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Robert Fulton - Steamboats
Extracts from:
"Robert Fulton - His Life and Its Results"
Robert H. Thurston
Dodd, Mead, and Company Publishers
New York

Return History of Steamboats
Note: This long article is advanced reading - we also have a summary page on Robert Fulton.

Robert Fulton Steamboat Inventor...before Robert Fulton's experiments were begun, a number of inventors on both sides of the Atlantic were engaged in the work, and that some progress had been made; so much, in fact, that the outcome could hardly be doubted. Papin had, early in the eighteenth century, as we have seen, actually built a steamboat; Jonathan Hulls, in 1737, secured British patents on another form; William Henry had put his little boat on the Conastoga River in 1763; the Comte d'Auxiron had launched a steamer on French waters in 1774; ten years later Oliver Evans and James Rumsey came forward with their peculiar systems of propulsion; John Fitch appeared at about the same date, 1785, building a number of boats, and succeeding, apparently, in attaining seven miles an hour in his boat of 1790, and making a total of several thousands of miles in its regular work as a passenger boat between Philadelphia and Bordentown, New Jersey. Fitch's screw-boat, built forty-five years after Bernouilli had written his prize essay suggesting the use of the "spiral oar," - as James Watt called it when proposing it, independently, about 1784, was sufficiently satisfactory, as proving the practicability of the device, when tried on Collect Pond, in New York City, in 1796. His contemporary in France, the Marquis de Jouffroy, had built two steamers on the Rhone, in 1781-1783; and in Scotland, Miller, Taylor, and Symmington had almost succeeded, their efforts finally resulting in a real success, in 1801, when the Charlotte Dundas was built as a "steam-wheeler" on the Forth and Clyde Canal. Samuel Morey had put a little steamer on the Connecticut in 1790, and many other mechanics and inventors were busy in the same work by the time Fulton had reached that problem, among whom were two of Robert Fulton's own later friends - Livingston and Roosevelt, - and his most enterprising rival, John Stevens, the four working together to build a boat on the Passaic River in 1798. Fulton had, as early as 1798, proposed plans for steam-vessels to both the United States and British governments. He had been too busy with his other schemes to pay much attention to this until satisfied that he was to expect nothing from the former.

Robert Fulton's experiments began while he was in Paris, and may have been stimulated by his acquaintance with Chancellor Livingston, who held the monopoly, offered by the legislature of the State of New York, for the navigation of the Hudson River, to be accorded to the beneficiary when he should make a successful voyage by steam. Livingston was now ambassador of the United States to the Court of France, and had become interested in the young artist-engineer, meeting him, presumably, at the house of his friend Barlow. It was determined to try the experiment at once, and on the Seine.

The giving of monopolies in the form here alluded to was, in those days, before the introduction of the modern systems of patent law, a very common method of securing to inventors their full reward. John Fitch had been given a monopoly of this kind by the United States government for a period of fourteen years from March 19, 1787; which monopoly was later (1798) repealed by Congress; this repeal being, in turn, denied by the courts, March 13, 1798, and subsequently continued to June 1, 1819, meantime being transferred to Nicholas J. Roosevelt. The State Act in favor of Livingston was passed to take effect April 5, 1803, and was repealed as unconstitutional, and conflicting with the jurisdiction of the United States, June 17, 1817. The whole system went out of use at the latter date, as it was found to be dangerous and troublesome, and on the whole far inferior to that admirable patent system which succeeded it, and which has done so much to promote the marvelous prosperity of the country since the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Robert Fulton went to Plombieres in the spring of 1802, and there made his drawings and completed his plans for the construction of his first steamboat. Many attempts had been made, as we have seen, and many inventors were at work contemporaneously with him. Every modern device, - the jet system, the "chaplet" of buckets on an endless chain or rope, the paddle-wheel, and even the screw-propeller - had been already proposed, and all were familiar to the well-read man of science of the day. Indeed, as Mr. Benjamin H. Latrobe, a distinguished engineer of the time, wrote in a paper presented May 20, 1803, to the Philadelphia Society, "A sort of mania began to prevail" for propelling boats by means of steam-engines. Fulton was one of those taking this mania most seriously. He made a number of models which worked successfully, and justified the proprietors of the new arrangement in building on a larger scale. A model of the proposed steamboat was made during the year 1802, and was presented to the committee of the French legislature...

...The introduction of steam navigation became a success; but that success came so slowly as to permit all nations to avail themselves of it, and none sooner or more completely than the two most active in the production of this revolution, Great Britain and the United States. The British navy became a steam navy, and the other nations of the world followed her lead; so that the strife of the century, at sea, has been a struggle between, and for, steam fleets. In this direction, the introduction of steam has resulted in the increased expenditure of money on fleets in such enormous amounts as to tax the people to the very limit of their endurance; while the relative order in naval power of the greater nations has been comparatively little altered.

With the encouragement of Chancellor Livingston, who urged upon Fulton the importance of the introduction of steam navigation into their native country, the latter continued his experimental work. Their boat was finished and set afloat on the Seine in 1803, in the early spring. Its proportions had been determined by careful computation from the results of no less careful experiment on the resistance of fluids and the power required for propelling vessels; and its speed was, therefore, more nearly in accord with the expectations and promises of the inventor than was the usual experience in those days...

...Guided by these experiments and calculations, therefore, Fulton directed the construction of his steamboat vessel. The hull was sixty-six feet long, of eight feet beam, and of light draught. But unfortunately the hull was too weak for its machinery, and it broke in two and sank to the bottom of the Seine. Fulton at once set about repairing damages. He was compelled to direct the rebuilding of the hull, but the machinery was but slightly injured. In June, 1803, the reconstruction was complete, and the vessel was set afloat in July.


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