Robert Fulton’s Invention of the Steamboat

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Robert Fulton was the man who created an invention that would change the way the world moved. He recognized early on that transport, particularly water transportation could be significantly improved by powering boats with a steam engine. While Robert Fulton certainly was not the first inventor to come up with this idea, it was his achievement that produced the first commercialized and fully operational steamboat. Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat changed the way we moved and helped us to be where we are today.

In this article, we will learn about Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat. While we could easily talk about the steamboat and the benefits it brought, it is vital to first learn about the man who invented it. We will find out what it took Robert Fulton to design and develop the steamboat and how he did it. What was the mindset behind this invention, and what can we learn from him?

The Life of the Steamboat Inventor

Let us take a look at the peculiar life development of the inventor of the steamboat. Robert Fulton’s life story is an example to us all – it teaches us the importance of having good acquaintances as well as the determination and of course, a lot of talent.

Early Life

When it comes to talent, Robert Fulton was a natural. Robert Fulton was an American engineer and inventor born on November 14, 1765, in Little Britain, Pennsylvania. He was born into a relatively large family (he had three sisters and a younger brother) that lived on a small farm. Fulton’s parents were of Irish origin; his father, Robert Fulton Senior, was a tailor by trade and was able to make a good living for a few years. At least until 1771, when Robert Senior was cash-stricken as the farm became unproductive.

The family had to relocate to another farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. That enabled his father to work on his trade as a tailor. But Robert Fulton Junior had little interest in learning his father’s business; in fact, Robert Fulton was not a particularly avid student and was as a child was not interested in books. But he was a talented and intelligent young lad. In his youth, his main interest was painting and making portraits. A few years later, his father died, and Robert Fulton was sent to the Quaker school.

An Aspiring Artist

While he was mildly interested in engineering in his early years, Robert really wanted to develop his talent as an artist. He underwent an apprenticeship in Philadelphia. There he specialized in making portraits of jewels and other pieces of silverware. Robert was so talented that he was able to garner a handsome income from painting. As an artist, he was able to provide for his family back in Lancaster. Robert regularly sent some of his income back home to his mother.

His time in Philadelphia was crucial for his later development as one of the most prominent engineers in the USA. In those days, he met and acquainted himself with many notable people that would later help him achieve success. These people include Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin West, who was an influence on Robert later on in his life.

Fulton managed to make a decent living as an artist. Between the ages of seventeen through twenty while in Pensylvania, he earned enough money to buy a farm in 1785 for his mother and his family near Pittsburgh. Robert Fulton was an ambitious young man, and he wanted to advance his career and learn more about painting. In 1786, he was advised to go to Europe to study the techniques of the masters. He was encouraged to do so by his family and some of the prominent people around him.

Move to Europe and the Start of his Engineering Career

Even though Robert Fulton moved to Europe to progress his career in art, it was this time in his life that made him love engineering. In Europe, he was able to satisfy his urge to invent new things and to try new concepts.

Initially, he did what he set out to do – he wanted to improve his painting skills. He reconnected with Benjamin West, who resided in London in 1786. He was a successful painter himself. West took Fulton into his home while Robert supported himself through selling his artwork. But this is when his urge for inventing was starting to come out; in fact, his interest in inventing and engineering interfered significantly with his schooling process.

Fulton’s attention shifted from art to invention very quickly. While Fulton did not have a background of inventing nor the necessary skills at the beginning, he was able to learn them with a lot of practice and effort on his part. He began by studying mathematics and science. Young Robert was more and more fascinated by naval inventions and with the canals of that time. During the 1790s, he started experimenting with various mechanical patents and concepts.

First Concepts of a Steamboat

One such idea was his concept of a tugboat for canals, which would make him even more focused on canal engineering. It was at this time that Fulton started working on ideas for a steamboat. It is widely believed that this occurred as early as 1793 when Fulton tried to sell and promote his patent with pamphlets. He even unsuccessfully proposed one of his concepts to governments of the United States and the United Kingdom. He also had some unsuccessful ventures and patents within the broader boating industry.

But this would not stop Fulton from his idea of a steam-powered boat. He saw plenty of potential in the power of steam engines as the driving force for ships. The steam engine, developed by James Watt, had by that time already proven to be an essential achievement in the history of humanity and was used in many other fields. Fulton thought to himself, why not use it for boats as well? By that time, Fulton was well-educated in the areas of canal boating and ship engineering and sought to create something that would propel, no pun intended, him to fame.

Robert Fulton was not the first inventor to come up with the idea of a steam-powered boat. Some unsuccessful versions of the steamboat were already built more than ten years before. They were not commercialized yet or optimized in any way for large commercial use. The earliest steamer was designed in France by Claude de Jouffroy, which passed the first trial in 1783. In 1787, a similar feat was achieved by John Fitch, who successfully launched his version of the steamboat. However, these projects either didn’t materialize or were inappropriate for use on a large scale.

Move to France

Undeterred by some of his setbacks in London, Fulton moved to Paris in 1797, where he sought to establish himself as an inventor. This time in his life was essential for him, establishing himself as a crucial personality and also in order to perfect his ideas for steamboats. In Paris, he met James Rumsey, who was a steamboat inventor himself. Rumsey had already trialed his steamboat in 1786. Fulton gained a lot of knowledge from their relationship.

Robert Fultonduring, his time in France, was perhaps best known for his development of a submarine for the French army. He proposed the concept to Napoleon in 1797. Initially, the patent was twice turned down. Fulton persisted and made slight improvements to the submarine design. In 1800, the concept was finally approved and ready to be built. It was called the Nautilus. The submarine was another achievement by Robert Fulton that showed his underlying determination.

This personal trait would prove to be the decisive factor later in his life. In 1801, he met Robert R. Livingston, who was the US ambassador in France. Livingston was very interested in steamboats and wanted to collaborate with Fulton. This collaboration would prove to be fruitful for Fulton and also with the creation of the first commercial steamboat. The pair experimented with the concepts until they created the perfected version. Before the patent was approved, Robert Fulton moved back to England for a brief period, where he worked on mechanisms of war and other large equipment.

Robert Fulton’s Invention of the Steamboat

Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat was the culmination of Fulton’s and Livingston’s work in Paris. From 1803 onwards, the pair thought that the patent was going to be granted, so they released their concept to the general public. 

To work on the patent and to develop the steamboat, Fulton moved to New York in 1806, where he would collaborate with Livingston. For the success to be complete, it was important for Fulton to pick the right people to build their first steamboat. He chose Charles Brown as the boat’s builder because he had a good reputation in the shipbuilding industry. This choice practically guaranteed the success of the operation. The construction of the steamer began in the spring of 1806. This was to be the first commercial ship that would transport passengers on an already established route.

The Clermont

A replica of Robert Fulton’s Clermont – Source: Library of Congress.

The construction of the first steamboat was finalized in 1807. By August 1807, the steamboat was finished and ready for trials to establish the viability of the new steamboat. It successfully passed the tests and was prepared for general use. The ship was called the Clermont. It was the first boat in the fleet of the company that was owned by Livingston.

Soon, the Clermont was ready to transport passengers up and down the Hudson River. The trial run was 32 hours long, and it was a journey from New York to Albany. The boat made a successful trip to Albany and back to New York. While some people thought that the ship was not ready yet and should be further improved, it still made many successful trips to Albany and back. At this point, Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat had proven itself to be very popular. Soon, additional ships were built based upon the concept of the Clermont. Those ships were added to the fleet of the Livingston company.

Rober Fulton’s Invention of the Steamboat and Its Effects

Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat proved to be a successful patent that was worked on by Fulton for the majority of his life. It had many positive effects on society, industry, transportation, and more.

Before the steamboat, the idea of transporting goods over the water was not efficient in many ways. The journeys took a long time, and there were too many obstacles involved in the transportation of goods. Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat reduced trip times and made the movement of equipment and merchandise along the river more feasible. Thes significant achievements helped strengthen the industry and market, as well as public transportation and later tourism.

Fulton’s Later Life

From his development of the steamboat in 1807 to 1811, Fulton was active with other projects and patents, but Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat will always be the one that got his name in the history books. Later in life, he sought many ways to improve his steamboat and make it an even more reliable form of transportation. In 1808, he married Harriet Livingston. They had four children together. Fulton died in 1815 in New York.


Let’s conclude this article with the lessons that we can learn from Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat and apply them to our lives. What are the parts that we can still gain knowledge from today?

  • The most important lesson is to stay determined and believe in yourself. 
  • Don’t underestimate the power of friendships and acquaintances. 
  • Always research the market thoroughly. 
  • Don’t give up just because others are working on similar concepts.
  • Many inventors are just as comfortable with a paintbrush as they are with machines.
  • Don’t be afraid to sketch, paint, or 3D model your ideas. 

Are you ready to become an inventor?

Getting your idea out of your head and into your hands is only the first in a long set of steps towards becoming a successful inventor.

First Steps To A Successful Invention

At Invention Therapy, we believe that the power of the internet makes it easier than you think to turn your invention idea into a reality. In most cases, you can build a prototype and start manufacturing a product on your own. Changing your way of thinking can be difficult. Being an inventor requires you to balance your passion with the reality of having to sell your products for a profit. After all, if we can't make a profit, we won't be able to keep the lights on and continue to invent more amazing things!

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