1765, Little Britain Township, PA
1815, New York, NY
Fulton painted Benjamin Franklin's portrait and had two works accepted by the Royal Academy in London.
Photos: American Society of Mechanical Engineers
A savvy artist-turned-technologist took steamboat inventions and innovated them into the first viable commercial steamboat service.
Although Robert Fulton did not invent the steamboat, as is commonly believed, he was instrumental in making steamboat travel a reality. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1765. 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. While abroad, Fulton left the arts for a career in canal and shipbuilding. He was interested in the recently-invented steam engine, and thought it could be used to power ships. Fulton's vision was not original; many others had entered the field, and the unfortunate inventor John Fitch had built a working steamship already. But like Henry Ford, Fulton's genius lay not in invention but in adaptation for the marketplace.
Fulton was not focused entirely on the steamboat. In 1804, he tested the first successful submarine, which he had built for the British Navy. His invention would make him a celebrity upon his return to the United States two years later. Fulton's partner, Robert Livingstone, who had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from France, obtained an exclusive license for steamboat services on New York's Hudson River. It was time for Fulton to deliver.
To build 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.
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.