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Robert Fulton: An American da Vinci

Created date

October 13th, 2016
A reconstruction of Robert Fulton's first submarine, the Nautilus.

A reconstruction of Robert Fulton's first submarine, the Nautilus.

Those familiar with the name Robert Fulton probably best know him as the man who created the first commercially viable steamboat to navigate America’s vast river system. Although this was arguably his crowning achievement, it represents only a fraction of the inventor who accomplished this and so much more.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1765, Fulton would prove to be something of a Renaissance man and a scientific prophet in the years to come. He was a gifted artist who gained notoriety for his marked skill at painting both portraits and landscapes.

When he was still in his teens, Fulton set up shop in Philadelphia. Here, he sold a variety of his original artwork, ranging from portraits and panoramas to architectural drawings and intricate mechanical schematics.

It was clear early on that this young man was an American da Vinci. 

The company he kept

Fulton had a strong scientific bent. As his reputation grew, he began moving in illustrious circles that included luminaries the likes of Benjamin Franklin. 

Such connections provided him with letters of introduction that came in handy when he decided to visit England in 1786. On his arrival, he moved in with his friend and noted artist Benjamin West.

During his stay, Fulton earned money painting portraits and landscapes. In his spare time, however, he turned his attention to the study of science and mechanics.

In particular, Fulton was captivated by the explosion of canal transportation—the “Canal Mania” of the early 1790s. Before long, his work with canals consumed most of his time, and by 1794, he had already obtained a patent for manmade waterways that used inclined planes in place of locks. 

In 1797, Fulton traveled to Paris and commenced informal studies of German and French language, mathematics, chemistry, and engineering—all of this at the same time he was painting portraits and drafting his ideas for a submarine and torpedoes. By the end of that year, he had completed work on his first operational submersible, which he called the Nautilus.

During trial runs, the vessel dove in 25 feet of water and remained submerged for 17 minutes before surfacing. Despite this success, Fulton was unable to obtain financing for future production until 1800, when the French Minister of Marine granted him a contract.

This is when he began thinking about steam.

To be sure, Fulton was a scientist and inventor in the deepest sense. He didn’t merely conjure up novel, yet impractical, concepts that worked on paper but not in reality; far from it. 

Attention to detail

When it came to his maritime inventions, Fulton understood their minutest properties. For instance, prior to building one version of a steam vessel he’d designed with fellow scientist and the U.S. Ambassador to France Robert Livingston, Fulton first made drawings, built models, and experimented with different hull shapes to see how they handled water resistance.

On August 9, 1803, they had finished a working steamboat, which they sailed up the Seine River making 4 mph against the current. 

Three years later, Fulton was back in the United States and, by 1807, he’d built the first successful commercial passenger steamboat, the Clermont, which sailed between New York City and Albany. The boat could make the 150-mile journey in just over 30 hours, which was outstanding for the time.

On the heels of this triumph, he fulfilled a contract for the still-fledgling U.S. Navy, building a steam-driven battery to defend New York’s harbor against the Royal Navy during the War of 1812. 

Called the Demologos, the boat was a catamaran with a paddle wheel situated between two hulls. Mounted below the waterline, her steam engine could achieve 5.5 knots with as many as 30 heavy guns aboard.

It was the world’s first steam-powered naval vessel designed for combat.  

Sadly, Fulton contracted tuberculosis just as his career as one of America’s foremost ship designers was taking off. Nevertheless, he managed to follow through with a final groundbreaking contribution to maritime transportation when he sailed his new steamboat, the New Orleans, down the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo., to the ship’s namesake on the Gulf of Mexico’s coast.

Especially since the United States had recently acquired the expansive Louisiana Territory from France, Fulton’s demonstration broadened the horizon of American and world transportation more than he would ever know.

Thankfully, historians recorded it all and never forgot about any of it. Over 200 years after his death, streets, subway lines, elementary schools, university buildings, and even entire neighborhoods bear his name in tribute.

Robert Fulton wasn’t simply an engineer, an inventor, and an artist. He was a visionary.