Some Early Steamboats



Fulton did not forget his promise to build a steamboat for America, even though he was so occupied in trying to induce the English people to use his submarine torpedoes. As soon as he arrived in London, free from the entanglements of French warfare, he renewed his order for the engine and tried to gain permission for its shipment to America.

The permit was finally obtained, the engine built, and in March, 1805, Fulton notes in his account-book that he paid the fee at the Treasury “on receiving permission to ship the engine for America.” In January he had paid five hundred and forty-eight pounds for the cylinder and parts of the engine, and in March four hundred and seventy-six pounds, eleven shillings, sixpence for the copper boiler.

Some years ago, a story “went the rounds” of the newspapers that the boiler for Fulton’s American boat was made from melted copper pennies.[122] Coins of 1799 to 1804 were rare and this fiction was invented to explain the scarcity, but Fulton’s notebook contradicts it. Copper was hard to get, and expensive, but Fulton found it and paid for it,—full value too, one would say!

The engine preceded Fulton across the water by a year, for Fulton stayed in England until the autumn of 1806. It lay at the Custom House for six months, and was then carted to a storage-house on South Street until the boat was built to receive it.

To this period of Fulton’s life belong two interesting letters: they prove that he was ever mindful of his brother and sisters in far-away Pennsylvania, even while he was debating anxiously with English statesmen and planning a novel boat for American waters.

The first letter was written to his brother-in-law, David Morris, and is full of intimate and wholesome advice for he evidently realized the shortcomings in his own early education. Written in London, October 25th, 1805, it says in part:

I wrote you on the 20th and sent you an order on John Mason, Esqr. for 300 dollars to be paid out of my dividends of the first of January 1806, which will make in the whole 900 dollars of which I desired the division as follows:

300 to Mrs. Scott,
300 to Mrs. Cook[123]
200 to Abraham
50 to your wife
50 for sundries, as you will find detailed when you receive my letter.
Having observed bad spelling and writing in the letters I have received, and knowing that such errors may be corrected with a little industry and care on winter evenings, I have desired a friend of mine at New York to send you

4 of Johnston’s spelling dictionaries.
4 works on Arithmetic.
4 sets of good copperplate copies of large and small hand.
4 sets of the Spectator.
One of each to be a fixture in your family for the use of the children; one of each for Bell’s family: one ditto for Mrs. Scott’s and one ditto for Abraham.

The dictionaries will, I hope, correct the spelling and by reading the Spectator often it will improve the understanding and give ideas of a neat style. It is an immense object to learn children to write a straight fair hand, to spell well and cipher to the rule of three; and although this is not much of an education yet when well fixed in the mind with a little brains and some industry a man may learn anything. The greatest men America has produced had not much more education than here mentioned from their parents, but they had a great and meritorious industry; Franklin, Washington, and Rittenhouse are examples.

Wishing you all well it will give me pleasure to hear that you do well.

Robert Fulton.

It is certain that Fulton had practised what he here preaches to his nephews and nieces. During[124] his study of the great men of the day, Franklin, Washington, and Rittenhouse, he had caught the illuminative spark of their genius, struck out upon life’s anvil by their hard blows of untiring work. The secret of their power was constant self-culture, and Fulton applied himself to gain this foundation of strength by the application of his mature mind to the education which circumstances had deprived him of in his youth.

Let us hope that the nephews and nieces gladly received these gift-books from their famous uncle whom they had never seen, welcomed the big dictionaries and arithmetics with joy, and studied hard during the winter evenings, as he suggested.

About the same time he also wrote the following letter to Mr. Hoge, the first settler in Washington, Pennsylvania, from whom he had received an inquiry in regard to the four lots he had purchased. It shows Fulton’s unfailing generosity to his brother and sisters:

“I thank you kindly for your friendly letter of the first of June; it is so many years since I had any communication with you, or accurate account of my relations, together with many copies of my letters being lost in my travels, and considering my property in your country of value only in as much as it was of use to my relatives, I had forgot the[125] grants I formerly made of the three lots. I find however that one of them has been transferred to Mr. Morris, one to Mrs. Cook, and one was left by my mother to Peggy Scott.

“I now desire that those grants may be considered permanent and resigning all claims to them, from this time I shall not reckon them in my calculations.”

In his will, drawn in 1814, Fulton left a legacy of money also to each of his sisters and his brother.

Before we approach the story of the Clermont, it is fair and just to give credit to several men who worked very hard to try to build a “first” steamboat. There were so many attempts to produce the needed invention that it is hard to say which man should have the honor of being placed first.

Perhaps the earliest was Dr. John Allen, of England, who in 1730 wrote a scientific paper, entitled “Navigation in a Calm,” suggesting that a “fire engine with its furniture” could be put on board a ship and drive it twelve or fourteen miles an hour.

Probably most of those who read his pamphlet smiled at his absurd idea, but six years later, in 1736, Jonathan Hulls took out a patent for a tug-boat to be moved by wheels at the stern by the power of an atmospheric engine.

In America, where there are many deep rivers, it is not surprising to find that there were many experimenters: James Rumsey, of Virginia, built a boat for trial on the Potomac River and in 1787 had it working so well that he journeyed to England to try to advance his invention. There he persuaded a rich American to forward funds to build another boat for a trial on the Thames, but Rumsey died before his vessel was an established success. His system was not very practical and failed to work well.

Captain Samuel Morey, in 1793, built a tiny craft, “scarce big enough to carry himself,” it was said, and tried it upon the Connecticut River, but the first attempt failed to establish a claim to consideration and his plan was given up.

In 1792 another Connecticut man, Elijah Ormsbee, a clever carpenter, moved to Providence, Rhode Island, and built a boat in which his friend, David Wilkinson of Pawtucket, fitted “flutter wheels” and a “goose-foot propeller.” They made the boat run several times from Pawtucket to Providence, but that was the last heard of it. The piston was turned by atmospheric pressure, not by the direct use of steam.

Nicholas J. Roosevelt, who afterward became Fulton’s and Livingston’s representative in Ohio[127] River navigation, also had a “try” at inventing a boat; so had William Henry of Pennsylvania and Edward West; both left records of their attempts.

There were others, too, a long list of worthies, who labored well, but neither well enough nor long enough to convince doubting humanity that they had “found a way upon the waters.” Chief among them should forever stand the name of John Fitch, who had so sure yet faint a grasp upon the new science. In 1786, he built a boat thirty-four feet long, and launched it upon the Delaware River where it proved its worth. He organized a stock company to finance and direct the enterprise. The boat ran for a short time between Philadelphia and Bordentown, but the machinery was cumbersome, the service scanty, and the company lost money. In the autumn the boat was set aside and never used again. After a visit to France, where Fitch obtained a patent but failed to secure funds for a new boat, he returned to America as a deck-hand after his fruitless task. A few years later he died, a disappointed and discouraged man. To his mechanical genius there was linked an erratic character and an unsettled disposition. Had he been able to set aside the belittling influences of his life, there is no doubt that he would have been a great man.

As in “Prize Contests” of the present day, honorable mention is made of those whose work was excellent although it failed to win the highest award; so may we unhesitatingly yield honorable mention to John Fitch for his years of study. He did build a boat; he did make it run; but he failed to establish steam navigation as a practical system of transportation and a commercial success.

In addition to these Americans there were men of science in other lands who busied themselves with the same problem. Earl Stanhope of England, whose attempt has been noted; Patrick Miller of Scotland; the Messrs. Hunter and Dickinson; William Symington, who tried a tug on the Forth and Clyde Canal; M. des Blanc, of France, who essayed to build a boat for the Rhone; all are recorded in history as having made honest attempts to prove that the power of steam could be applied to boats. But how? That was the question. And it should be noted that Robert Fulton did not accept the theory of any previous experimenter, nor did he merely happen upon his successful plan. He worked long and patiently, with varying degrees of success, until he discovered the proper tables of proportion,—the size and shape of the boat and its paddles, the weight and power of the engine, the strength of tide and currents, and all the many[129] contributing forces which united to form the practical and successful boat he finally produced.

Several interesting descriptions of Fulton’s experiments are in existence: one, dated Paris, Jan. 9th, 1803, is entitled “Experiments on the Model of a Boat to be Moved by a Steam Engine.” It describes six different methods by which he propelled a model of a boat three feet long and eight inches wide. From the knowledge he gained in these experiments, he compiled a “table of comparisons” showing the different distances covered by the use of varying sized paddles. He concluded: “Propelling a boat through water is the act of separating two bodies,—the boat from its oars or paddles, or whatever else is applied,—and this is governed by laws reducible to simple calculation.”

It was this science of calculation which gave Fulton the mastery of the situation, and his title, Inventor of Steam Navigation. He did not build a boat by guess-work, but built many boats by actual calculation of their power and speed; these he introduced upon several waterways and established each as a commercial success. Other men had produced the “flower of invention.” Fulton produced the more perfect flower and matured it to actual fruitage.

When Fulton, a youth of twenty-one, sailed from America in 1786, he carried one letter of introduction in his pocket and forty guineas in his purse. Twenty years later he returned, a man of prominence, with plans and purposes enough to fill the remainder of his life. His arbitration with the British government was finished; he had been paid for services rendered to the fleet; and the system of torpedo warfare remained his own, for he had declined to suppress it, at any price. He was content, in excellent health, “never better,” he said, and in good spirits. Thus he wrote to his friend Joel Barlow, announcing his return.

It was his hope to arrive in America by the 14th of November, his birthday, and eat roast goose in Barlow’s hospitable home, “Kalorama,”—a fine country estate near the city of Washington. But the slow-sailing ship in which he embarked from Falmouth during the first week in October did not come to port in Halifax, Nova Scotia, until the 13th of December, 1806.

How happy Fulton was to be again in his native land. He traveled at once by stage-coach to visit the Barlows in their new and delightful home, which he called the “Athenian Garden of America.” There he entered another circle of Barlow’s friends, statesmen of the day, among whom were Jefferson, Madison, and other men of prominence.

In Fulton’s letter to Barlow he had said, “You know I cannot exist without a project, or projects, and I have two or three of the first order of sublimity.” It was true, and he immediately set himself to the task of forwarding them. He certainly believed in the importance of the work he was about to begin.

The world has honored Fulton as the “inventor of the steamboat”; his history shows that his other invention, the submarine torpedo-boat, was of equal importance in Fulton’s estimation. Pledged to partnership with Chancellor Livingston to build the boat for the Hudson River, he also found time, soon after his arrival in America, to interest his countrymen in his project of submarine navigation. Joel Barlow helped him in this plan by inviting James Madison, Secretary of State, and Robert Smith, Secretary of the Navy, to witness an experiment at Kalorama, on the waters of Rock Creek. These men were favorably impressed,[132] and Fulton soon after arranged a series of experiments in the harbor of New York; but three years went by before Congress appropriated money to finance the invention in a practical way.

Fulton’s fame had spread, and in March he was invited by Thomas Jefferson, then President of the United States, to examine the ground and report on the possibility of building a canal to unite the waters of the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain; but Fulton replied, “although infinitely obliged by the proposal I am sorry I cannot undertake a work so interesting and honorable. The reason is I now have ship-builders, blacksmiths and carpenters occupied at New York in building and executing the machinery of my steamboat and I must return to that city in ten days to direct the work till finished, which will probably require four months. The enterprise is of much importance to me individually and I hope will be of great use in facilitating the navigation of some of our long rivers. Like every enthusiast I have no doubt of success. I therefore work with ardor and when adjusting the parts of the machine I cannot leave the men for a day. I am also preparing the engines for an experiment of blowing up a vessel in the harbor of New York this spring. The machines for this purpose are in great forwardness and I[133] hope to be able to convince the rational part of the inhabitants of our cities that vessels of war shall never enter our harbors or approach our coasts but by our consent. Thus I hope I am usefully employed for six or nine months.”

How strange seem all these plans in the light of a century’s progress! We are prone to think that civilization has come by leaps and bounds, but a letter like this proves that men have had to develop it by patient industry.

Fulton engaged a boat-builder, Charles Browne by name, whose yards were at Corlears Hook on the East River, to construct the hull. It was a hundred and fifty feet long, thirteen feet wide, drawing two feet of water, bow and stern sixty degrees. You will remember that the engine from England was safely stored in a warehouse on South Street, and it was carted over to place in the boat on April 23d, 1807. Fulton kept an account of all expenses and his worn little note-book tells many details which otherwise would have been lost.

Plenty of people laughed at the enterprise and few thought it would amount to anything. Idle-minded men crowded near the ship-yards and gave their reasons for predicting the certain failure of Fulton’s Folly, as they called the boat. This was[134] unpleasant but Fulton took no notice of them for he had long before realized that only wise people can grasp new ideas. His patience was inexhaustible and his temper undisturbed. He declined to listen to the jeers of the bystanders who often rudely intended their remarks to reach his ears. And day by day the boat advanced toward completion.

It will be remembered that Livingston, by the terms of contract, could not be called upon for more money; we can fancy then how great was Fulton’s anxiety when he found that the boat would cost more than he had surmised. It is said that when one thousand dollars were needed to pay the men, Fulton vainly spent an entire evening trying to persuade an intimate friend to lend the money. Nothing daunted, he renewed his entreaties the following day, and finally the friend reluctantly promised a hundred dollars if Fulton could persuade nine others to subscribe the same sum. This he did by promising the subscribers that their names should be kept secret, as they feared ridicule.

The lack of money was exasperating when Fulton felt so sure of his plan, but not an angry or fretful word escaped him; and when work went wrong, as it sometimes did, he commenced again with the same ardor and calmness. Hot weather came on and still Fulton worked hard at the yards,[135] superintending every detail; he must often have been exhausted, says Colden, his biographer, but he never complained. He showed himself a moral as well as a mechanical philosopher.

We always think of Fulton’s steamboat as voyaging first upon the waters of the Hudson; it is interesting therefore to learn from a letter Fulton wrote to Chancellor Livingston, that the boat was launched in the East River, and there made a successful trial-trip on the 9th of August, 1807, exactly four years after Fulton’s demonstration of his French boat on the river Seine. He probably chose the date in remembrance of that never-to-be-forgotten triumph.

The Chancellor was spending the summer at Clermont, his famous country estate on the Hudson River at Tivoli, a short distance below the city of Hudson. His delight must have been great when he received the following letter from his energetic partner. I quote it in full because of its special interest in showing how fully Fulton tested his new craft and how personal was his care and exercise of her movements:

New York, Monday the 10th August, 1807.

Dear Sir:

Yesterday about 12 o’clock I put the steamboat in motion, first with a paddle 8 inches broad 3 feet long with which I[136] ran about one mile up the East River against a tide of almost one mile an hour, it being nearly high water. I then anchored and put in another paddle 8 inches wide 3 feet long, started again and then according to my best observations I went 3 miles an hour, that is two against a tide of one; another board of 8 inches was wanting which had not been prepared. I therefore turned the boat and run down with the tide of one mile, boat 3, equal four, and turned her round neatly into the berth from which I parted. She answers the helm equal to anything that ever was built. And I turned her twice in three times her own length.

Much has been proved by this experiment; First, that she will when in complete order run up to my full calculations; Second, that my axles I believe will be sufficiently strong to run the engine to her full power; Third, that she steers well and can be turned with ease. The sum of the surfaces of the paddles were 8 feet, the Bow of the boat 9. My paddle boards should have been equal 12 feet which I was afraid to put on at first; they are now making.

The engine having worked for the first time requires overhauling and new packing. The cold-water pump for condensing is 7 inches and a two foot stroke yet does not furnish sufficient cold water for complete condensation and vacuum. I am about making it 10 inches diameter; these connections with the finishing of the cabins will take me the entire week and I shall start on Monday next at 4 miles an hour.

Yesterday I beat all the sloops that were endeavoring to stem tide with the slight breeze which they had; had I hoisted my sails I consequently should have had all their means added to my own.

Whatever may be the fate of steamboats for the Hudson[137] every thing is completely proved for the Mississippi, and the object is immense. Please to forward me 1000 or 1500 dollars as soon as possible.

Yours truly,

R. Fulton.

Best respects to Mrs. Livingston.

Addressed to Robt. R. Livingston, Esqr. Clermont, New York.

Money was again needed, you see, but we may be sure it was forthcoming with this proof of the success of the great project. For the trial-trip, although it made necessary some slight alterations, removed all doubt as to its power. During the week the boat was moved to its new dock on the North, or Hudson River, and the carpenters were set at work to finish the cabins and make the boat ready for her first official voyage up the Hudson. Fulton promised the Chancellor that it should take place “on Monday next,”—that was August 17th,—so Fulton’s partner and several members of his family journeyed to New York, by sloop or stage-coach, to take the historic trip.

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