Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Robert Fulton,
the Inventor of the Steamboat

On Friday, the 11th of August, 1807, there was an exciting scene on the shores of the Hudson River, at New York City. A crowd of people thronged the water's edge, and in the stream outside lay a strange-looking vessel, on which all eyes were fixed. Above the deck rose a smoke-stack from which volumes of black smoke poured, while queer-shaped paddle-wheels stood out from its side. It was the famous "Clermont," Fulton's side-wheel steamboat, the first of its kind ever seen on American waters.

Years before paddle-wheel steamboats had been tried in Europe, but without success. In America other kinds of steamboats had been used. James Rumsey in 1786 drove a boat in Virginia waters at the speed of four miles an hour by pumping with steam power a jet of water through the stern. John Fitch in 1787 was more successful. His boats were moved by paddles like those used in Indian canoes, and made seven miles an hour. They ran on the Delaware for a number of years, but did not prove a permanent success. Many other inventors were working on the same subject, but the true era of steam-boating began with Fulton's "Clermont "on that morning in 1807.

As the crowd looked on, some in interest, some ready to laugh at the queer craft, the wheels of the vessel began slowly to turn. They were uncovered and they sent the spray flying on all sides. Moving slowly at first, in a little while the "Clermont "was fairly under way, gliding up the Hudson at the rate of five miles an hour. This was no great speed, but to the lookers on, who had never seen a vessel move without sails, it seemed magical, and cheers went up from the great crowd. Nobody felt inclined to laugh now. There were many who had thought it ridiculous to try to move a boat with a steam engine; but—it moved, and there was no more to be said.

Only twelve people took passage for that trip. Men did not like to trust their lives to a new-fangled craft with a steam-puffing demon in its inside. Along the stream, above the city, everybody was out. At every town the banks were crowded, hats and handkerchiefs were waved, and cheers greeted the enterprise. They were proud to see that an American had invented a workable steamboat, and that the Hudson was the scene of its triumph. Albany, nearly one hundred and fifty miles distant, was reached in thirty-two hours, and the return voyage to New York was made in thirty hours, an average of about five miles an hour for the trip.

There were other scenes on the Hudson during that eventful journey. There were many sailing vessels on the river, the crews of which did not know of the great experiment, and as the strange water-monster, pouring smoke and sparks into the air, churning the water into foam, and moving against the tide without sails, met their eyes, they were filled with surprise and apprehension. Some flung themselves in a spasm of terror on the decks of their vessels while the fire-dragon passed, while others took to their boats and rowed lustily for the shore. It was worse still at night, when flames seemed to redden the smoke, and that pioneer voyage of the "Clermont "was a sensation not soon to be forgotten.

Who was Robert Fulton, do you ask? He was an American, born in Pennsylvania in 1765, the same year that Eli Whitney was born in Massachusetts. He made up his mind to be an artist, became a friend of Franklin in Philadelphia as a boy, and at the age of twenty-one went to London to study art under the great Benjamin West. While there he met James Watt, the greatest genius among the inventors of the steam-engine, and new ideas came into his young head. He felt that he had a genius for invention, too, and abandoned art to become a civil engineer. He made experiments and inventions, wrote a work on "Canal Navigation," showed in Paris the first panorama ever seen there, and did some drawing and painting besides. Much of the first money he made in his younger days he used to buy a little farm for his mother, then a widow and poor.

At that time many experiments were being made in the effort to move boats by aid of the steam-engine. Rumsey and Fitch had made some progress in America, and several others were trying in Europe. With what Fulton knew of the steam-engine, this seemed to him a fair field for his inventive powers. He began experimenting, Robert R. Livingston, our Minister to France, who believed in Fulton, furnishing the money. Fulton was sure he knew why other inventors had failed, and that he saw the way to success. He built a trial boat on the Seine, furnished it with a steam-engine and paddle-wheels, and early in 1803 was ready for its first trial.

He made one sad mistake: the engine was too heavy for the boat. One morning he was roused from sleep by the distracting news that the boat had broken to pieces and the engine gone to the bottom. He sprang up and hurried to the river, to find that the news was true. The boat had broken in half and was resting with its engine on the bottom of the Seine.

Fulton succeeded in raising the engine, and found it was not damaged. The boat was ruined, and he had to build a new and stronger one. When it was finished, in August, 1803, the new boat was tried with much success, the members of the National Institute of France and a great crowd of citizens looking on as it made its way down the stream, with a great deal of bluster, but not with any great speed.

Much yet was needed, and the next experiments, were made in New York, where they excited as much ridicule as they did interest. The idea of moving a vessel by steam power seemed to many of the good citizens only fit to be laughed at, and their surprise was not small on that day in 1807 when they saw the Clermont "start away against wind and tide and move up stream.

The problem of steam navigation, which had occupied the time and talent of so many inventors, was solved. The sail and oar, for the first time in history, were thrown out of duty. Regular trips between New York and Albany were made too or three times a week, a larger boat, named the "Car of Neptune," being built and put on the route, and in a few years the steamboat was puffing its way along the waters of many American rivers. It had this time come to stay, and with successive improvements soon became a swifter and more serviceable craft. Fulton took out his first patent in 1809 and his second in 1811. All they called for was the way he employed the crank of the engine in the moving of paddle-wheels. For years he had a monopoly of steam navigation on all the waters of New York State.

During the remainder of Fulton's life he was kept busy inventing and improving. He was employed by the United States Government upon engineering work connected with the navigation of rivers and canals. While in Europe he had made torpedoes for blowing up vessels under water, and these he now improved and they were accepted for naval use by the United States.

In 1814 Fulton was delighted with an order from the government to build a steam frigate or ship of war. This he had long worked to obtain, and Congress now voted three hundred and twenty thousand dollars for the work. The work was finished the next year, and his steam-frigate, the "Fulton," the pride of his life, was successfully launched.

Poor Fulton was not there to see it. He had been exposed to severe weather some months before and taken a violent cold. Before he recovered he went out in inclement weather to give some orders about the frigate, and his sickness came back more severely than before. It grew rapidly worse, and on the 24th of February, 1815, the great inventor died.

His life had been a marked success. Though his steam frigate was never made use of in war, his commercial steamers were to be seen on all the rivers of the United States, and in time began to drive sailing vessels from the seas. Other noted engineers arose to perfect the invention, and to-day steam navigation is one of the most important industries of the world.