Robert Fulton

(1765—1815) engineer and artist

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American engineer. He was first apprenticed to a jeweller, then took up portrait and landscape painting as a profession, and finally, during a visit to England in 1794, decided that engineering was to be his career. His initial energies were devoted to canal engineering and he took out a British patent for superseding canal locks by inclined planes, an invention which failed to attract much attention. In 1797 he settled in Paris and in 1801, after a great many setbacks, managed to persuade Napoleon that the French answer to British sea power lay in the use of submarines. He received a grant of 10,000 francs with which to construct a prototype and built the Nautilus. Ellipsoid in shape, with a length of 6.4 metres (21 ft) and a diameter of 2.1 metres (7 ft), she could submerge by flooding internal ballast tanks. She was driven under water by a propeller turned by hand and on the surface by a collapsible mast and sail. At a demonstration at Brest, Fulton succeeded in blowing up an old schooner, moored in the centre of the harbour as a target, by diving the submarine beneath the vessel and attaching to her bottom an explosive charge carried externally on the submarine. Despite this success, the French Ministry of Marine was unimpressed, as were the British Admiralty and the American authorities when he later demonstrated the submarine to them.

He was much more successful with his ventures into steam propulsion and in 1803, with the help of the American politician Robert Livingston (1746–1813), who was in Paris to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, demonstrated a 20-metre (65-ft) paddle steamer, fitted with an 8-horsepower engine of French design, on the River Seine. Then in 1807, he designed a paddle steamer which he and Livingston, who had been granted the monopoly of steam navigation on all waters within the New York State boundaries, built. Later called the Clermont, she was commercially successful and in the following years Fulton designed several more. He also built the turtle-boat; sat on the commission which recommended the construction of the Erie Canal; and in October 1814 launched a 50-metre (167-ft), 6-knot, steam catamaran, the world's first powered warship. Built for the US Navy Department she had her boiler in one hull and her engine in the other, and was armed with 26 32-pounder guns and fitted with a central paddle wheel. Fulton called her the Demologos (‘the word of the people’) but she was later renamed the Fulton in his honour. She was really a floating gun platform suited only for calm water. Designed to defend New York, the Anglo-American War (1812–14) ended before she saw any action.

Fulton spent much of his fortune on his submarine designs, and in litigation against those who pirated his steamboat patents and others who attempted to break the monopolies he and Livingston held. But he integrated the key inventions of other early ship designers, including David Bushnell, and made them into successful prototype vessels.

Subjects: Maritime History — Warfare and Defence.

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