Born on November 14, 1765, Robert Fulton exhibited a creative nature from the first. According to boyhood stories, he manufactured a pencil, designed an improved gun, and created firecrackers for the Fourth of July.
He set out to become an artist for a career. But what set his future course was probably one of his early devices: mounting a set of hand-cranked paddles to a fishing boat. This proved to be successful and undoubtedly more pleasant than poling boats upstream.
Robert Fulton pursued his career as an artist until, while demonstrating his art in Great Britain, he began to be fascinated by canals as a means of transportation. He even went so far as to devise a way to use an inclined plane to remove the need for locks to raise and lower ships in a canal.
He also went to France with the intention of promoting the use of canals there, but he became interested in the submarine, and demonstrated a version of it, the Nautilus, before Napoleon. The French agreed to allow Fulton to build a model designed to sink a few British ships. Unfortunately for Fulton, the British ships escaped, and his little hand-cranked craft was unable to pursue and sink them. The French had seen enough.
While in France, Fulton met the American ambassador, Robert Livingston. Together, they worked on and demonstrated to Napoleon another idea Fulton had been brooding on — the steamboat. The completed model worked well enough, and made three to four miles per hour upstream, but was too heavy in the water. The voyage ended abruptly when the over-weighted craft sunk to the bottom of the river. Not surprisingly, the French did not show too much interest in the steamboat.
Tired of trying to please the French, Robert Fulton moved to Great Britain, where he proceeded to experiment there. The British allowed him to try the torpedoes he built on French ships, but he met with the exact same success he had had with the submarine. The French escaped.
Fulton and the Clermont
Fulton moved back to the States, where he began to work on the most successful project he ever undertook. Funded by Robert Livingston, Fulton worked on the steamboat, but this time one that wouldn’t sink from its sheer weight. Learning from his failure in France, Fulton built the steamboat, later to be dubbed the Clermont, with better abilities to bear its own weight. His design was very long and narrow, 133 feet long by 18 feet wide. Paddle wheels on both sides of the hull powered the ship, which could make three to four miles per hour against the current. At first passengers were rather afraid of “Fulton’s Folly” but just as “Seward’s Folly” (resource-rich Alaska) and “Drake’s Folly” (the first successful oil well) the Clermont proved its worth. As with other “follies,” people not only became used to it, but considered it a momentous achievement.
It is to be noted that Fulton did not invent the steamboat. The idea had been proposed and even implemented well before Fulton entered the scene. What Fulton did, however, was to make the steamboat economical, which allowed companies to make a profit by carrying cargo and passengers across rivers, and eventually the ocean. By taking care of this point, his design was a success, and steamboats revolutionized the world for over a century.
The History of the Steamboat
The steamboat was originally propelled forward by paddle wheels in the middle of the ship, attached to the steam engine which was also located in the center of the craft. The primary reason for this was the fear of instability caused by having the massive bulk of the engine in the back, and it was supposed that paddle wheels somehow enhanced control over the ship. Eventually it was shown that a screw could be added to the back of the ship with the engine without any harm at all. For a long time steamboats and steamships were the real deal, obsolescing sail ships rapidly, although sailing ships managed to hold their own for a while longer in America. But even steamships, which kept becoming bigger and bigger, were to become obsolete, too, as eventually it was found that it was more economical to equip them with standard internal combustion engines.
Incidentally, the large smokestacks ornamenting steamships were used for eliminating waste steam and smoke from the steam engine and associated fire. Those smokestacks have not entirely disappeared from ships. While they are indeed still used for the removal of exhaust, they are significantly larger and more elaborate than necessary!
Robert Fulton: Commercial Steamboat
Biography from MIT.
Another biography from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
Brief biography associated with his statue in Statuary Hall.
An interesting gallery of images with captions relating to his work on canals.
Photos and descriptions from the Library of Congress.
Biography focusing on the voyage of the Clermont.
Fulton’s First Steamboat Voyage, 1807
Eyewitness to History account based on primary sources.
How Steamboats Developed
Beginning with Fulton and the Clermont from the Illinois State Museum.
Interactive Steamboat Model
Just click the arrows to learn.
Building a Submarine (.doc)
Build a submarine model and observe its characteristics.
Robert Fulton: Boy Craftsman by Marguerite Henry
Wonderful biography from a favorite author.
“Robert Fulton and the Invention of the Steamboat”
Chapter from Great Inventors and Their Inventions by Frank Bachman
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
Robert Fulton’s Clermont
26-page download with six lessons that cover art, technology, primary sources, thinking questions, writing activities, math, and creative modeling.
Free Science Studies: Robert Fulton & the Steamboat
Part of our free science studies with more resources.
Free History Studies: Robert Fulton
Part of our free history studies with still further resources.
Robert Fulton Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.