Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton

Fulton, Robert, 1765-1815, American inventor, engineer, and painter, b. near Lancaster, Pa. He was a man remarkable for his many talents and his mechanical genius. An expert gunsmith at the time of the American Revolution, he later turned to painting (1782-86) landscapes and portraits in Philadelphia. In England and France his painting gained some notice, but he became interested in canal engineering and the invention of machinery. He worked at making underwater torpedoes and submarines as well as other mechanical devices. In 1802 he contracted to build a steamboat for Robert R. Livingston, who held a monopoly on steamboat navigation on the Hudson. In 1807 the Clermont, equipped with an English engine, was launched. A number of men had built steamboats before Fulton (see steamship), including John Fitch and William Symington. Fulton's steamship, however, was the first to be commercially successful in American waters, and Fulton was therefore popularly considered the inventor of the steamboat. He also designed other vessels, among them a steam warship.

See biographies by B. Richnak (1984) and C. O. Philip (1985).

Robert Fulton (November 14, 1765February 24, 1815) was a U.S. 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 Nautilus, which was the first practical submarine in history.

Early life

Robert Fulton was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1765. He had become interested in steamboats in 1777 when (at the age of 12) he visited William Henry of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Henry had found out about Watt's steam engine on a visit to England. He had then made his own engine and in 1763 – two years before Fulton was born – tried putting his engine in a boat, which sank.

Robert grew up in a 2-story, small, solid gray stone house. When he came of age, Fulton went to England in 1786 to study painting. There he met James Rumsey who sat for a portrait in the studio of Benjamin West, where Fulton was apprenticing. Rumsey was an inventor from Virginia who ran his first steam boat in Shepherdstown, (now West) Virginia in 1786 and repeated his attempt on December 3, 1787. As early as 1793 Fulton proposed plans for steam vessels to both the United States and the British Governments, and in England he met the Duke of Bridgewater, whose canal would shortly be 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 would have been well aware of these developments.

Later years

In 1797, he went to France (where the Marquis Claude de Jouffroy had made a working paddle steamer in 1783) and commenced experimenting with submarine torpedoes and torpedo boats.

In that year he met Robert Livingston, United States Ambassador (whose niece Harriet Livingston he married, they had four children; Robert, Julia, Mary, and Cornelia), and they decided to build a steamboat to try out on the Seine. Fulton experimented with the water resistance of hull shapes, made drawings and models and had a steamboat constructed. At the first trial it sank, but the hull was rebuilt and strengthened, and on August 9, 1803, this boat steamed up the River Seine. The boat was long, beam and made between 3–4 mph (5–6 km/h) against the current.

In 1807, Fulton and King built the first commercial steamboat, the North River Steamboat (later known as the Clermont), which carried passengers between New York City and Albany, New York.

Fulton is buried at the Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City alongside other famous Americans such as Alexander Hamilton.


In 1816, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania donated a marble statue of Fulton to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol Building.

A wide number of places are named for Robert Fulton, including (but not limited to):


Further reading

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