Friday, June 24, 2011

Bob's Folly Part 2: Making it Work



Why then was Robert Fulton successful where so many others had failed? The answer might well be that Fulton had the great fortune of meeting and partnering with Robert R. Livingston. A descendant of Hudson Valley landed gentry and a product of the Enlightenment, Livingston dedicated over half his life to civil service. He served New York at the Continental Congress and was a member of the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Like other men of his class, he wanted to be known as a scientist, a diplomat, a jurist, a farmer, and a politician. He experimented with fertilizers, animal husbandry, and exotic agricultural products. He patented processes to reduce the friction of millstones and to make paper from river weed. Of all his interests though, Livingston found steam the most fascinating. He built his first steamboat in 1793, and it promptly sank. Never one to be deterred, Livingston hired talented engineers to fix the problem. John Stevens (Livingston’s brother-in-law), Nicholas Roosevelt, and Samuel Morey were all still collaborating with Livingston when he was appointed minister to France in 1800.

While in France, Livingston met Robert Fulton, and the road to history began shortly after. Livingston had everything the keen young engineer Fulton needed. Livingston had been experimenting with steamboats for over twenty years, working closely with talented engineers. He was also the most powerful member of one of New York’s most powerful families. Livingston also had the ultimate ace in the hole, a monopoly on steamboats on the Hudson River. Originally granted to John Fitch, Livingston used his political clout to secure the monopoly for himself upon Fitch’s death. If Livingston and Fulton could build a boat capable of steaming four mph, Livingston’s monopoly would insure their legal protection from any competition.

Fulton was also no stranger to steamboats. A portrait painter, a canal engineer, an engraver, an inventor, he had dabbled in steamboat design and was most likely aware of the experiments of steamboat pioneers William Henry, John Fitch, James Rumsey, and William Symington. Knowing what previous inventors did right (and where they went wrong) gave Fulton an edge over his predecessors.

In 1803, Livingston and Fulton agreed to build a boat that would be the product of careful scientific development. Earlier inventors created a concept, built a full-sized boat, and fixed problems when they arose, “moving from mistake to mistake,” as one historian described. Fulton instead constructed a four-foot-long model, powered by two clockwork springs, to determine by experimentation whether paddles, endless chains, or water wheels would be the best mode of forward propulsion. After countless trials, he calculated water resistance, hull proportion, loss of power on the down or up stroke, and other variables. To test his conclusions, he built a larger, side paddle wheel-driven scale model. Finally, he ordered a 70-foot-long by eight-foot-wide boat powered by an eight horsepower steam engine and successfully ran it on the Seine River, near Paris, France, on August 9, 1803.

Flushed with success at last, Livingston wrote up a legal contract, stipulating each partner would provide half the funding and receive half the profits from their steamboat venture. Both men then remained in Europe for the next three years. Livingston pulled off the greatest land deal in history, the Louisiana Purchase while Fulton worked on naval contracts for the Napoleonic French and the Napoleonic-hating British governments, selling his “deadly” submarine to the highest bidder.

The partners returned to America in 1806, and work began on the steamboat. Fulton supplied the plans, garnered from the French experiments, and he secured a shipwright to construct a full-sized boat. Like all good captains, Livingston and Fulton supplied their boat with a name that would forever go down in the history books…they named their new craft “the steam-boat.” There was indeed no need for a fancier name since the boat was not only too small to be registered with the proper port authorities in New York , but was also the only working steamboat in America at the time. It operated for its first season as the steam-boat, although it was often referred to as the North River Steamboat or the North River (“North River” was the older Dutch name for the Hudson). Livingston and Fulton enlarged the boat during the winter of 1807-1808 and registered the improved craft’s home port as Livingston’s country seat on the Hudson River, Clermont.


The North River Steamboat of Clermont became the world’s first commercially successful steamboat, making the trip from New York City to Albany in 32 hours, fulfilling the speed requirements to maintain the monopoly. Inexplicably, Fulton’s friends, lawyer, and first biographer changed the name of the boat to the “Clermont” and the misnomer has stuck ever since.


History, of course, is written by the winners, and in the steamboat sweepstakes, Fulton clearly came out on top. John Fitch himself recognized the irony of his own failure, noting in his journal: “The day will come when a more powerful man will get fame and riches from my invention.” Fitch was remembered by many nineteenth-century historians as a failed inventor, a man who traded all his land to a local tavern owner in exchange for a daily ration of whiskey, a desperate (and ultimately successful) effort to drown out his life. Fulton is remembered as the man who invented the steamboat and changed the world. Robert R. Livingston once asked Fulton “who invented the steamboat?” Fulton’s response was telling: “[A]though the effect produced is new, the whole is composed of old parts and looks as though different persons who have attempted Steam boats [before] had tried the whole of them.”


Fulton never claimed he invented the concept, only the effect! His boat had the perfect proportions, the perfect engine, the perfect atmosphere, and the perfect fortune to be the last in series of a century of experimentation. When the Livingston-Fulton steam-boat sailed up the Hudson River in 1807 on that sunny August day, the steamboat was transformed from a crackpot idea to a necessity, and New York, America, and the world would never be the same.

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