Robert Fulton

 and the  

United States Navy

Exhibit, Charleston, South Carolina

December 30, 2016-April 26, 2017

Robert Fulton, (1765-1815),  was an inventor, engineer, and artist who brought steamboating from the experimental stage to commercial success. He also designed a system of inland waterways, a submarine, and a steam warship. 

 Having learned to read and write at home,  Fulton was sent at age eight to a Quaker school; later he became an apprentice in a Philadelphia jewelry shop, where he specialized in the painting of miniature portraits on ivory for lockets and rings. Local merchants, eager to raise the city's cultural level, financed his passage to London in 1787.  There he became acquainted with new inventions for propelling boats: a water jet ejected by a steam pump and a single, mechanical paddle.

Fulton turned his principal efforts toward  canal engineering. His Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation, in 1796, dealt with a complete system of inland-water transportation based on small canals extending throughout the countryside. He included details on inclined planes for raising boats.

He travelled in 1797 to Paris, where he proposed the idea of a  submarine, the "Nautilus," to be used in France's war with Britain; it would creep under the hulls of British warships and leave a powder charge to be exploded later. The French government rejected the idea, however, as an atrocious and dishonourable way to fight.

In 1800 he was able to build the "Nautilus" at his own expense; he conducted trials on the Seine and finally obtained government sanction for an attack, but wind and tide enabled two British ships to elude his slow vessel.  

In 1801 Fulton met Robert R. Livingston, a member of the committee that drafted the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Before becoming minister to France, Livingston had obtained a 20-year monopoly of steamboat navigation within the state of New York. The two men decided to share the expense of building a steamboat in Paris using Fulton's design--a side paddlewheel, 66-foot- (20-metre-) long boat, with an eight-horsepower engine of French design. Although the engine broke the hull, they were encouraged by success with another hull. Fulton ordered parts for a 24-horsepower engine from Boulton and Watt for a boat on the Hudson, and Livingston obtained an extension on his monopoly of steamboat navigation.  

 

 

 

Returning to London in 1804,  Fulton advanced his ideas with the British government for submersible and low-lying craft that would carry explosives in an attack. Two raids against the French using his novel craft, however, were unsuccessful. In 1805, after Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, it was apparent that Britain was in control of the seas without the aid of Fulton's temperamental weapons. In the same year, the parts for his projected steamboat were ready for shipment to the United States, but Fulton spent a desperate year attempting to collect money he felt the British owed him.  

Arriving in  New York in December 1806, Fulton at once set to work supervising the construction of the steamboat that had been planned in Paris with Livingston. He also attempted to interest the U.S. government in a submarine, but his demonstration of it was a fiasco. By early August 1807 a 150-foot- (45-metre-) long "Steamboat," as Fulton called it, was ready for trials. The 150-mile trial run from New York to Albany required 32 hours (an average of almost 4.7 miles per hour). The passage was epic because sailing sloops required four days for the same trip.  

After building an enginehouse, raising the bulwark, and installing berths in the cabins of the now-renamed "North River Steamboat," Fulton began commercial trips in September. He made three round trips fortnightly between New York and Albany, carrying passengers and light freight. Problems, however, remained: the mechanical difficulties, for example, and the jealous sloopboatmen, who through "inadvertence" would ram the unprotected paddlewheels of their new rivals. During the first winter season he stiffened and widened the hull, replaced the cast-iron crankshaft with a forging, fitted guards over the wheels, and improved passenger accommodations. These modifications made it a different boat, which was registered in 1808 as the "North River Steamboat of Clermont," soon reduced to  "Clermont" by the press.  

Fulton was a member of the 1812 commission that recommended building the Erie Canal. With the English blockade the same year, he insisted that a mobile floating gun platform be built--the world's first steam warship--to protect New York Harbor against the British fleet. The  "Demologos," or "Fulton," as the ship was alternately called, incorporated new and novel ideas: two parallel hulls, with paddlewheel between; the steam engine in one hull, and boilers and stacks in the other. It weighed 2,745 displacement tons and measured 156 feet in length; a slow vessel, its speed did not exceed 6 knots. Launched in October 1814, the heavily gunned and armoured steamship underwent successful sea trials but was never used in combat


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