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Pressure's On PUBLIC ACCESS

Or, How Fulton's Steamboat Launched Our Modern World

[+] Author Notes

Frank Wicks. a frequent contributor to this magazine. is a mechanical engineering professor at Union College in Schenectady. N.Y. He is also a member of the Steamship Historical Society of America and served as a shipboard engineering officer.

Mechanical Engineering 129(10), 44-48 (Oct 01, 2007) (5 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2007-OCT-6

This article discusses the steamboat has been described as America’s first great invention. The river steamboat helped shape the United States and the world we live in. Steamboats and engines came to define many disciplines of mechanical engineering, and ultimately led to mechanical engineering education and the formation of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. After two centuries of service, the steam engine created its own obsolescence as it provided the springboard technologies for internal combustion engines, turbo machinery, and electric power. Fulton’s steamboat was a dramatic success. Scheduled passenger and transport immediately followed the first voyage. It was named the Clermont, for the huge Hudson River estate of Robert Fulton’s partner, Robert Livingston, who had funded the project. Robert Fulton’s steamboat and steam engines became things of the past, but we feel their influence all around us. They were the machines that helped create many industries, and were forebears of the marvelous engines and machines of our modern world.

This year marks the bicentennial of one of the world's great technological breakthroughs-the first commercially successful steamboat. It departed from Manhattan on Aug. 17, 1807, for a 150-mile journey up the river to Albany, N.Y. With a speed of 5 mph, it arrived the next day. It wasn't fast by today's standards, but remember that the same voyage in 1609 had taken Henry Hudson weeks to make in his sailing ship Half Moon.

The steamboat has been described as America's first great invention. The river steamboat helped shape the United States and the world we live in.

Steamboats and engines came to define many disciplines of mechanical engineering, and ultimately led to mechanical engineering education and the formation of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. After two centuries of service, the steam engine created its own obsolescence as it provided the springboard technologies for internal combustion engines, turbo machinery, and electric power.

For several decades, various attempts had been made at powering boats with steam. Some had been technical successes but commercial failures. Fulton's steamboat was a dramatic success. Scheduled passenger and transport immediately followed the first voyage. It was named the Clermont, for the huge Hudson River estate of Robert Fulton's partner, Robert Livingston, who had funded the project.

The commercial success, as so often is the case, was due to a remarkable convergence of the right partners with the right technology at the right place and time.

Livingston was born in 1746 into an extended family of land owners that included the Schuylers and Van Rensselaers, who dominated commerce and government. He had served on the drafting committee for the Declaration of Independence and had been the Chancellor of the New York court system during the days of the Continental Congress. In 1789, he administered the oath of office at George Washington's inauguration.

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson sent Livingston to France, where he negotiated with Napoleon for the Louisiana Purchase. At $15 million, it has been called the greatest real estate deal in history. It was during this mission that Livingston met Robert Fulton.

Fulton had been born in 1765 on a small farm in Lancaster County, Pa., where he learned practical mechanics. He became a silversmith in Philadelphia during the years of the Revolution. He also displayed talent as an artist, and caught the attention of Benjamin Franklin.

With a letter of introduction from Franklin, Fulton traveled to London in 1787 to be mentored by Benjamin West, an American-born painter who had become the official historical artist for the court of King George Ill. In London, Fulton received notice as an artist and demonstrated an inventive genius. He made a better marble- cutting machine. He followed by devising better ways to build canals and locks that were proliferating throughout England and Europe.

Fulton also saw an opportunity to invent weapons. David Bushnell had built a one-man submarine called the Turtle during the American Revolution. It failed in an attempt to sink a British ship in New York harbor.

Fulton thought he could do better. He built a submarine called the Nautilus to deliver explosives he called torpedoes. He first tried to sell it to the British to sink French ships, and was in Paris trying to sell the submarine to Napoleon to sink British ships when he met Livingston.

Before leaving the United States, Livingston had obtained monopoly rights to use steamboats on the Hudson River. Even more important would be the Mississippi River, which Livingston was essentially in Paris to buy.

Livingston was in the visionary position of having procured monopoly rights before he had a practical steamboat. He believed Fulton's skills in designing the submarine could be well applied to a fundamentally simpler surface vessel.

The best engine for propulsion had been manufactured for 20 years in Britain by the partnership of Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Capable of 24 horsepower, it was powering the industrial revolution in British factories. It was a modification of the engine that Thomas Newcomen had developed a century earlier to pump water out of a coal mine. It was reasonably safe because the high-pressure side was about atmospheric pressure of 15 psi. The low-pressure side was a vacuum produced by removing air and condensing steam .

Watt had dramatically improved the efficiency of the Newcomen engine by making the condensing chamber separate from the cylinder. Boulton had developed better tools for making it. Britain had placed an embargo upon selling this important technology to the United States, and it was through the intervention of future president James Monroe, who was serving as the Minister to Britain, that Fulton arranged to have one sent to New York.

When Fulton returned to the States in 1807, the engine was waiting in a warehouse, but the steamboat was not his priority. President Jefferson was worried about another war with Britain. Fulton persuaded Jefferson that it would be cheaper to have a means of blowing up British ships than it would be to build a navy.

Fulton attempted a demonstration in New York, but it failed.

A not-yet-famous 24-yearold writer named Washington Irving observed that "the good people crowded to see the British navy blown up in effigy" and were disappointed when "the wooden brig refused to be decomposed."

Now out of the weapons business, Fulton turned to the ' steamboat. Before leaving France, he had built a model that performed moderately well on the River Seine and had measured the drag of various hulls.

Unlike a wind-powered vessel that needed width forstability, a vessel without sails could be long and narrow to minimize drag. The Clermant was 142 feet long and only 14 feet wide. Installed at the middle was a beam that teeter-tottered up and down, driven by the steam engine. Converting the up-and-down motion to rotary power drove a paddle wheel on each side.

Following the success of the Clermant, Fulton became a member of the extended Livingston family. At the age of 42, he married his partner's 24-year-old cousin, Harriet Livingston. They would have four children.

The commercial success and huge profit potential of the Clermant became an invitation for competition. The United States patent system was a work in progress. Prior steamboat patents were compounding the confusion.

The Patent Act of 1790 had established that a board composed of the Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and Attorney General examine and issue patents. Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State at the time.

Steamboat patent applications were filed by several inventors, including James Fitch and James Rumsey. Each had already built somewhat different but workable steam-powered boats, but without commercial success. Jefferson was frustrated by the priority arguments of each inventor. His solution was to issue each inventor a patent on the same day-Aug. 26, 1791. The arguments would be left for the courts to decide.

While the paddle wheel is now the symbol of a river steamboat, it was not always the obvious method for propulsion. Nicholas Roosevelt, a great-great uncle of President Theodore Roosevelt, had built a human-powered paddle wheel boat as a youth and claimed patent rights. Roosevelt in 1811 would travel from Pittsburgh to New Orleans via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers on a steamboat that Fulton had helped him design.

Rumsey's boat used a steam jet, which had been promoted earlier by George Washington. It was also favored by Benjamin Franklin, who had designed a similar system. The jet propulsion needed no engine, but was inefficient. Most of the energy went to the jet and not much to propelling the boat.

James Fitch had a hardscrabble life and remarkable success with a steam engine that powered oars to take a ferry across the Delaware River at a speed of 8 mph during the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

By the time Fulton developed the Clermant, both Rumsey and Fitch were dead, but Fulton still had his hands full defending against patent claims and competition.

In February 1814, Fulton and his lawyer were crossing the Hudson River from New Jersey after a stressful court procedure. They got off the ferry to walk across some thin ice near the shore. His lawyer fell through. Fulton rescued him, but at great cost. Fulton died a few days later from respiratory problems compounded by exposure to the wet and cold.

Fulton was mourned as a national hero. He had designed 13 successful steamboats, including three that were operating on the Mississippi. Towns and streets across the nation were named in his honor. He was buried in one of the Livingston vaults in lower Manhattan near the spot where he had launched the Clermant just seven years earlier.

The Livingston and Fulton heirs would expand their fleet and monopolize steamboat commerce on the Hudson River, and extend their claim to the Mississippi until it was successfully challenged in 1824. In a landmark case that is still taught in law schools, Daniel Webster argued and United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the state-issued monopoly was unconstitutional. Steamboats had become a vital part of interstate commerce that only the federal government could regulate.

The next year, the Erie Canal was completed from Albany to Buffalo, completing a water route through the wilderness from New York to the Great Lakes. While the steamboat was vital for the rivers, sailing ships would dominate the oceans for another generation, and horses and mules on a tow path would provide the most practical propulsion on the canals for another century.

Steamboat companies proliferated as new territories were settled and borders expanded. Within a decade, more than 100 steamboats were operating on the Hudson, with another 700 carrying passengers and cargo on rivers, lakes, and bays. Canals and railroads were built from points where river navigation ended.

The steamboat also changed the cultural life of the young country. It provided low-cost recreational travel for the multitudes. Cornelius Vanderbilt made his first fortune by selling rides on a fleet of 100 boats before he moved on to railroads.

As an artist, Fulton had traveled to Europe for the best opportunities. The steamboat allowed artists of nature, such as Frederic Church and Thomas Cole, to travel and paint the natural beauty of America's rivers, mountains, and wilderness.

The first steamboat boiler design comprised a copper vessel with a fire underneath. It used a lot of firewood, but there was a new fuel on the way.

The canals were making coal more readily available. Eliphalet Nott, who was serving a 62-year tenure as pres. ident of Union College, had achieved fame by inventing a home stove that could burn anthracite coal. Nott next turned his attention to propulsion. His 1831 steamboat was the first to boil water inside tubes, which improved safety and provided better heat transfer, and was also the first to be fueled by coal.

Low-pressure engines had been adequate for pumps, factories, and Hudson River steamboats. However, more power was required to overcome the stronger currents in the Mississippi and for the rapidly expanding railroad. The solution was to use high-pressure steam at 100 psi.

Exhausting directly to the atmosphere eliminated. the need for a condenser.

A high-pressure engine was simpler than the old models, and more dangerous. Boiler and piping failures would result in devastating explosions. Samuel Clemens was a young steersman on the Mississippi, and from that experience took the pen name Mark Twain, from the leadsman's call meaning 12 feet of water and safe going. While Twain romanticized life on the river for readers throughout the world, he was haunted by the agonizing death of his younger brother Henry from a steam explosion on the riverboat Pennsylvania in 1858.

Some of the best European engineers traveled to the United States with new ideas for ship propulsion. Swedish-born John Ericsson introduced the propeller, failed in attempts to replace steam with a hot air engine, but became a national hero and was honored by Congress for his design of an armor-plated gunboat, the Monitor. It had engaged the Confederate ironclad Virginia (better known now by its original name, Merrimack) in a historic naval standoff.

The U.S. Civil War was the first conflict that used steam power for combat and transport. Navy vessels provided a training ground for a new generation of engineers. One of them, Robert Thurston, served as a shipboard engineer blockading southern ports. He had received a Ph.D. in engineering in 1859 at age 20 from Brown University in his native Rhode Island.

Thurston had spent his youth in the shops ·owned by his father, who made steam engines and boilers. Mter the war, he taught at the Naval Academy and studied engineering in Europe. He returned to become a professor of mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute, where he pioneered a curriculum that combined theory, research, and shop experience

When ASME was founded in 1880, Thurston was elected its first president. In 1885, he became director of the newly founded Sibley School o(Engin,eering at Cornell University. His book The Steam Engine is a classic that provides history, theory, design, and applications.

Fulton's patent application included a view of the steamboat in the Hudson River highlands. Robert Thurston (opposite), ASME's first president, typified a generation of engineers inspired by a steam-powered navy.

Grahic Jump LocationFulton's patent application included a view of the steamboat in the Hudson River highlands. Robert Thurston (opposite), ASME's first president, typified a generation of engineers inspired by a steam-powered navy.

When about 10 million people, equal to a quarter of the population of the United States, visited the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, most of them traveled by steam-powered boats and trains. It was intended to show the latest and the best. Alexander Graham Bell displayed his telephone there.

The central exhibit was a 1,400-hp steam engine built by George Corliss. It stood several stories high. Also on display was an internal combustion engine, which could be fueled by a refined version of oil, which had been dis ·covered 17 years earlier in western Pennsylvania. It symbolized the beginning of an end.

In the story of George Westinghouse, we can find an example of how the steam engine fell out of favor.

Westinghouse grew up working in his father's agricultural equipment business in Schenectady, N.Y. It made threshing machines and steam engines to power them. As a teenager, he served in the Civil War as a naval engineer, and started to envision turbines as a more efficient, compact, and powerful alternative to steam engines.

The Original Clermont

The Clermont estate of Robert Livingston is preserved as a National Histone Landmark, and is operated as a state park. It is located 100 miles north of New York City on the east shore of the river. The art display in the mansion includes portraits and works by Robert Fulton. There are historic gardens and nature trails.

A separate building includes a model of the 1807 steamboat. Details are available at a Web site, www.friendsofclermont.org.

Westinghouse would start 60 companies and also become a president of ASME.

He invented air brakes and railroad equipment, a telephone switchboard, and other mechanical and electrical equipment. In addition, he pioneered the use of turbines to drive generators for the transformer-based alternating- current electric power system that we use today. It was called Westinghouse current in order to distinguish it from Thomas Edison's mostly steamengine- driven direct-current systems.

Henry Ford is another example of one who took advantage of steam engines. During his youth, he worked as a traveling mechanic on Westinghouse agricultural steam engines. That led him to a job as an engineer at an EdisonElectric plant in Detroit. Ford's first vehicle used a steam engine.

Ford quickly recognized, however, that an internal combustion engine would be better. For his next vehicle, he made a petroleum-fueled spark-ignition engine that used steam pipes for cylinders. It was the start of the age of the personal automobile.

The instant starting and convenience of the internal combustion engine led to the demise of small steam engines, and steam turbines would replace large steam engines for electric power and ships. The steam turbine also led to a new generation of turbo machinery in the form of internal combustion gas turbines and aircraft jet engines.

Robert Fulton's steamboat and steam engines became things of the past, but we feel their influence all around us. They were the machines that helped create many industries, and were forebears of the marvelous engines and machines of our modern world.

Robert Livingston, a framer of the Declaration of Independence, was Fulton's backer and partner in the steamboat project.

Grahic Jump LocationRobert Livingston, a framer of the Declaration of Independence, was Fulton's backer and partner in the steamboat project.

Copyright © 2007 by ASME
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