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  • Timeline

  • 1807 Detail

    August 17, 1807 - The first practical steamboat journey was made by Robert Fulton in the steamboat Clermont, who navigated the Hudson River from New York City to Albany in thirty-two hours, a trip of 150 miles. This becomes the first successful commercial steamboat service in the world.

    Robert Fulton's Clermont Steamship

    There is much controversy over the statement most use, that Robert Fulton invented the first steamboat. That may or may not be true. Others, such as John Fitch and John Rumsey, and two others had patented their steamboat inventions back in 1791, but couldn't get backing to make it a successful commercial venture. Add in the fact that Robert Fulton was shown Fitch's plan during a trip to London, and that the backer of Fulton, Robert Livingston, had refused to back Fitch, and you have the basis for a historical rumble.

    However, there is no denying one fact. Robert Fulton perfected whatever ideas he had, or were borrowed, into a commercial venture that could get backing from Livingston and others. And when he planned that first practical steamboat journey in 1807, and one of one hundred and fifty miles in length between two important locations, there was no denying he had a success on his hands. And the repetition of that journey, and others, became the first successful steamboat service in the world.

    How did he get started with his interest in steamships? At Berkeley Springs in today's West Virginia in 1786, Robert Fulton met John Rumsey, an inventor of a steam pump to propel boats. Yes, the same John Rumsey whom George Washington and Thomas Jefferson preferred to John Fitch, an early pioneer in steamboats. Rumsey had been testing his boats on the Potomac River. Fulton was intrigued, but still considered himself a painter. The next year, with an introduction by Benjamin Franklin, Fulton studied under Benjamin West at the London Royal Academy of Arts. However, his main goal was to attain wealth, and over time, it did not seem that painting would bring that. So, in 1787, Fulton, recalling his days with Rumsey, went to France to study canals and dabble in making machines. He designed a submarine for Napolean, but after two failed trials, it was abandoned.

    While in Paris, Fulton would also experiment with steamboats along the River Seine; the first breaking apart when the engines were boarded and the second more successful. But unlike his predecessors Fitch and Rumsey, he understood that money was needed to accomplish his goals, so he became friends with industrialists from Great Britian, France, and the United States. One of those friends was Chancellor Robert R. Livingston from New York State, American Minister to France, who had turned down Fitch over a decade before; another was Joel Barlow, a businessman he met in Paris.

    They both backed Fulton. Livingston from the work of the Boulton and Watt steam engine company, which had built a Boulton and Watt engine that would be needed to propel such a steamboat. Fulton brought the engine to New York in 1806 and began constructing a hull for his ship and trials along the Hudson River. The ship was named the North River, then Clermont.

    Despite the fact that Fulton was working off ideas that had been patented in 1791 by the former steamboat pioneers, Livingston and Fulton were granted a patent and furiously defended it. Meanwhile construction of the Clermont continued until it became a one hundred and thirty-six foot steamboat, only eighteen feet wide, that was capable of running trials from New York to Livingston's estate on the Hudson River, named Clermont. Thus the reason why the ship also became known as the Clermont, after first being named the North River. It ran on a twenty-four horsepower engine.

    People laughed at the invention, ... what ... it had sails and a steam engine, but all that bickering stopped when on August 17, it made that successful trip for one hundred and fifty miles from New York to Albany. It took thirty-two hours and returned safely in sixty-two hours, a trip of three hundred miles. Still others said it would not be able to repeat the trip, but it did time after time. Within a few years, a series of steamboats were regularly making the trip to Albany for Livingston's shipping company. Livingston predicted that one day steamboats would cross the oceans.

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    Timeline of Robert Fulton

    Born November 14, 1765 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in a small home on today's Route 222 south of Quarryville. His birthplace is now a museum across from the South Lancaster County Historical Society, and is open Memorial Day to Labor Day on Sunday afternoons.

    After the American Revolution was over and Fulton in his mid-teens, he became an apprentice to Jeremiah Andrews, a Philadelphia jeweler. By 1785, he was listed as a miniaturist painter, and became profitable enough to buy a small farm for his family in Washington County.

    Between 1807 and 1815, Robert Fulton would build twenty-one new steamboats. They, and others, transformed the way goods and people were transported around the United States.

    In 1808, Fulton would fall in love with Livingston's niece Harriet; they would marry and have four children.

    In 1811, Robert Fulton became a member of the Erie Canal Commission through appointment by the New York Governor.

    At the end of 1811, Fulton began a joint project with Livingston and Nicholas Roosevelt on a steamboat, the New Orleans, that was large and strong enough to travel from its mooring in Pittsburgh, down the Ohio River, then Mississippi River to Louisiana. It proved that it could handle both downstream and upstream demands and proved, to the small, but growing population of the midwest that the transportion and trade future of the central part of North America was bright.

    1814, a plaque, see below, states that Robert Fulton established the first steam powered ferry that took passengers over the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn prior to the Brooklyn Bridge being built. By 1868, there were one thousand crossings per day, and carried fifty million passengers annually.

    Robert Fulton's last design was for the United States Navy. Fulton did not like building a war machine, but had agreed to build the first steam-driven warship, a floating battery called Demologos. Built for the War of 1812, it was not completed until after Fulton's death in 1815.

    Photo above: Print of Robert Fulton's Clermont, circa 1810, 1900, Campbell Prints Inc. Courtesy Library of Congress. Photo below: Montage (left) Robert Fulton, 1850, Crehen, C.G. Courtesy Library of Congress; (right) Plaque in Brooklyn noting Robert Fulton's achievements, 2018, Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info Sources: Library of Congress; Southern Lancaster County Historical Society; legendsofamerica.com; Wikipedia Commons.

    Robert Fulton

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