Robert Fulton

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Fulton built the first profitable steamboat, established the traditions that distinguished American steamboats for the remainder of the century, and laid the groundwork for future submarine and torpedo warfare.

Early Life

At the beginning of 1765, Robert Fulton, a successful tailor and leading citizen of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, sold most of his possessions and borrowed money in order to purchase a large farm, thirty miles to the south in Little Britain Township. There, on November 14, 1765, his first son, Robert Fulton, Jr., was born. Nothing else went well for the inexperienced farmer. Six years later, the elder Fulton returned to Lancaster, a bankrupt and dispirited man. He died in 1774, leaving his wife and six children without means of support other than the charity of relatives. Thus, at the age of nine, Robert Fulton learned the meaning of failure and poverty. For the remainder of his life, he struggled to achieve financial success and social status.

With the outbreak of the American Revolution, Lancaster changed from a small, isolated agricultural community to a bustling military and economic center. The population swelled with refugees, soldiers on the march, military prisoners and gunsmiths. As young Fulton’s curiosity attracted him to the new inhabitants, his quick intelligence and enthusiasm induced strangers to give time to the dark, handsome boy. Fulton spent an increasing amount of time with the gunsmiths, for whom he made mechanical drawings and painted signs. Perhaps he was having too good a time: His mother apprenticed him to a Philadelphia jeweler.

Little is known about Fulton’s Philadelphia years. His master was a former London jeweler named Jeremiah Andrews. Fulton’s talent at drawing and painting prepared him to produce miniature portraits on ivory lockets. By 1785, Fulton was listed in a city directory as a “miniature painter.” The following year saw Fulton struck with two burdens that characterized the remainder of his life. He borrowed money to help his mother and sisters purchase another farm. At the same time, Fulton was ill with respiratory ailments. Despite his debts, the young man borrowed money and took the waters at Bath, a spa in northern Virginia favored by the upper class. There, Fulton recovered his health and doubtlessly heard about the steamboat experiments of a local man named James Rumsey. Upon his return to Philadelphia, Fulton found another steamboat pioneer, John Fitch, running his strange vessel across the Delaware River. At this time, however, Fulton displayed no interest in steam engines. He was a painter who desired to improve his skills and status. That meant that he, like other American painters before and since, had to work in Great Britain. Thus, in the summer of 1787, Fulton sailed for England. He would be absent from the United States for the next thirteen years.

Thanks to a letter of introduction, Fulton settled in London as a student of Benjamin West, an American painter popular with Britain’s upper class. Fulton was not a gifted painter: He was, however, very successful at cultivating wealthy friends and patrons. Thus, Fulton managed to survive for several years as a painter. By the early 1790’s, Fulton turned toward machines and canals. He devoted considerable time to studying canals and, in 1796, wrote Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation. Many of his ideas were quite dated, but the volume was distinguished by its format. Fulton demonstrated details with excellent drawings, attempted to base designs upon mathematical calculations, and focused all canal features toward the concept of an inexpensive and national transportation system. The book established Fulton as a canal engineer.

Life’s Work

With France and Great Britain at war in the mid-1790’s, the patents of citizens of one nation were freely copied by the citizens of the other nation. Fulton believed that his canal ideas were valuable and ought to be patented in France. He arrived in France in 1797 and soon abandoned canals. After all, that nation had been building canals for more than a century and had little use for experts who lacked experience. Anyway, Fulton already had a new patron and a new mechanical passion.

Benjamin West had given Fulton an introduction to Joel Barlow, a Yale graduate who was making much money by running American ships through the British blockade and into French ports. Barlow and his wife, Ruth, welcomed Fulton into their Paris residence. The three lived together for the next seven years. The educated Barlow tutored Fulton in science and mathematics, and it was probably Barlow who introduced Fulton to the subject of submarine warfare. Barlow had been at Yale when another student, Robert Bushnell, designed Turtle, a submarine that had engaged in unsuccessful attacks upon British warships during the American Revolution. Bushnell, living in seclusion in Georgia, had sent Thomas Jefferson a detailed description of his submarine efforts, and the latter made the material available to Barlow. By the end of 1797, Fulton was working on submarines.

Within three years, Fulton completed a submarine, and in late 1800, he launched several unsuccessful attacks against British warships off French ports. His submarine Nautilus was an enlarged and refined version of the craft that Bushnell had built more than twenty years before. The method of attack was similar: The submarine carried a mine (called a torpedo by Fulton) to the enemy vessel. If the intended victim moved, it was safe from the slow, awkward submarine. Nor could the hand-cranked Nautilus overcome contrary tides or currents. In one attempt,...

(The entire section is 2344 words.)