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ROBERT FULTON AND THE INVENTION OF THE STEAMBOAT
 ON August 17, 1807, a curious crowd of people in New
York gathered at a boat landing. Tied to the dock was
a strange-looking craft. A smokestack rose above the
deck. From the sides of the boat, there stood out
queer shaped paddle wheels. Of a sudden, the clouds of
smoke from the smokestack grew larger, the paddle
wheels turned, and the boat, to the astonishment of
all, moved. It was "Fulton's Folly," the
Clermont, on her first trip to Albany.
THE FIRST BOATS
first boat used by man was probably the trunk of a
fallen tree, moved about by means of a broken branch or
pole. Then some savage saw that a better boat could be
made by tying a number of logs together to make a raft.
But rafts are hard to move, so the heart of a log was
hollowed out by means of a stone ax or fire, to make a
still better boat, or strips of birch bark were
skillfully fastened together to form a graceful canoe.
Boats were constructed also of rough-hewn boards. With
such primitive craft, voyages of hundreds of miles were
made up and down great rivers like the Mississippi, or
along the shores of inland seas like the Great Lakes.
The Phœnicians were the first great sailors. Their
 boats, called galleys, were sometimes two to three
hundred feet long. These were of two kinds,
merchantmen and war vessels. The merchantmen were
propelled partly by sails and partly by oars, but on
the war vessels, when in battle, oars only were used.
On a single boat there were often several hundred
oarsmen or galley slaves. These galley slaves were as a
rule prisoners of war. They were chained to the oar
benches, and to force them to row, they were often
beaten within an inch of their lives. In enormous
sail-and-oar vessels the Phœnicians crossed the
Mediterranean in every direction, pushed out into the
Atlantic Ocean, and went as far north as England.
A MEDIEVAL GALLEY.
The chief improvement in boat making, from the time of
the Phœnicians until the first trip of the
Clermont, was to do away with oars and to use
It was not until about fifty years before the time of
Columbus that oars were generally discarded and large
 boats were propelled entirely by sails. Sailboats
were, to be sure, a great improvement over oar boats.
Yet at best they were slow and unreliable, held back
alike by calm and storm. The Pilgrims were ten weeks
in crossing the Atlantic, and the regular trip, in the
time of Washington, required six weeks.
COLUMBUS'S SANTA MARIA.
Boats were thus from the very earliest times important
in trade and travel. For this reason it is not
surprising that Watt's engine was scarcely perfected,
before men tried to make it propel a boat.
THE FIRST STEAMBOATS
The first American to attempt the propelling of a boat
by steam was William Henry, a gunsmith of Lancaster,
Pennsylvania. In 1760, Mr. Henry was in England on
business. He took great interest in the talk going on
then about the use of steam to drive machinery, propel
boats, and the like. On his return to America, he
built an engine fashioned after one of Newcomen's
engines, and so placed it in a boat that it worked a
number of paddles. The boat did not go well, and a
little later was accidentally sunk. Though
unsuccessful, Henry never lost his interest in
The first American to propel a boat by steam
successfully was John Fitch. Fitch was a frequent
visitor at the home of Henry, and probably got the idea
of building a steamboat from him. However that may be,
 built a better boat than Henry, and he is regarded by
some people as the real inventor of the steamboat.
TRIAL TRIP OF FITCH'S STEAMBOAT.
Fitch built his first boat in 1787. The engine was made
in America, but was copied from that of Watt. Along
each side of the boat stood two sets of three paddles.
To move the boat, these were given a motion like the
stroke in paddling a canoe. Six paddles entered the
water, while six came out. Fitch had great difficulty
in obtaining the money to build the boat, and even
after it was built the boiler had to be made larger.
Finally, after much delay
 and anxiety, all was ready for a public trial. This
took place at Philadelphia. Men like Washington,
Jefferson, and Franklin came to see the new wonder. It
was marvelous to see a boat propelled by steam, but the
speed was only three or four miles an hour, so there
was no great enthusiasm over the steam oar boat.
The next year, Fitch built a second boat, with the
paddles placed at the stern. But the boat could not be
made to go faster than a man could walk, and it was no
more of a success than the first. Fitch succeeded,
however, in 1790, in making a boat sixty feet long and
eight feet wide with paddles at the stern, which had a
speed of seven miles an hour. After a trial at
Philadelphia, it made regular trips, during the rest of
the summer, between Philadelphia and Trenton running
between two and three thousand miles with no serious
accident. But it cost more to run the boat than the
fares amounted to, and the venture failed.
Fitch found his way to New York, and might have been
seen there in 1796, working on a screw steamboat. He
had long since spent all his own money. Nobody would
help him, and therefore the screw steamboat had to be
given up. Completely discouraged, Fitch retired to a
farm in Kentucky. He believed in the steamboat until
the last, and was confident that the day would come
when steamboats would be running on all our large
rivers and across the ocean. "The day will come," said
he, "when some more powerful man will get fame and
riches from my invention; but now no one will believe
that poor John Fitch can do anything worthy of
Driving along the shore of the Delaware one day, John
 Stevens of New Jersey saw Fitch's little steamboat
puffing slowly along between Philadelphia and Trenton.
He followed it to the next landing and examined it with
care. He had long been interested in steamboats and
now decided to build one. He set to work with great
energy, and by his enthusiasm he induced Robert R.
Livingston of New York to share in the enterprise.
After almost ten years of planning and experimenting,
these men thought they were on the point of success.
The boat of which they expected so much was launched in
1798. But alas! it could run only three miles an hour
in still water, and was soon given up as a failure.
Stevens, undaunted, continued his experiments year
after year. Model after model was made. Some of these
boats had paddle wheels extending from the sides; some
were propelled by a single revolving screw at the
stern, and others had two screws. Stevens experimented
also with different kinds of boilers. So successful
was he that he came very near winning the prize that
was afterwards awarded to Robert Fulton. The very next
month after Fulton's first boat made its trial trip,
Stevens launched the Phoenix, which was quite as
good a boat as the Clermont. His screw
propeller, as well as his boilers, afterwards came to
be used extensively on ocean steamships. Thus, after
Fulton, Stevens did more than any other man to make the
steamboat a practical success.
Inventors in England were likewise busy. The most
successful of these was William Symington. The money
to build the trial boat was supplied by Lord Dundas,
who hoped that steam might take the place of horses in
towing canal barges. The Charlotte Dundas,
 boat, was ready for trial in 1802. She was a
stern-wheeler, that is, she was propelled by a paddle
wheel at the stern. An engine built by Boulton and
Watt supplied the power. The new boat took two barges
of seventy tons burden each, and in the face of a
strong wind towed them down the canal twenty miles
in six hours.
Lord Dundas was delighted. He wanted this way of
towing adopted. The other owners of the canal were not
convinced, however, that there would be much saved by
the change, and besides, they feared that the new boat
would damage the banks of the canal. Lord Dundas
finally succeeded in interesting the Duke of
Bridgewater, who gave Symington an order for eight
boats like the Charlotte Dundas. Had these been
built, Symington would to-day probably be known as the
inventor of the steamboat. Unfortunately the Duke died
about this time, and the boats were never built. The
Charlotte Dundas was anchored in a side creek to rot,
and Symington gave up the project in despair.
Though men had been working and experimenting for many
years, a practical steamboat, that is, one which could
be used at a good profit to its owners, was yet to be
built. There was great need of such a steamboat, and
Watt's engine was strong enough to propel it. But no
one seemed able to build a boat of the right shape, to
make the right kind of a propeller, or to harness
Watt's engine to it in the right way. So many attempts
had been made, and there had been so many failures,
that most men came to believe it was impossible to make
a successful steamboat. The man who first succeeded in
accomplishing the "impossible" was Robert Fulton.
FULTON'S EARLY LIFE
 Robert Fulton was born at Little Britain, Lancaster
County, Pennsylvania, in 1765. His father, though not
successful in money matters, was highly respected; he
was a leader in the Presbyterian Church, and held a
number of minor public offices of honor. His mother
was an excellent woman who had more education than most
women of the time, for she taught Robert reading,
writing, and ciphering, until he was eight years of
Robert was then sent to school, where he acquired a
good elementary education. He was not a superior
scholar. Books interested him much less than painting
or the shop of the gunsmith. Nobody knows who taught
him to paint, unless it was Major André, who was later
hanged as a spy. Major André lived for some months at
Lancaster and gave painting lessons there. It is
possible that Robert was one of his pupils. At all
events, the boy learned, when quite young, to draw and
He had some talent, and perhaps was inspired to become
an artist by the example of Benjamin West, one of
America's greatest painters. Mr. West when a boy was
often in Lancaster, and he painted a portrait of
Robert's father and mother. Mr. Henry, of whom mention
 already been made, had a number of Mr. West's pictures,
and Robert used to go to his home to look at them. It
may be true, also, that Mr. Henry talked to Robert,
when on these visits, about his steamboat, and how fine
it would be to invent one, and that these talks did
much to lead him to give up art and become an engineer
Besides being fond of drawing and painting, Robert was
fond of tools. Not far from his home, there were shops
where muskets were made for the soldiers of the
Revolutionary War. Robert was a frequent visitor
there, and he spent much time in making drawings of
guns and tinkering with broken muskets.
His turn for making things showed itself early. One
day, Robert was very late at school. "Robert, why are
you so late?" asked the teacher.
"I was making a pencil out of a piece of lead," he
FULTON AND THE LEAD PENCIL.
 The teacher looked at the pencil and found it a good
one. Before many days, all the children had lead
At the age of seventeen, Fulton left Lancaster and went
to Philadelphia. He gave his attention principally to
painting portraits and miniatures, but he turned his
hand to anything that came along. He drew plans for
machinery and for carriages, and even houses. In this
way he not only made his own living, but by the time he
was twenty-one he had saved four hundred dollars.
While living in Philadelphia, Fulton became acquainted
with Benjamin Franklin. Knowing that Fulton would
never succeed as an artist unless he prepared himself
better, Franklin advised him to go to London and study.
Fulton decided to do this; but just then his father
died, leaving his mother without a home. He therefore
took a part of the four hundred dollars which he had
planned to spend on his art education, and bought his
mother a farm, where she lived in contentment and
plenty for many years.
STUDYING ART IN LONDON
With a letter from Franklin to Benjamin West, Fulton
set out for London, where he landed early in 1787. He
had about two hundred dollars in his pocket, not a
large sum with which to get an education; but lack of
money has never been a bar to young men of character
and energy. Benjamin West received the young man with
kindness, and in addition to giving him instruction,
helped him in other ways.
The story of Fulton's life at that time is told in a
letter to his mother. "I had an art to learn by which
I was to
 earn my bread, but little to support me while I was
doing it. Many, many a silent, solitary hour have I
spent in most anxious study, pondering how to make
funds to support me until the fruits of my labor should
be sufficient. . . . Thus I went on for nearly four
years—happily beloved by all who knew me, or I had long
before now been crushed by poverty's cold wind and
freezing rain. When last summer I was invited by Lord
Courtney down to his country seat to paint a picture of
him, . . . His Lordship was so much pleased that he
introduced me to all his friends. And it is but just
now that I am beginning to get a little money and pay
some debts which I was obliged to contract. So I hope
in about six months to be clear with the world, or in
other words out of debt, and then start fair to make
all I can."
ENGINEER AND INVENTOR
After four years of study, Fulton felt that he was
ready to take up his life work. Among the friends to
whom Lord Courtney introduced him was the Duke of
Bridgewater, who became one of Fulton's good friends.
Whether it was the talks about steamboats and about
canals with the Duke of Bridgewater; or whether Fulton
was carried away by what was then being written in
England and America in regard to boats and waterways;
or whether it was his talent for mechanics and invention
grown strong, we do not know,—but Fulton suddenly gave
up the idea of being an artist and decided to become an
Whether Fulton would have become a great artist or not,
no one can tell. He surely had artistic ability. He
 had been taught by the best teachers of England, and
had gained some recognition and honor as an artist. At
all events, if the world lost a great artist, it gained
a great inventor. Nor was his training as an artist
entirely lost when he turned engineer. He was able to
make his ideas clear by means of drawings, and was also
able to draw his own plans and designs.
Immediately after making his decision, Fulton went to
Birmingham, where he lived for two years. There he
studied the great canals which were being built. He
became acquainted with Watt and his engines, and saw
the best mechanics in Europe at work. His active mind
soon began to turn out invention after invention. He
invented a double inclined plane for raising and
lowering canal boats from one level to the other, a
machine for spinning hemp, and one for twisting hemp
A project to which he gave a great deal of time was his
submarine or plunging boat. Fulton was able to go down
into the water in this diving boat twenty feet or more,
and move about. In this way he could get near a vessel
without being seen, and then by means of a cigar-shaped
torpedo which he invented could blow it up. In an
experiment at Brest, in 1805, he succeeded in doing
this. Fulton thought his diving boat and torpedoes
would make war vessels useless, and would do away with
war on the seas. He tried in turn to get the French
and English governments to adopt this invention; he
also offered it to the United States. Nothing,
however, came of his efforts. Submarine and torpedo
boats have since come into general use, but they have
not put an end to naval war, as Fulton hoped they
EXPERIMENTING WITH STEAMBOATS
We do not know when Fulton first began to think of
making a steamboat. But we have his own words for
saying that in 1802 he began "experiments with a view
to discover the principles on which boats or vessels
should be propelled through the water by the power of
steam engines." Fulton did not undertake to make a
successful steamboat without knowing of the failures of
Fitch, Stevens, Symington, and others; and without
understanding that after so many failures, men who
still thought a practical steamboat could be built were
looked upon as madmen. Yet it has ever been so. The
men who win fame and fortune do what other people say
cannot be done. Fulton learned all he could from the
mistakes and failures of others. To make sure that he
was right before he went ahead, he did what was still
more important, he made experiment after experiment.
He built a model boat, four feet long and twelve inches wide,
provided with two strong clock springs for power.
Experiments were made with propellers which opened and
shut like a duck's foot, with side paddle wheels, stern
paddle wheels, side oars, screws, and paddles fastened
to an endless chain passing over two wheels. Fulton
was convinced that side paddle wheels were the best.
He learned also that the propelling surface of the
different paddles combined should be twice the exposed
surface of the bow. In addition, he worked out a table
to show the power that was needed to move boats of
different sizes at different speeds. With this
information, Fulton was ready
 to experiment on a larger scale, and he began to dream
of boats that should make the trip between New York and
Albany in twelve hours.
Robert R. Livingston was at this time United States
minister to France. Fulton, then living in France,
succeeded in getting him to advance the money to make
the larger experiment, and the two formed an agreement
that if the experiment proved successful, they would
construct and run steamboats between New York and
Albany. To protect themselves in their invention,
Livingston secured from the State of New York, in the
name of himself and Fulton, the exclusive right for
twenty years to navigate steamboats on all waters of
the state. No one thought, even in 1803, that there
was any danger that such an invention would be a
Fulton at length set to work on a boat seventy feet
long, eight feet wide, and with three feet draft. The
paddle wheels were twelve feet in diameter, and the
engine was about eight horse power. When the boat was
nearly ready for the trial trip, a violent storm arose
one night, and so beat the boat about that it broke in
two and sank to the bottom of the Seine. Fulton was
awakened from an anxious sleep by the shouts of his
servant, who exclaimed, "Oh sir! the boat has broken to
pieces and has gone to the bottom."
Fulton hurried to the river, to find that this was all
too true. He labored for twenty-four hours without
stopping, to raise the boat. The machinery was little
harmed, but the hull was such a wreck that it had to be
entirely rebuilt. This occupied several months, and
the boat was not again ready for trial until August,
FULTON SHOWING HIS BOAT TO LIVINGSTON, IN PARIS.
 The trial trip was thus described in one of the French
newspapers: "At six o'clock in the evening, aided by
only three persons, he (Fulton) put his boat in motion
. . . and for an hour and a half he produced the
curious spectacle of a boat moved by wheels, . . .
these wheels being provided with paddles or flat
plates, and moved by a fire engine. In following it
along the wharf, the speed against the current of the
Seine was about that of a rapid walker, that is about
four miles an hour. . . . It was maneuvered with ease,
turning to the right and left, came to anchor and
started again." Not only was the new boat declared a
success by the French newspapers, but the success was
such as to lead Livingston and Fulton to begin the
building of a boat for actual service on the Hudson.
BUILDING THE CLERMONT
A twenty-four horse power engine was ordered, in
August, 1803, from Boulton and Watt, to be shipped to
New York. Boulton and Watt at first refused the order,
because the British government would not let them ship
the engine. The government probably feared that the
engine was to be used in a torpedo boat by the French.
After much delay, permission was secured, and the order
was accepted. Fulton, who was then in England, went to
Birmingham to see that the engine was built just as he
wanted it; for he was right in feeling that the success
of his boat depended upon how the engine worked.
Fulton arrived at New York in December, 1806. He at
once hired a famous shipbuilder, whose yards were on
the East River, to build the hull of the boat. The
boat was to be one hundred
 and fifty feet long, thirteen feet wide, and was to
draw two feet of water.
When it became known that the new boat was to be a
steamboat, idle crowds used to collect around, and in
derision they called it "Fulton's Folly." Nor did
these crowds take kindly to the idea of a steamboat;
they even went so far as to try to destroy it. Neither
did the owners of the sailboats on the East River like
the idea, so when they were passing by in their sloops
they would bump into the Clermont. To protect
the boat, it became necessary for Fulton to hire men to
watch her both by day and by night.
No one had any faith in the success of the venture.
When, in 1806, Livingston and Fulton offered to take
Stevens into partnership with them, he refused, and
said, "Mr. Fulton's plan can never succeed."
At another time, when it became necessary to raise a
thousand dollars to complete the Clermont,
Fulton went to some of his friends for aid. Most of
them told him they were too wise to sink good money in
such a wild scheme. After much difficulty, however,
Fulton succeeded in obtaining the needed money, but
only by promising his friends to keep their names
secret. They feared that they would be ridiculed for
The Clermont, when completed, was a
queer-looking craft. There was a mast at each end, but
these carried very small sails. A little to the front
of the center stood the smokestack and the working beam
and piston. Projecting from the center over each side
was a great uncovered paddle wheel. "She looked," said
one observer, "like a backwoods sawmill mounted on a
scow and set on fire."
FIRST TRIP OF THE CLERMONT.
FIRST TRIP OF THE CLERMONT
The Clermont was ready for her first trip up the
Hudson, August 17, 1807. Here is Fulton's own story of
"The moment arrived at which the word was to be given
for the boat to move. My friends were in groups on the
deck. There was anxiety mixed with fear among them.
They were silent, sad, and weary. I read in their
looks nothing but disaster, and almost repented of my
efforts. The signal was given, and the boat moved on a
short distance and then stopped. . . . To the silence
of the preceding moment, now succeeded murmurs of
discontent and agitation, and whispers, and shrugs. I
could hear distinctly repeated, 'I told you it was so;
it is a foolish scheme; I wish we were well out of it.' "
"I elevated myself on a platform; I stated I knew not
what the matter was, but if they would be quiet and
give me half an hour, I would either go on or abandon
the voyage for that time. . . . I went below and
found. . . . the cause. . . .
In a short time it was
fixed. The boat was again put in motion. She continued
to move on. All were still incredulous. None seemed
willing to trust the evidence of their own senses. We
left the fair city of New York; we passed through the
romantic and ever varying scenery of the Highlands; we
descried the clustering houses of Albany; we reached
its shores,—and then, even then, when all seemed
achieved, I was the victim of disappointment. . . .
"It was then doubted if it could be done again, or if
done, it was doubted if it could be made of any great
 In another letter Fulton wrote:
"My steamboat voyage to Albany and back has turned out
rather more favorably than I had calculated. The
distance from New York to Albany is one hundred and
fifty miles. I ran it up in thirty-two hours and down
in thirty. I had a light breeze against me the whole
way, both going and coming, and the voyage has been
performed wholly by the power of the steam engine. I
overtook many sloops and schooners beating to the
windward, and parted with them as if they had been at
"The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully
proved. The morning I left New York there were not
perhaps thirty people in the city, who believed that
the boat would ever move one mile an hour, or be of the
least utility, and while we were putting off from the
wharf, I heard a number of sarcastic remarks. . . .
"Having employed much time, money, and zeal in
accomplishing this work, it gives me, as it will you,
great pleasure to see it fully answers my expectations.
It will give a cheap and quick conveyance to the
merchandise on the Mississippi, Missouri, and other
great rivers, which are now laying open their treasures
to our countrymen; and although the prospect of
personal gain has been some inducement to me, yet I
feel . . . more pleasure in reflecting on the immense
advantage that my country will derive from the
WATCHING THE CLERMONT STEAM UP THE HUDSON RIVER.
The passage of the Clermont caused great
excitement among the people along the way. Here is a
description written by one who stood on the bank and
saw the boat go by:
"It was in the early autumn of the year 1807, that a
 knot of villagers was gathered on a high bluff just
opposite Poughkeepsie, on the west bank of the Hudson,
attracted by the appearance of a strange, dark-looking
craft which was slowly making its way up the river.
Some imagined it to be a sea monster, whilst others did
not hesitate to express their belief that it was a sign
of the approaching judgment. . . . The dense clouds of
smoke, as they rose, wave upon wave, added still more
to the wonderment of the rustics.
"On her return trip, the curiosity she excited was
scarcely less intense,—the whole country talked of
nothing but the sea monster, belching forth fire and
smoke. The fishermen became terrified and rowed
homeward, and they saw nothing but destruction
devastating their fishing grounds; whilst the wreaths
of black vapor and rushing noise of the paddle wheels,
foaming with the stirred-up waters, produced great
excitement amongst the boatmen."
On her return from Albany, the Clermont was put
in dock. The paddle wheels were covered, decks were
made over the boilers, the rudder was repaired, and
three cabins of twelve berths each were fitted up to
accommodate forty to fifty passengers. Thus equipped,
the Clermont started in September, 1807, to make
regular trips between Albany and New York, and
continued to do so until the Hudson froze over late in
November. As a passenger packet, she was a success from
the first. To be sure, people were in great fear that
the boiler would burst, or that the boat would catch on
fire. There was also a vague feeling that something
terrible must surely happen to the "monster which
defied storm and tide and belched forth fire and
 The fare was just the same as that on the sailboats,
three dollars, but it took sailboats, on the average,
forty-eight hours to make the trip, and the average
time of the Clermont was only thirty-six hours.
It was not long before she was crowded.
STEAMBOATS ON RIVER AND OCEAN
Most great inventions are a long time in coming, but
when once their utility is demonstrated they are
quickly adopted. This was true of the steamboat.
During the winter of 1807 the Clermont was made
better and larger, and renamed the North River.
So great was the demand, that within the next eight
years Fulton constructed, or there were built according
to his plans, no less than ten other boats for service
on the Hudson River, Long Island Sound, and the
Potomac. Fulton also designed and built great steam
ferryboats to cross the East River and the Hudson
River. Steven's Phoenix began in 1807 to make
regular trips on the Delaware, and by 1810 steamboats
could be seen trailing long lines of smoke up and down
the Mississippi and the Ohio. They were also
introduced into England and Russia, and even into
AN OLD FERRYBOAT TICKET.
Fulton's belief in the commercial usefulness of
steamboats was so great that he not only expected them
to be placed on all the rivers of the civilized world,
but he hoped to see them on the great oceans also.
 The first steam vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean was
the Savannah, in 1819. Fulton did not live to
witness this great event, for he died in 1815. To a
great idea,—steam navigation,—he had given freely of
his time, his talents, and his money. Others like
Fitch helped him to
 succeed. Others like Stevens
improved on his invention. Together they gave to the
world one of its chief means of travel, transportation,
and communication. Yet to Robert Fulton belongs the
honor of being the first inventor to make a genuinely
FULTON'S ESTIMATE FOR A STEAM FERRYBOAT.