Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Fulton's Folly

SIDEBAR: Fulton's Folly


Fulton, Robert (1765-1815) is best known for designing and building the first commercially successful steamboat, the Clermont which ushered in a new era in the history of transportation. In addition to his work with steamboats, Fulton was an inventor, mechanical and civil engineer, and artist who made many important contributions to the development of naval warfare, the submarine, the technology of mine warfare, the design and construction of the first steam-powered warship, and to canal transportation.

Early years. Nov. 14, 1765, Fulton was born on a farm near Little Britain in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He spent his boyhood in Lancaster, and showed inventive talent at an early age. He turned out lead pencils, household utensils for his mother, and skyrockets for a town celebration. Fulton developed a hand-operated paddle wheel for use on a rowboat. He also built a rifle that had sight and bore of original design. Fulton went to Philadelphia at the age of 17, and was apprenticed to a jeweler.

Artist. In Philadelphia, he began to win fame as a painter of miniatures and portraits. He soon saved enough money to buy a farm for his mother. At age 21, Fulton went to England to study with the fashionable American artist Benjamin West. In London, Fulton made a moderate living as an artist. But he became increasingly interested in scientific and engineering developments. After 1793, he gave his full attention to this field, and painted only for amusement. As a young man, he set out to make his name as a portrait painter. His career would take him to Europe -- and into the orbit of people with the power to back him politically and financially. Fulton ventured into London society after he painted Benjamin Franklin's portrait.

Inventor. Fulton's first enthusiasm was for canal development. He designed new types of canal boats, and a system of inclined planes to replace canal locks. Other mechanical problems challenged him. He invented a machine for making rope and one for spinning flax. He made a labor-saving device for cutting marble, and invented a dredging machine for cutting canal channels. In 1796, Fulton published A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation.

Submarines. In 1801, he built a diving boat, the Nautilus, which could dive 25 feet (7.6 meters) underwater. In 1804, he tested the first successful submarine for the British Navy. Fulton's experimental submarines were able to dive and surface, and he succeeded in blowing up anchored test craft. Fulton's ideas interested both Napoleon Bonaparte and the British Admiralty, but both proved lukewarm toward actually adopting the concept.

Steamboat. In 1802, Fulton started working on the steamboat. Fulton had been interested for many years in the idea of steam propulsion for a boat. An experimental boat launched on the Seine River in Paris in 1803; unfortunately, it sank due to excessive engine weight. However, a second boat was built later the same year and operated successfully.

Fulton returned to the United States with some fame in 1806 to do further work on the steamboat. Congress even granted him $5,000 for his effort.

In 1807, Fulton directed the construction of a steamboat in New York. Fulton did not try to construct an engine; instead, he ordered one from Watt and adapted it to his boat. After extensive rebuilding, the boat was ready to provide regular passenger service on the Hudson.

Registered as the North River Steam Boat, the ship was generally called the Clermont after the Hudson River home of Robert Livingston. On Aug. 17, 1807, the steamboat started on its first successful trip 150 miles (241 kilometers) up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany, in about 30 hours, including an overnight stop. The Clermont became the first commercially successful steamboat.

Entrepeneur. Robert Fulton didn't invent the steamship , but he made it a commercial success. Indeed, "Fulton's folly" made Fulton a very rich and famous man.

Robert Fulton was instrumental in making steamboat travel a reality. While abroad, Fulton became interested in the recently-invented steam engine; he thought it could be used to power ships. Fulton's vision was not original; many others had entered the field. The inventor, John Fitch, had already built a working steamship. Fulton was more akin to Henry Ford; Fulton's genius lay not in invention but in adaptation for the marketplace.

Fulton's partner, Robert Livingstone, had previously negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from France; thus, he proved more then up for the task of obtaining an exclusive license for Fulton's steamboat services on New York's Hudson River. It was time for Fulton to deliver.

With this financial backing from Robert Livingston, Robert Fulton built his steamship, "Fulton's folly." For an efficient, reliable steamboat, Fulton used a special English steam engine. The ship's bottom was flat and its stern was square.

Clermont made its debut on August 17, 1807, steaming upriver from New York to Albany, and it soon entered into commercial service. The hilly terrain of New York made water travel faster than land travel, and Fulton's boat -- formerly known as "Fulton's Folly" -- was a hit. Within five years, Fulton would be running services on six major rivers plus the Chesapeake Bay, and raking in the profits.

The Clermont went into commercial service, charging $7 per ticket. The state of New York granted Fulton the exclusive rights to steamboat transport on the Hudson River; this agreement lasted until this monopoly was deemed unconstitutional in 1825.

Fulton showed his entrepreneurial talents by equipping his ship with fairly luxurious sleeping berths, a saloon, and a ladies' lounge. In 1807, Fulton christened his ship the "Clermont." The boat ended up costing $20,000 to build, a considerable sum in those days. Fulton set out to test his steamboat prototype on August 17, 1807. He planned to travel along the Hudson River, from New York City to Albany and back.

Fulton's Folly was so named due to the popular assumption that this new type of ship would fail.

Fulton's new ship seemed like such a crazy idea because it was a radical jump from the traditional sailing ships of the early 19th century. This new boat had a special steam engine with smokestacks, developed by James Watt in 1765 and refined by Fulton. The steamship also featured a flat-bottom, walled-sides, and a squared-stern, designs far different from traditional streamlined sails. Fulton's ship was propelled by paddle wheels midway along each side of the boat with the engine installed just forward of the wheels.

A large crowd gathered to see what this bizarre new boat could do. Amazingly, spectators jeered at "Fulton's Folly", and nearly everyone expected the crude steamboat to fail. Sure enough, steam engine stalled soon after it started up with great noise and smoke. Amidst many jeers from spectators, Fulton and his staff franticly searched for the problem to get the Clermont moving. A half-hour later, the ship's paddles started turning for a successful voyage.

From the shoreline of the Hudson River, spectators witnessed a shocking sight. There in the river was a mechanical monster spewing flames and smoke. It was 'Fulton's Folly'! Most observers thought the vessel would either explode or roll over and sink. They proved wrong.

The Clermont averaged about 5 miles per hour moving against the Hudson's current. The strange ship bewildered and shocked additional onlookers as it slowly made its way upriver. A scant 32 hours after it departed from New York City, the Clermont traveled 150 miles to reach Albany. The Clermont then made the return trip to New York in 30 hours, and Robert Fulton became the most famous man in America.

Fulton triumphantly proclaimed,
"The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved."

"Fulton's folly" had proven all the
naysayers wrong.


In latter life, Fulton constructed and operated other boats. His final work was the design and construction of a steam-powered warship, Fulton the First, for the defense of New York harbor in the War of 1812. Unfortunately, he died before its completion.

Fulton's innovation left quite a legacy. Steamboat travel was instrumental to the industrial revolution in America, helping manufacturers transport raw materials and finished goods quickly. It also opened up the American continent to exploration, settlement, and exploitation. Fulton died of pneumonia in February 1815, having created the service that carried Americans into a prosperous future.

In Statuary Hall, Washington, D.C., the statue of Fulton honors his achievements. Fulton's folly opened a new age in maritime history. The new steamboats opened up the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase to settlement and commercial enterprise. Within a few years after Fulton's success with the Clermont, steamships were cruising most American rivers, particularly the Mississippi. Steamboats dominated personal and freight transport in America until the rise of the railroad in the late 19th century.

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