 steamboats could be seen trailing long lines of smoke up and down the Mississippi and the Ohio. They were also introduced into England and Russia, and even into far-away India.

[Illustration] from Great Inventors by Frank Bachman

Fulton's belief in the commercial usefulness of steamboats was so great that he not only expected them to be placed on all the rivers of the civilized world, but he hoped to see them on the great oceans also.

The first steam vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean was the Savannah, in 1819. Fulton did not live to witness this great event, for he died in 1815. To a great idea,—steam navigation,—he had given freely of his time, his talents, and his money. Others like Fitch helped him to succeed. Others like Stevens improved on his invention. Together they gave to the world one of its chief means of travel, transportation, and communication. Yet to Robert Fulton belongs the honor of being the first inventor to make a genuinely successful steamboat.

[Illustration] from Great Inventors by Frank Bachman