While parsing through the Day By Day entries I came to Twain’s visit Jamestown for the Ter-Centennial, the 300th anniversary of the founding of the colony, which included Robert Fulton Day Ceremonies. Fulton is significant to the prevalent image of Mark Twain because of their respective associations with steamboats. I found an interesting biopic of Fulton in “The Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World 1776–1914“ by Gavin Weightman. From this source Fulton appears as more a promoter than an inventor.

Weightman remarks that nearly all his discoveries were borrowed from others.

He was a kind of ‘inventomaniac’ whose head was turned by the spirit of the times… [W]hen he first set foot in England, [he was] gripped by canal mania and the steam revolution. Yet he had crossed the Atlantic as neither a mechanic nor an industrial spy, but to hone his talent as draughtsman and painter.

When he was sixteen or seventeen, Fulton was working in Philadelphia for a jeweller, probably painting miniature pictures for cameos and the like. He appears to have gained quite a reputation as a miniaturist and one or two pieces which are said to be his survive. His name can be found in a trade directory of 1785: he is described as a miniaturist, apparently working on his own account.

The recollections of those who knew Fulton all make it clear that his one overriding ambition was to become wealthy and all his schemes were directed to that end. It really did not matter to him how he achieved this, except that he was always in a hurry.

Fulton’s first foray into the world of inventions was the design for a marble-cutting machine, a model of which won him a medal presented by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

Fulton did not stay long with this innovation, and he was soon writing to the proposer of a canal to link the Thames and the Bristol Channel to outline his own scheme for the works, despite the fact that he had absolutely no experience at all of canal engineering. Some time around 1794, Fulton gave up painting altogether and sought his fortune with canal projects.

One patent he took out was for a double inclined plane which acted rather like a funicular railway to carry goods up and down steep slopes as an alternative to a series of canal locks.

He travelled to Manchester, the heartland of the newly prosperous cotton industry, where by chance he shared lodgings with a young man called Robert Owen, who had become a successful mill supervisor…

[who] took a share in Fulton’s inclined plane project and a machine for digging canals, an investment that produced no return, like so many of Fulton’s projects at this time.

Back in London, Fulton met the eccentric clergyman Edmund Cartwright, who had invented the power loom. This was not then widely used but in modified form was to transform the weaving process in the woollen and cotton industries in the 1820s and 1830s.

[In] 1797, when there was a lull in the hostilities with England, he crossed the Channel and sought his fortune in Paris. Here he fell in straight away with fellow Americans Joel Barlow and his wife Ruth Baldwin.

While his versions of the various inventions he patented or claimed for himself might have been original, the broad concept never was. The military devices he had made and tried to sell to Napoleon – the Nautilus submarine and the torpedo – had histories going back to the seventeenth century.

Then in October [1805] the news came that Nelson’s last heroic act had been the defeat of the French and Spanish at Trafalgar and all interest in torpedoes evaporated.

Fulton was nothing if not dogged. Spurned by the English but with money in the bank, he returned to New York, where he repeated his ship-destroying demonstrations. The Times continued to take an interest in him and reproduced from the American newspapers an address he had made in September 1807, the gist of which was familiar – that a recent demonstration in which he had blown up yet another ship with seventy pounds of gunpowder delivered below the hull and triggered by a clockwork mechanism could bring peace to the high seas and prosperity to the United States. His invention, Fulton claimed, would ‘in a few years put a stop to maritime wars, and give the liberty of the seas, which has been long and anxiously desired by every good man, and secure to America that liberty of commerce, tranquillity and independence which will enable her citizens to apply their mental and corporal faculties to useful and humane pursuits, to the improvement of our country and the happiness of the whole people’.

It is doubtful whether Fulton would have done anything in steam navigation … had it not been for the arrival in France of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States to France.

Now, Livingston was deeply interested in the subject of steamboats; indeed, he had an idea or two of his own, and, as a result of his experiments, had gone so far as to procure an Act to be passed in March 1798 vesting in himself the ‘exclusive right and privilege of navigating all kinds of boats which might be propelled by the force of steam or fire on all the waters within the territory or jurisdiction of the State of New York for the term of twenty years from the passing of the Act; upon condition that he should within a twelvemonth build such a boat, the mean of whose progress should not be less than four miles per hour’. Livingston had laid the groundwork and had gone to the trouble of writing to Boulton & Watt in Birmingham to ask about the feasibility and cost of making a steam engine which might be used to power a boat. His brother visited Paris and learned something of Fulton, who seemed to be the very man that Livingston was looking for.

Now Fulton could add the project Livingston proposed of building a peacetime steamboat to provide passenger services in America.

Not only were Fulton’s submarine and torpedo adventures a practical failure: there was then an entrenched view amongst senior naval officers on both sides of the Channel that blowing ships up was not fair play and should not be contemplated. Fulton could, and indeed did, argue that his devices would put an end to naval warfare and make the seas safe for everyone. Alternatively, they might instead make the seas so treacherous that all trade would cease, a prospect he does not seem to have considered. Much more successful was Fulton’s first attempt to put Livingston’s steamboat scheme into practice. Working as a partnership, they did not wait for a Boulton & Watt engine but had one supplied by ... Monsieur Périer, ...

The report goes on to say that an early version of this contraption was smashed up, presumably by river boatmen anxious about their future. However, the steamboat was repaired and worked well enough to give some distinguished Frenchmen an inaugural trip. At the same time, Fulton was planning with Livingston to establish a river boat service not in France, but back on the Hudosn River.

Fulton may have been frustrated in his ambition to end war at sea, yet this did not prevent him from designing a steam-driven warship for the Americans when hostilities broke out again with Britain in 1812: it was aptly named the Fulton and launched after his death in 1815. As it was, between his return to America in 1806 and the war of 1812, he put most of his energies into the long-delayed project of getting a commercial steamboat service running on the Hudson.

Components of a Boulton & Watt engine had been shipped from England and stored in New York, and Fulton set about constructing the hull and experimenting with various arrangements for the engine. Meanwhile, Chancellor Livingston sought to enforce and extend the patent monopoly as there was always the possibility that rivals would soon set up in competition. The first trials were made in 1807, running up and down from New York to Livingston’s estate at Clermont on the Hudson. The name of this first boat is a matter of dispute: most sources say it was the Clermont, but others that it was the North River. As with Trevithick’s pioneer runs with steam carriages and railways, there are no eyewitness accounts of this first commercial riverboat service. However, a biographer of Fulton, Thomas W. Knox, writing in 1887, gleaned the following account from a man, then in his nineties, of a chance ride on the first Hudson boat in 1808. Perry was twenty years old and on his way back to Massachusetts with a woman friend from Albany on the Hudson:

On reaching Albany, I found that none of the sail boats, then in use, were to start for several days. So I engaged a room for myself at a public house, the lady going to the house of some friends. Early the next morning a man, evidently a person who loved his glass, rushed into the bar-room and cried out that the steamboat had come in during the night and would go down the river at nine o’clock. It took so much time to hunt down my charge, and she so long in getting ready, that the boat had started when we reached the wharf. I hailed her, however, and a small boat was sent to take us on board. There were more than fifty passengers, many of them youths and children. I soon noticed Mr Fulton who was watching and directing everything …

The first part of the voyage was quiet enough, but in the afternoon we ran aground, as many thought, through the treachery of some of the crew, for the owners of sloops and other sailing craft were much in dread of the successful inauguration of steam power. I got off at Esopus – now Kingston – as did my companion, and so missed being present at the bursting of the boiler, which occurred near West Point.

[The] paddle-steamer became the great symbol of American industrial progress and wealth. The cumbersome low-pressure Boulton & Watt type of steam engine could be fitted to a boat much more readily than to a locomotive to run on road or rail because its weight did not matter to the same degree. This was also true of the smaller and lighter high-pressure steam engines, like Trevithick’s, which would break the brittle tracks laid for horse-drawn railways but could easily be borne by a boat on water. It was for that reason that commercial steamship services got going a good twenty years before steam railways, which had to await the manufacture of wrought-iron rails.

By the time of Fulton’s death in 1815, the first steamer had gone into service on the Mississippi. Built to Fulton’s design in Pittsburgh and called the New Orleans, it undertook its maiden voyage in October 1811. It had a rear paddlewheel as well as sails on two masts and its trial run was slow, but it was not long before there were dozens and then hundreds of steamers on the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers. And all the talk on these steamers was of one thing: cotton, a crop that in 1800 had been of little significance other than on the sea coast of Florida.