Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton; Inventor Of The . . . Torpedo?

By James Donahue

Robert Fulton went down in history as the man who built and demonstrated the first practical steam-powered ship, the Clermont, better known in his day as "Fulton’s Folly." But the Clermont not only proved itself during trials on the Hudson River in 1807, the vessel proved so successful it was followed by the rapid building of other steamboats.

Strangely, if the facts were known, Fulton did not invent the first steamboat. Other inventors had experimented with the concept before he came along. He just put a ship together that really worked and could be successfully used to carry passengers and freight.

What most people don’t know about Robert Fulton is that he was an inventor who had a keen interest in submarine warfare. He actually built and attempted to sell the nations of France, England and eventually the United States governments on a plan for using underwater ships, or submarines and torpedoes to sink enemy ships in war. He also was involved in development of devices, including locks, to assist in canal navigation, designed and built bridges, canal boats, patented a machine for spinning flax and a dredging machine.

Fulton's Submarine Concept

In December 1797 Fulton was experimenting on the Seine River with a boat he described as a "plunging boat" to be used in torpedo warfare. He perfected this invention and conducted more experiments at Brest in 1801 that were of interest to the French Government. When Fulton failed to actually blow up a vessel in the water, the French lost interest.

He took his ideas to London in 1804. There the British reported the concept of a submarine "impracticable," but the admiralty liked the concept of a torpedo. So Fulton was taken out on an expedition to try to use the device against the French fleet at Boulogne. But his torpedoes exploded harmlessly beside the French ships. He went back to the drawing boards and emerged with a larger, more powerful explosive device and this time actually destroyed a ship with it.

Fulton returned to the United States in 1806 where he continued to work on his torpedoes. While he approached the United States government, his system was never adopted. Congress did appropriate $5,000 in 1810 for the testing of torpedoes and submarine explosions, but that was as far as it went.

The steamboat wasn’t just dreamed up overnight either. Fulton launched his first steamboat on the Seine in 1803, while he was still in France. The vessel was poorly constructed and immediately sank. A second boat floated, but the steam engine failed to generate any speed. But at least Fulton experienced a partial success.

The Clermont was Fulton’s third vessel. He had learned from his earlier blunders and knew what kind of vessel and what kind of engine was needed to propel it. He had the steam engine especially ordered from Watt & Boulton, which was sent to the United States and installed in the Clermont.

The Clermont made its first trip in August of 1807. By that fall it was running as a packet between New York and Albany and actually generating a profit. It was not long before the concept of steam powered ships was to spread around the world.


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