Rediscovering Americans - Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton is often associated with the American Industrial Revolution, however, his contributions were wider reaching and made a significant impact on the 19th century. Robert Fulton was born on November 14, 1765 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Fulton’s father died when he was young. Fulton’s education began at home before being sent to a Quaker school at the age of 8. He then became an apprentice at a jewelry shop in Philadelphia. While working there, Fulton specialized in painting miniature portraits on ivory for rings and lockets.


Fulton took this talent to London in 1787 with the support of the local merchants in Philadelphia. While in London Fulton spent time around wealthy and influential members of society, even getting an opportunity to paint a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. Fulton also became enamored with technological advances, especially canals and steam engines. He devised several ideas including a system of canals that didn’t use locks and a few bridges that were built in the British Isles.


In 1797 he traveled to Paris armed with the plans for the very first submarine. The Nautilus was built in 1800 and could operate under water for 17 minutes in 25 feet of water. This was the first practical submarine ever invented. During this time he coordinated with the U.S. Ambassador to France, Robert R. Livingston, to create a steamboat. Unfortunately the boat sank, but this would not be the last time he would work on a project like this. In 1804 Fulton moved back to Britain and was commissioned to design the first modern naval torpedoes.


Fulton moved back to the United States in 1806. The following year he and Livingston built the first commercially successful steamboat. While many were skeptical of the boat, calling it “Fulton’s Folly”, the North River Steamboat (later known as the Claremont) was able to make the trip from New York City to Albany in 32 hours, almost 3 days shorter than regular sailing vessels.


In 1808 Fulton married Livingston’s niece, Harriet, with whom he had a son and three daughters. Fulton and Livingston continued their success with the building of the steamboat New Orleans in 1811. In 1812 Fulton served on the commission that led to the Erie Canal. Later that year he suggested and designed the world’s first steam warship, a floating gun platform that could protect the New York harbor. While it was completed and launched in October 1814, it never saw action.


Fulton died in 1815 of tuberculosis at the age of 49. He was buried in the Trinity Church Cemetery near other important Americans including Albert Gallatin and Alexander Hamilton. He is remembered for his contributions to naval innovation and the American Industrial Revolution.


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