1902 Encyclopedia > Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton
American pioneer of steam navigation
(1765-1815)




ROBERT FULTON (1765-1815), an American engineer and mechanician, was born in 1765 at Little Britain in Pennsylvania. At the age of seventeen he adopted the profession of a portrait and landscape painter, but he also, even then, devoted a considerable portion of his time to mechanical pursuits. In his twenty-second year he visited England, with the view of improving himself in art by the instructions of his countryman West. There he made the acquaintance of the duke of Bridgewater, Earl Stanhope, and Watt; and partly by their influence he was led to devote his attention more exclusively to mechanical engineering. In 1793 he had conceived the design of propelling vessels by steam, but did not at that time find a suitable opportunity for putting his views into practice. His time was also much engrossed in devising a method of superseding the locks on canals by a plane of double incline for which he obtained a patent from the British Government in 1794. In the same year he obtained patents for flax-spinning and rope-twisting machines, and various other mechanical inventions, bearing chiefly upon the construction of canals, on which latter subject he published a treatise. In 1797 he removed to Paris, and remained for seven years in the house of Joel Barlow, the American minister at the court of France, prosecuting his scientific studies. During that period he projected the first panorama ever exhibited in Paris, and made important experiments on submarine explosives. These experiments were further continued in America, but although Congress voted him 5000 dollars for prosecuting them, his plans were finally declared impracticable. It was also at Paris that he first succeeded, after repeated trials, in propelling a boat through the water by the aid of steam. In 1806 he returned to America and repeated the experiment on a larger scale and with more decided success. In 1809 he took out his first patent, but his rights were disputed, and after protracted legislation a compromise was effected. In 1814 Fulton constructed the first United States' war steamer, and he was engaged upon an improvement of his submarine torpedo when he died, February 24, 1815.

See Life of Robert Fulton, by C. D. Colden, 1817, and the biography by James Renwick in Spark's American Biography.







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