Gateway to the Classics: A First Book in American History by Edward Eggleston
A First Book in American History by  Edward Eggleston

Robert Fulton and the Steamboat

More than a hundred years ago a sickly Scotch boy named James Watt used to sit and watch the lid of his mother's teakettle as it rose and fell while the water was boiling, and wonder about the power of steam, which caused this rattling motion. In his day there were no steamboats, or steam mills, or railways. There was nothing but a clumsy steam engine, that could work slowly an up and down pump to take water out of mines. This had been invented sixty years before. Watt became a maker of mathematical instruments. He was once called to repair one of these wheezy, old-fashioned pumping engines. He went to work to improve it, and he became the real inventor of the first steam engine that was good for all sorts of work that the world wants done.

When once steam was put to work, men said, "Why not make it run a boat?" One English inventor tried to run his boat by making the engine push through the water a thing somewhat like a duck's foot. An American named Rumsey moved his boat by forcing a stream of water through it, drawing it in at the bow and pushing it out at the stern. But this pump boat failed.

Then came John Fitch. He was an ingenious, poor fellow, who had knocked about in the world making buttons out of old brass kettles, and mending guns. He had been a soldier in the Revolution and a captive among the Indians. At length he made a steamboat. He did not imitate the duck's foot or the steam pump, but like most other inventors, he borrowed from what had been used. He made his engine drive a number of oars, so as to paddle the boat forward. His boat was tried on the Delaware River in 1787. The engine was feeble, and the boat ran but slowly. Fitch grew extremely poor and ragged, but he used to say that, when "Johnny Fitch" should be forgotten, steamboats would run up the rivers and across the sea. This made the people laugh, for they thought him what we call "a crank."


Fitch's Steamboat

Robert Fulton was born in Pennsylvania in 1765. He was the son of an Irish tailor. He was not fond of books, but he was ingenious. He made pencils for his own use out of lead, and he made rockets for his own Fourth of July celebration.

With some other boys he used to go fishing on an old flatboat. But he got tired of pushing the thing along with poles, so he contrived some paddle wheels to turn with cranks, something like those in the picture. He was fourteen years old when he made this invention.


Fulton's First Invention

At seventeen he became a miniature painter in Philadelphia, and by the time he was twenty-one he had earned money enough to buy a little farm for his mother. He then went to Europe to study art.

But his mind turned to mechanical inventions, of which he now made several. Among other things, he contrived a little boat to run under water and blow up war vessels; but, though he could supply this boat with air, he could not get it to run swiftly.

He now formed a partnership with Chancellor Livingston, the American Minister to France, who was very much interested in steamboats. Fulton had two plans. One was to use paddles in a new way; the other was to use the paddle wheel, such as he had made when he was a boy. He found the wheels better than paddles.

He built his first steamboat on the River Seine, near Paris, but the boat broke in two from the weight of her machinery. His next boat made a trial trip in sight of a great crowd pf Parisians. She ran slowly, but Fulton felt sure that he knew just what was needed to make the next one run faster.

Fulton and Livingston both returned to America. Fulton ordered from James Watt a new engine, to be made according to his own plans. In August, 1807, Fulton's new boat, the Clermont, was finished at New York. People felt no more confidence in it than we do now in a flying machine. They called it "Fulton's Folly." How- ever, a great many people gathered to see the trial trip and laugh at Fulton and his failure. The crowd was struck with wonder at seeing the black smoke rushing from the pipes, and the revolving paddle wheels, which were uncovered, as you see in the picture, throwing spray into the air, while the boat moved without spreading her sails. At last a steamboat had been made that would run at a fair rate of speed.


Fulton's First Steamboat

The Clermont began to make regular trips from New York to Albany. When the men on the river sloops first saw this creature of fire and smoke coming near them in the night, and heard the puff of her steam, the clank of her machinery, and the splash of her wheels, they were frightened. Some of the sailors ran below to escape the monster, some fell on their knees and prayed, while others hurried ashore.

While Fulton was inventing and building steamboats, people became very much interested in machinery. A man named Redheffer pretended to have invented a perpetual-motion machine, which, once started, would go of itself. People paid a dollar apiece to see the wonder, and learned men who saw it could not account for its motion. Fulton was aware that it must be a humbug, because he knew that there could be no such thing as a machine that would run of itself. But his friends coaxed him to go to see it. When Fulton had listened to it awhile he found that it ran in an irregular way, faster and then slower, and then faster and slower again.

"This is a crank motion," he said. "If you people will help me, I'll show you the cheat."

The crowd agreed to help. Fulton knocked down some little strips of wood, and found a string running through one of them from the machine to the wall; he followed this through the upper floor until he came to a back garret. In this sat a wretched old man, who wore an immense beard, and appeared to have been long imprisoned. He was gnawing a crust of bread, and turning a crank which as connected with the machinery by the string. When the crowd got back to the machine room Redheffer had run away.

Fulton died in 1815. Before his death many steamboats were in use. Some years after his death steam was applied to railways, and a little later steamers were built to cross the ocean.

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