Robert Fulton

From Ohio History Central
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Robert Fulton was born near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1765. He always fancied himself an artist and specialized in miniature portraits and landscape scenes. His most famous subject was probably Benjamin Franklin. In 1786, Fulton moved from Philadelphia to London, England, where he continued his artistic career. He became such an accomplished artist that he even exhibited his work in the Royal Gallery during 1791.

During the 1790s, first canals and then steam-powered ships fascinated Fulton. He began to design his own vessels, hoping to sell the designs to the British Navy. After experiencing several disappointments with his designs in Britain, Fulton moved to France in 1797. Once in France, Fulton began to design submarines for the French Navy. While French military officials expressed an initial interest, they eventually had a change of heart. This was despite the fact that Fulton's submarine, the Nautilus, remained submerged and operational in twenty-five feet deep water for seventeen minutes. Disappointed, Fulton returned to Britain, where he designed submarines for the British Navy. He had much more success with the British officials. Using torpedoes (floating mines) Fulton succeeded in destroying a three hundred ton ship.

In 1806, Fulton returned to the United States. He resided in New York, where he began to design steamboats. He had constructed his first steamboat in France in 1802. He completed the vessel for Robert Livingston, the United States ambassador to France. The ship was powered with a paddle wheel and first sailed in the Seine River in Paris. Livingston had received a monopoly on steam-powered ships from the New York government. Under Livingston's direction, Fulton went to New York to create the first profitable steamboat in world history.

In his first years back in the United States, the American government routinely asked Fulton's assistance on numerous matters. First, the government hoped that Fulton could provide the United States Navy with its own fleet of submarines. Secondly, President Thomas Jefferson requested Fulton's assistance in creating an inland waterway consisting of navigable rivers and canals throughout the Louisiana Territory. Fulton's true love though was the steamboat.

Fulton did not invent the first steam-powered ship. Other inventors had dreamed of such a possibility since at least 1543. Fulton, however, created the first economically viable commercial steamboat. It would revolutionize water traffic. Many people referred to Fulton's vessel as "Fulton's Folly." He named it the Clermont. It was a flat-bottomed vessel that resembled a rectangular box with a paddle wheel. It had luxurious sleeping accommodations for lengthy trips, as well as a saloon and a separate lounge for women passengers. The total cost of the steamboat was in excess of twenty thousand dollars.

Despite the criticism, Fulton pursued his dream. On August 17, 1807, the Clermont made its first trip from New York City to Albany, New York, along the Hudson River. The trip took thirty-two hours, roughly one-quarter of the time that the voyage had previously taken with a wind-powered vessel. The return trip, going with the current, took only thirty hours. By early September, the Clermont provided commercial service between New York and Albany. The round-trip cost for passengers was just seven dollars.

Fulton continued to make improvements in steam-powered ships. He constructed the first steamboat to travel on the Ohio River, the New Orleans. Although not as well constructed as later vessels, it managed to steam its way from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in 1811. Although the steamboat was able to make the trip to New Orleans, it did not have enough power to return against the current and spent the next two years transporting people and goods between New Orleans and Natchez. In 1813, the steamboat ran aground and sank. In spite of the New Orleans's failure to return back to Pittsburgh, Fulton was able to learn from its design and build stronger steamboats in the future. He also designed the first steam-powered warship. It was called the Demologos and was more than three hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide. It had forty-four guns on the deck of the ship and several additional guns that could fire underwater.

In February 1815, Fulton passed away. He died from what was probably pneumonia. Fulton's research dramatically altered life for Ohioans and for all Americans. Thanks to Fulton's improvements of the steamboat, Ohioans now had quick access to the Gulf of Mexico by sailing down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River. This helped move Ohioans from a strictly subsistence economy to a much more commercial one. Industries could now ship their wares to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond with minimal expense. Farmers also had easier access to their markets, allowing them to grow additional crops for sale. Thanks to Fulton, Ohio's economy would change, allowing many people to prosper. At the same time, Ohio's economy now also became more tightly linked to outside forces that previously played a minimal role in the state.

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