Quad Cheat Sheets

The who, what, and why behind this year’s 400th hoopla.


(page 4 of 4)

Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton

(Celebrating a 200th anniversary, albeit a year late)

Cause to celebrate: First person to create a commercially successful steamboat on the Hudson River.

The basics: Derided as “Fulton’s folly” and a “tea kettle on a raft,” Fulton’s North River Steamboat (later dubbed the Clermont) began its maiden voyage from Manhattan to Albany on August 17, 1807. Chugging four-and-a-half miles an hour, the 146-foot boat completed the trip in 32 hours. Amid rampant fears the craft’s copper boiler would explode, the return trip attracted just two paying passengers.

Vital statistics: Born 1765 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; died February 23, 1815, of pneumonia, contracted saving a friend who fell through the ice while walking across the Hudson River. Wife Harriet Livingston, niece of Fulton’s business partner, Chancellor Robert Livingston. (Their engagement was announced at a party celebrating the North River’s maiden voyage.) Three daughters, one son.

Life before: Fulton gave up a promising career as a portrait painter, first in Philadelphia and then London, to focus on engineering. His work in England included drafting canal and bridge improvements and plans for a torpedo-firing submarine. (An 1805 demonstration of his underwater bombs was a spectacular success.)

Life after: Wisely, Robert Livingston had secured the partners a 20-year monopoly for steam traffic on New York waters, so Fulton superintended construction of bigger and faster boats, including the Car of Neptune, the Paragon, the Firefly, the Richmond, the Washington, and the Olive Branch. Thanks to continued litigation over the monopoly (finally ended by an 1824 U.S. Supreme Court decision), Fulton never became fabulously wealthy. A year before his death, he designed the first steam-propelled warship.

Lasting importance: Vastly reducing the time and expense of transportation, steamboats quickly became commonplace on all navigable American rivers, and in 1819 began crossing the Atlantic. By 1850, more than 150 steamers plied the Hudson alone, carrying a million passengers annually and turning the river into one of the nation’s busiest thoroughfares.

Quote: “We celebrate in Hudson the great race of men who made the age of discovery. We celebrate in Fulton the great race of men whose inventive genius has laid the foundation for a broader, nobler and more permanent civilization the world over.”— from official account of 1909 Hudson-Fulton Celebration


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