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Robert Fulton (November 14, 1765 – February 24, 1815) was an Americanmarker engineer and inventor who is widely credited with developing the first commercially successful steamboat. He also designed a new type of steam warship. In 1800 he was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte to design the Nautilus, which was the first practical submarine in history.

Fulton had become interested in steamboats in 1777 when he visited William Henry of Lancaster, Pennsylvaniamarker, who had earlier learned about James Watt's steam engine on a visit to Englandmarker. Henry had then made his own engine and in 1767 he had tried to put his engine into a boat. The experiment was unsuccessful because the boat sank, but his interest continued.

Education and work

In 1766, Fulton went to study painting in Paris, and there he met James Rumsey, who sat for a portrait in the studio of Benjamin West where Fulton was an apprentice. Rumsey was an inventor from Virginia who ran his own first steamboat in Shepherdstown (now in West Virginia) in 1786. As early as 1793, Fulton proposed plans for steam-powered vessels to both the United States and British governments, and in England he met the Duke of Bridgewater, whose canal was used for trials of a steam tug, and who later ordered steam tugs from William Symington. Symington had successfully tried steamboats in 1788, and it seems probable that Fulton was aware of these developments.

The first successful trial run of a steamboat had been made by inventor John Fitch on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787, in the presence of delegates from the Constitutional Convention. It was propelled by a bank of oars on either side of the boat. The following year Fitch launched a boat powered by a steam engine driving several stern mounted oars. These oars paddled in a manner similar to the motion of a swimming duck's feet. With this boat he carried up to thirty passengers on numerous round-trip voyages between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jerseymarker.

Fitch was granted a patent on August 26, 1791, after a battle with Rumsey, who had created a similar invention. Unfortunately the newly-created Patent Commission did not award the broad monopoly patent that Fitch had asked for, but a patent of the modern kind, for the new design of Fitch's steamboat. It also awarded patents to Rumsey and [[John Stevens (inventor)|John Stevens]] for their steamboat designs, and the loss of a monopoly caused many of Fitch's investors to leave his company. While his boats were mechanically successful, Fitch failed to pay sufficient attention to construction and operating costs and was unable to justify the economic benefits of steam navigation. It was Fulton who turned would turn Fitch's idea profitable decades later.

In 1797, Fulton went to France, where Claude de Jouffroy had made a working paddle steamer in 1783, and commenced experimenting with submarine torpedoes and torpedo boats. Fulton is the inventor of the first panorama to be shown in Paris, which was complete by 1800. The street where his panorama was shown is still called "'Rue des Panorames'" (Panorama Street) today.

Fulton designed the first working submarine, the Nautilus between 1793 and 1797, while living in France. He asked the government to subsidize its construction but he was turned down twice. Eventually he approached the Minister of Marine himself and in 1800 was granted permission to build.

Fulton presents his steamship to Bonaparte in 1803
In France Fulton also met Chancellor Robert R. Livingston who was appointed U.S. Ambassador to France in 1801, and they decided to build a steamboat together and try running it on the Seinemarker. Fulton experimented with the water resistance of various hull shapes, made drawings and models, and had a steamboat constructed. At the first trial the boat ran perfectly, but the hull was later rebuilt and strengthened, and on August 9, 1803, this boat steamed up the River Seine. The boat was long, beam, and made between against the current.

In 1806, Fulton married Chancellor Livingston's niece Harriet (who was the daughter of Walter Livingston), and they later had four children: Robert, Julia, Mary and Cornelia.

In 1807, Fulton and Livingston together built the first commercial steamboat, the North River Steamboat (later known as the Clermont), which carried passengers between New York Citymarker and Albany, New Yorkmarker. The Clermont was able to make the 300 mile trip in 62 hours. From 1811 until his death, Fulton was a member of the Erie Canal Commission.

Fulton died in 1815. He is buried in the Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City, alongside other famous Americans such as Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin.

His descendants include former Major League Baseball pitcher Cory Lidle and Stacy Ogier Hancock

Posthumous honors

In 1816, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvaniamarker donated a marble statue of Fulton to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol Buildingmarker. Fulton was also honored for his development of steamship technology in New York City's Hudson-Fulton Celebration of 1909. A replica of his first steam-powered steam vessel, the Clermont, was built for the occasion.

A wide number of places are named for Robert Fulton and his inventions, including:


  1. American Treasures of the Library of Congress: "Fulton's Submarine"
  2. Alice Crary Sutcliffe, Robert Fulton and the "Clermont", page 63[1].
  4. Fulton Elementary School website


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