Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Robert Fulton, American Entrepreneur

Yesterday, I wrote about Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson was supposed to be an engineer but he became a writer. Today is Robert Fulton's birthday (born November 14, 1765). Fulton began his career as an artist at age 17 in Philadephia. He later moved to England to paint portraits and landscapes under the tutelage of he well-known artist, Sir Benjamin West. While artistically successful, Fulton was not satisfied with the living he could make from his art. He gave it up to become an entrepreneur. His early success was in devising more efficient means to dig English Canals. Later (1797), he moved to Paris to pursue his fortunes.

I mentioned Fulton in an earlier posting as one of the would-be developers of the submarine as a naval weapon. Fulton tried to sell his submarine idea to the French to defeat the English Navy. When they showed little interest, he tried selling the same idea to the English to defeat the French Navy. The English also declined and so he tried to sell the idea to the American Navy. The Americans were willing to underwrite his experiments and he continued to work in war armaments all the way through the War of 1812 (although none of his submarines, mines, or other ideas ever had much of an impact).

Fulton was nothing if not enterprising. Fulton met Robert Livingston while both lived in France in 1801/1802. Livingston was President Jefferson's minister to France and he was negotiating with Napolean for the Louisiana Purchase. But Livingston had long had an interest in steamboats on the Hudson and he and Fulton struck a deal to begin working on steamboat prototypes while both were in France. Fulton actually succesfully demonstrated a rough prototype on the Seine (about where the Eiffel Tower now stands) on Aug. 9th, 1803. At this same time, Fulton ordered a steam engine from Boulton and Watt in England for delivery to New York to power his Hudson River steamboat. He never told Watt his plans for the engine because Watt had a very low opinion of the use of steam engines to power boats and was unlikely to sell him one for this purpose.

Fulton arrived back in New York City in December of 1806 ready to begin building his Hudson River steamboat. Fulton installed his new Boulton and Watt engine his newly constructed boat and successfully steamed up the Hudson on August 17th, 1807. Contrary to middle school history classes, the steamboat was not named the Clermont. It was known simply as the North River Steamboat. Clermont was the name of Livingston's estate and the boat began to be known by that name in later years.

Fulton died at age 49 on February 23, 1815. He was returning from New Jersey to New York. When the ferry service across the river could not reach shore because of heavy ice, he and a colleague got out of the boat and started walking to shore. His colleague fell through some thin ice and Fulton grabbed him and pulled him out getting thoroughly wet in the process. He developed an infection which turned into pneumonia.

Fulton is often hailed as the inventor of the steamboat. Not true. There were many earlier steamboat inventors both in the U.S. and Europe. John Fitch operated such a boat on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania at least 20 years before Fulton. But Fulton was something that Fitch and the others were not; he was a successful (some would say ruthless) entrepreneur. Fame often goes to the those who name is associated with the commercial success of an invention. Fulton is a classic example. Robert Fulton, American Inventor, should be known as American Entrepreneur. And in America that can be a high honor.

[Much of what I know of Fulton comes from Andrea Sutcliffe's wonderful book, Steam, the Untold Story of America's First Great Invention. I highly recommend it as a complete story of the development of early steamboats in America.]

[Image from Wikipedia]

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