Today in History – August 17, 1807- Robert Fulton’s North River Steam Boat, called the Clermont, began its first voyage up New York’s Hudson River to complete a successful round-trip from New York City to Albany, traveling 150 miles in 32 hours.
Although Robert Fulton did not invent the steamboat, he is credited with making it a commercial success. Robert Fulton was born in Little Britain township (now Fulton), Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1765 and died in New York, 24 February 1815. His father came from Kilkenny, Ireland, and immigrated to the United States early in the 18th century. Robert Fulton was a motivated artist and tinkerer. He was constructing paddlewheels at the age of thirteen, which he successfully applied to a fishing boat. He also supported himself through painting miniature portraits and landscapes, as well as mechanical and architectural drawing. He traveled to London to study under Benjamin West to improve his artistic skills and also visited artists in Paris. But he was drawn further into experiments in mechanics and engines. In 1798 Fulton worked on a project for the improvement of canal navigation and obtained a British patent for a double inclined plane for raising or lowering boats from one level to another on a system of small canals.
Fulton returned to the U.S. and completed the boat that was to navigate the Hudson in Spring of 1807. The Clermont’s steam-power trip up the Hudson to Albany was subject to much jealousy and rivalry, depriving him from most of the profits from his innovation. Yet few challenge his claim to have been the major influence behind the rapid multiplication and commercial success of steamboats in the U.S. and elsewhere. Robert Fulton is also well known for his role in a number of other innovations, including the submarine.
For more information, see the Engineering Pathway’s resources on Robert Fulton, steam engines and thermodynamics. For related educational resources, visit the Mechanical Engineering Education disciplinary community.