- Engineering & Materials
- Fulton, Robert (1765–1815)
Fulton, Robert (1765–1815)
U.S. artist and engineer and inventor who built one of the first successful steamboats, propelled by two paddle-wheels.
Fulton was born on November 14, 1765 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. His artistic talent was evident at an early age, and he was employed by local gunsmiths to draw designs for their work. At the age of 17 he moved to Philadelphia, where he became a successful portrait painter and miniaturist. Four years later, in 1786, he decided to go to London to study under the U.S. artist Benjamin West. England changed Fulton's life. The country was involved in the Industrial Revolution; highways, canals, and bridges were being built, factories were springing up, and mining enterprises were getting under way. He was fascinated by all he saw and eventually, in 1793, he gave up art as a vocation in favor of engineering projects.
When Fulton was 14 he designed a small paddleboat and now he considered designing one with a steam engine to power it. In 1786 John Fitch (1743–1798) had demonstrated a steamboat in the United States, but it had not proved to be a success. The British government had placed a ban on the export of steam engines, but Fulton nevertheless contacted a British company about the possibility of purchasing an engine suitable for boat propulsion. Meanwhile he designed and patented a device for hauling canal boats over difficult country. He also patented machines for spinning flax (for linen), sawing marble, and twisting hemp (for rope), and he built a mechanical dredger for canal construction.
In 1796 Fulton went to France, where he experimented with fitting steam engines to ships, and by 1801 he had also carried out tests with the Nautilus, a submarine he had invented. But he failed to interest the French in his inventions, so by 1804 he tried the British government, again without success. In 1802 Fulton had met Robert Livingston (1746–1813), a former partner in another steamboat invention and then U.S. minister to the French government. He and Fulton joined forces and in 1803 a steam engine was obtained from the British firm of Boulton and Watt; but it took three years to get permission to export it to the United States.
In New York, Fulton worked to install the new engine in a locally built vessel. Livingston favored designing a propulsion system using a jet of water forced out at the stern under pressure, but Fulton settled on a paddlewheel on each side. In 1807, the paddlesteamer Clermont, with a 18-kW/24-hp engine fitted into its 30-m/100-ft hull, made its first successful voyage up the Hudson River at an average speed of 8 kph/5 mph. A large boatworks was built in New Jersey, and steamboats came into use along the Atlantic coast and later in the west. In 1815, Fulton began to build a steam-powered warship for the U.S. navy.
Fulton died on February 24, 1815 in New York City.
From the Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography, © RM, 2020. All rights reserved. Published under license in AccessScience, © McGraw-Hill Education, 2000–2020. Helicon Publishing is a division of RM.