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Robert Fulton
1765 - 1815

Steamboat and Submarine Builder, Engineer and Businessman

Robert Fulton is best known for his development of the steamboat. His interests were much more extensive, however. He utilized talents as an engineer, businessman, and developer and synthesizer of the ideas of others. He also designed and built submarines, floating forts, and the first steamboats to ply the Mississippi. ■ Fulton was born in 1765 on a farm south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His ancestors were from Ayrshire and arrived with the earliest wave of Scottish emigrants. He went to England to study art. A few years later he switched to engineering. ■ In Europe, Fulton worked on canal design but with little success. He tried submarine design and launched a successful submarine call the Nautilus. He next turned to steamboat design in partnership with Robert Livingston, then U.S. minister to France. ■ Much experimentation was evident at this time on the heels of the invention of the modern steam engine by the Scottish engineer James Watt. After 20 years in Europe Fulton returned home to build a steamboat using a 24 h.p. Watt engine. In 1807 he made some trial runs culminating in his historic 150-mile steamboat trip on the Hudson River from New York to Albany. ■ Fulton established his own engine works in New Jersey. Later he developed steam ferries for the Hudson and East River traffic. Fulton's final triumph was his promotion and building of a mobile floating fort for the defense of New York harbor in the War of 1812, but it was not launched until after the war had ended. ■ Though he used many of the ideas of others, he contributed much to the development of the steam engine and American water navigation at a critical juncture in the young nation's westward expansion and development. He died in New York February 24, 1815.


Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, IL 60546