Monday, August 17, 2015

Fulton’s Folly Chugs Up River and Changes Everything

Robert Fulton;s North River Steamer later known as the Clairmont.

Ask any American school child who invented the steam boat and she will probably tell you Robert Fulton.   That would be wrong.  Several working steam boats preceded the one that Fulton built.  But he deserves recognition for the first trip of the North River Steamboat (later known as the Clermont) August on 17, 1807 from New York City to Albany on the Hudson River.  The trip took 32 hours of actual travel time chugging up-river at an average 5 miles per hour.  The total trip took two full days because of a lengthy lay over at the estate of the boat’s principle backer, wealthy lawyer, diplomat and politician Robert Livingston. 
The ship was soon engaging in a regular—and profitable river packet service between the two cities.  Powered by two paddlewheels mounted opposite one another amidships and powered by British made Boulton and Watt steam engines, the boat was built to Fulton’s specifications at Charlie Browne’s New York shipyard.  After being re-built and expanded over the following winter, she resumed service and was soon joined by two other ships, Car of Neptune and Paragon operated by Fulton and Livingston’s company.  The commercial success of the venture overcame the many skeptics who first called the boat “Fulton’s Folly” and opened up the vast interior water ways of the new nation to regular and economical commerce. 
Within a decade steamboats were being built and operated on the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri and other major rivers vastly accelerating settlement and development of the U.S. heartland.

Artist and inventor Robert Fulton.

Fulton was born to an Irish immigrant father in Little Britain, Pennsylvania on November 14, 1765 and was brought up near Lancaster after his father’s early death where the family worshiped with Quakers and where young boy became interested in mechanical contraptions.  As a boy he built rockets and experimented with mercury and bullets. 
But he also had an artistic bent and decided to follow the career of an esteemed American and former friend of his late father, Benjamin West.  West was already earning fame in England and his example encouraged not only Fulton, but other talented young men.  Still a youth, he moved to Philadelphia and established a successful career as a landscape artist and portrait painter. By 1785 he was able to buy a farm near Hopewell for his mother. He became acquainted with Benjamin Franklin and other Revolutionary era figures. 
At the age of 21, armed with letters of introduction from Franklin and other well-known Americans, Fulton headed to England where West took him under his wing and literally into his home where the young man lived and studied for a number of years. He earned a nice living, but continued to experiment with mechanical inventions. 
Increasingly he became interested in water transportation.  He published a pamphlet on canals and patented a dredging device. He followed with interest early development of steam powered water craft. 
Fulton met Virginia inventor James Rumsey who sat for a portrait by West.  Rumsey had built and operated a crude steamboat on an inland Virginia river in as early as 1786.  He met the Duke of Bridgewater on whose proprietary canals were used by steam tugs built by William Symington 1788.  And from America he got word that John Fitch was operating a successful steamboat on the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey the same year. 
Fitch’s boat used steam engines to power several stern mounted oars.  The design was inefficient, but serviceable.  Unfortunately for Fitch, he could not get and exclusive patent on all steam powered boats and his investors abandoned the project before he could establish a workable business.  

Fulton's Nautilus said to be the first truly practical submarine shown on the surface under sail and underwater.
In 1797 Fulton he went to Paris, where he was as well-known as an inventor as an artist.  He experimented with torpedoes and designed what experts regard as the first truly serviceable submarine, Nautilus, which, after years of trying, was finally approved by the French Minister of Marine in 1800.  But it was steamboats that occupied most of his attention and imagination. 
Fulton met Claude de Jouffroy who had built the first successful paddlewheel boat back in 1783.  In 1801 Fulton convinced the new American Minister to France, Robert Livingston, to back him in building a proposed steamship on the Seine.  He adopted the paddle wheel for propulsion and after experimenting with various hull designs he built a prototype which he tested.  On August 9, 1803 he launched his ship successfully and presented it to Napoleon Bonaparte amid considerable hoopla and publicity on both sides of the ocean.
Encouraged Fulton proposed plans for the use of steam powered boats on inland waterways to both the English and American governments.    He returned to the U.S., soon to be rejoined by his benefactor Livingston.  Unable to get the government to finance building a demonstration steamship, Livingston and Fulton again became partners. 

Wealthy Robert Livingston, Fulton's partner and patron.
They were so close that Fulton married Livingston’s niece Harriet in 1807.  Together they would have four children.  Fulton grew wealthy and influential though his connections to the powerful Livingston family.  He served on the Erie Canal Commission from 1811 until his death in 1815.  He was interred at New York’s Trinity Church Graveyard. 
Fulton’s legacy is honored by many place names on the American map, especially along the river valleys that his pioneering craft help develop. 
And by the way, that boat was never called the Clermont while it was in service.  It was referred to as simply the Steamboat, or after sister ships were put in operation, the North River Steamboat.  Clermont was the name of Livingston’s estate and was erroneously given to the ship in an 1817 biography of Fulton, which became the standard reference used by later writers.


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