Birth of Robert Fulton

US #1270 was issued for Fulton’s 200th birthday.

Engineer and inventor Robert Fulton was born on November 14, 1765, in Little Britain, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

From a young age, Fulton showed a great talent for art.  After his father died, he moved to Philadelphia and painted portraits and landscapes and provided technical drawings for houses and machinery to provide for his mother and siblings.  While in Philadelphia, he met Benjamin Franklin and several businessmen who encouraged him to travel to Europe to further his art training.

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Fulton arrived in England in 1786 and lived with Benjamin West, who had been friends with his father.  While Fulton received several commissions for portraits and landscapes, he liked to experiment with inventions in his free time.  This led Fulton to develop his idea for tub-boat canals that used inclined planes instead of locks.  He also began researching the use of steam for boats and patented a dredging machine.

US #1270 – Classic First Day Cover.

Fulton moved to Paris in 1797, where he learned French, German, mathematics, and chemistry.  He then started designing torpedoes and submarines.  In 1800, he tested the first practical submarine, the Nautilus, which went underwater for 17 minutes.  Working with US Ambassador to France Robert Livingston, Fulton began designing steamboats, but put that work aside for a time to design the first modern naval torpedoes and other weapons for England during their war with France.

US #1270 – Fleetwood First Day Cover.

Fulton returned to America in 1806 and resumed work on a steamboat with Livingston.  While others had invented steamboats before him, they were often considered dangerous and nothing more than a novelty.  Fulton believed it could prove to be a successful business venture, and built a 150-foot-long ship that would make him famous.  Critics dubbed the boat “Fulton’s Folly,” believing it wouldn’t make the trip.

Item #126691 – Commemorative cover marking Hudson’s 217th birthday.

On the afternoon of August 17, 1807, Fulton and a group of passengers boarded his ship North River Steamboat (later named the Clermont) in New York City, bound for Albany, 150 miles up the Hudson River.  Shortly after leaving the dock, the boat stopped suddenly.  Passengers and spectators willingly shared their doubts in the boat’s abilities.  Fulton calmly went below the deck, found the problem, and easily fixed it.  The boat then chugged along at a leisurely five miles per hour without any other incidents.  They arrived in Albany (after a stopover at Livingston’s home) in a record 32 hours.  While many had their doubts, Fulton proved the commercial viability of steamboats, which would rule American waterways for the next half-century.

Item #81910 – Commemorative cover marking Hudson’s 223rd birthday.

After that success, Fulton was made part of the Erie Canal Commission.  During this time he also worked on another boat, New Orleans, which he took on a long trip down the Ohio River.  The journey was through relatively uncharted territory and the fact that he was able to get the boat down the river and back home was a major milestone.

In early 1815, Fulton was walking home on the frozen Hudson River when one of his friends fell through the ice.  Fulton rescued his friend, but was soaked in the cold water and caught pneumonia.  He then contracted tuberculosis and died on February 24, 1815, in New York City.

US #372 was issued for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration and pictures Fulton’s ship the Clermont.

A number of towns and other locations have been named for Fulton throughout the country.  There have also been five US Navy ships named for him and he was honored as part of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in 1909.

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  1. Great history lesson. I had read about Fulton previously but appreciated revisiting some of the details of his life. Thank you Mystic.

  2. Funny, but I had never heard of a tub boat. I pictured bath tubs floating down some British canal. See thanks to Mystic I learn something every day. I also didn’t know about his torpedo and submarine work. Ah! The success of Fulton’s Folly!

  3. Fine article. I often wonder why Robert Livingston has not received similar recognition for his contributions to early American history.

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