Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth

Robert Fulton


There was a time long, long ago when America was like the land of fairy tales "where no one lived but a strange people and many animals." The strange people who lived in America were the red-skinned Indians. And it was to their land of forest wastes that the early colonists came. These colonists must have been lonely indeed as they stood on the shore and watched the ship that had brought them fade away in the distance, bound for home. There must have been a great longing in their hearts for the time when the ship would come again, bringing other colonists and news of far-away friends. And perhaps there was fear, too, of days when they might watch anxiously for a ship bearing fresh supplies. What more natural than that they should build their homes near the coast or on some navigable river, where ships from home could easily come to them?

As other colonists came, they, too, for the same reasons, settled near the shore. Moreover, if a man from one settlement wished to visit another, clearly he must go by land or water. If he went by land, there was greater danger from Indians, and he must travel through the rough forest, guided only by the blazed trees that marked the way. To go by water was a far simpler matter.

So it was that colonial towns grew up along the Atlantic coast, or on the shores of some stream that ran into the sea.

The small boats of these pioneer settlers were for the most part canoes copied after those of the Indians. There were two ways in which the Indians made canoes. One was by hollowing out a great pine or cedar log. This was done either by burning the wood, or by chipping away piece after piece with some sharp tool. The other form of Indian canoe was a light framework covered with birch bark.

As time went on the settlers built small boats of other kinds, and vessels large enough for ocean use. These last were all sailing vessels, and the best of them took weeks and sometimes months to cross the sea. Slow as they were, the sailing vessels were the only means of ocean travel for many years after the founding of the American colonies.

The world of long ago wasted time and strength in slow, tedious travel. So, too, its people were handicapped in endless directions by their lack of knowledge of steam and electricity and the uses to which they could be put.

It is the proud boast of America that to her citizens are due many of the inventions and discoveries that have changed the clumsy methods of long ago into the effective ways of to-day. Among this number stands Robert Fulton.


Robert fulton was born in a Pennsylvania village, in 1765. When he went to school his schoolmaster found it hard work to keep the boy's attention. He did not appear interested in the lessons set before him, but liked much better to spend his time drawing pictures with pencils that he had hammered out of pieces of lead.

However, Fulton was far from being stupid. He had ideas of his own, and good ones.

Shortly before the 4th of July, 1778, the people of Fulton's town stopped as they went along the street to read a public notice. The notice said that inasmuch as candles were at present very scarce, the citizens were requested not to illuminate their houses that year in celebration of Independence Day. This was a bitter disappointment to Robert, who was full of patriotism and eager to express it. He simply could not have the streets dark on the Fourth of July. So he bought some gunpowder and pasteboard, and went to work.

Fourth of July came, and he was ready for it. He had made some sky rockets, which not only illuminated the town but surprised and astonished all the people.

When young Fulton and his friends went fishing, they went in a heavy, flat-bottomed boat, which had to be poled along from place to place. As this was slow and rather hard work, Robert made a pair of paddle wheels, one of which was fastened to each side of the boat. They were turned by a crank and were far easier to manage than the long poles whose place they took.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


But while Fulton enjoyed making all sorts of things, he still took chief pleasure in drawing and painting. And when he was seventeen years old he went to Philadelphia to take up the life of an artist.


Soon after Fulton became of age his friends began to urge him to go abroad, as in Europe he could learn to do better work and could win a wider reputation as an artist than in America.

The voyage was made in a sailing vessel. Now and again a fair wind filled the sails, and the ship made good headway. Then came days of calm when the vessel rocked to and fro on the waves and drifted idly. It seemed a long journey. At last England was reached, and Robert Fulton went to London.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


For a while he devoted his time to art, but gradually his love for invention grew upon him and enticed him more and more away from his painting. During his stay in England he invented several useful machines. Idea followed idea.

At length he went to France and, while in that country, made a diving boat that would move about under the water. This diving boat was to carry torpedoes, one of which could be fastened to the bottom of a ship so that, when it exploded, it would blow the ship to pieces.

Fulton thought that such a boat would be a mighty protection to a country with a weak navy. Should an enemy's warship on mischief bent enter a harbor, down could go the diving boat with its torpedo; and in no time the dangerous visitor would be a hopeless wreck. But in spite of the inventor's belief in his boat, he could induce neither England nor France to adopt it for her navy.

Another thing that Robert Fulton tried to do while in France was to make a boat that would run by steam. Others had already attempted to do this, but with very indifferent success. Fulton remembered that old flat-boat to which he had fastened the paddle wheels. Why not try the same plan on a large boat and make a steam engine turn the crank?

At that time Robert R. Livingston was America's minister to France. He grew so interested in Fulton's scheme that he offered to furnish the money necessary to carry it out.

When the boat was finished it was launched on the river Seine. Fulton was well pleased; but just as the day— of its trial trip was at hand, the boat broke in two and sank. The machinery had proved too heavy for so light a framework. A stronger one was made; but now the engine was not powerful enough to move the boat with any speed.

Still Fulton was not discouraged. In 1806 he and Mr. Livingston went to New York, determined to try their luck once more.

The building of their boat was soon under way, and almost every day saw Fulton down at the shipyards directing just how it should be done. He named the boat the Clermont, which was the name of Mr. Livingston's home on the Hudson. Others called it "Fulton's Folly," so absurd did it seem even to try to make steam run a boat. Out of sheer curiosity, men visited the shipyards to look at "Fulton's Folly"; and they spoke of it with scorn and ridicule.

It was August, 1807, when the Clermont was done, and her owners invited their friends to join them on a trip up the Hudson.

So Fulton really thought that boat would go! It was too ridiculous. Great crowds gathered to see the fun of the start, which they felt would be no start at all. Even the invited guests stepped to the Clermont's deck with grave misgivings. No one enjoys being in an absurd position, and this certainly looked like one.

The signal was given. The side wheels began to churn the water, and—wonder of wonders!—the Clermont moved steadily away from the dock.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


A great cheer rose from the amazed crowd on the shore. But it died again as quickly as it rose. The boat had stopped. Now indeed the guests on board wished themselves out of their predicament. Why had they come? They knew all the time just how it would be.

Fulton frankly admitted that he did not know what was wrong. But he asked his passengers to give him half an hour in which to set things right. He promised that, if he could not start the boat in thirty minutes, he would give up the trip and put his guests ashore. Then, hurrying to his engine, he looked it over anxiously. The trouble was only a small matter, and in a few moments Fulton's skilled fingers had made the needed readjustment. Again the Clermont started, and this time she steamed straight up the Hudson. All the rest of that day and all that night she went on and on toward Albany. Fishermen in their boats, sailors on sailing vessels, watchers on the shore heard the strange sound of the Clermont's engine, and saw the smoke pouring from her stack. All were filled with wonder, and many were overcome with terror.

To Albany and back the Clermont went, covering the distance of one hundred and fifty miles between Albany and New York in thirty-two hours. This was only the first of many trips she made up and down the Hudson, carrying passengers.

Robert Fulton was now a great man. He had succeeded where all had expected failure; he had made a boat that would go in spite of wind or tide. And more than that. He had found the means for the better, quicker water travel which our country needed. Before many years steamboats were running on the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers and on the Great Lakes. The great west lay open to emigrants, and Robert Fulton had furnished a way for them to go there.

The first steamboat to cross the Atlantic sailed from an American port in 1819. This was the Savannah and it took her twenty-six days to go from Georgia to Liverpool, England.

The record for Atlantic travel between Queenstown and New York to-day is five days and a few hours. Seven hundred and ninety feet long by eighty-eight feet wide are the dimensions of the two largest ocean steamers now afloat. Each is built to carry two thousand two hundred passengers, besides its crew.

Do the passengers, living for a few days in all the luxury and comfort of a modern ocean palace, realize that only a century lies between Fulton's ungainly little Clermont and the stately steamships that sail the seas to-day?