On Oct. 29, 1814 The U.S. Navy launched its first steam powered warship, designed by Robert Fulton.
Naval History Magazine, August 2011
After inventing weapons for foreign powers, Robert Fulton built the world’s first steam warship for America, a vessel that might have transformed naval warfare if fate had allowed.
The outpouring of public mourning when Robert Fulton died, on 23 February 1815 at age 49, was unprecedented for an American private citizen. The passing of a mind that was considered a major national asset caused The New York Evening Post to lament, “His is the only loss for which the public has no indemnity.”
Fulton’s best-known achievement, the development of steamboat travel, largely centered in his last decade after he had spent nearly 20 years in Europe. Leading a sometime unconventional life overseas, Fulton developed and employed naval armaments for France and Britain at a time both countries posed threats to the new nation. Fortunately for his reputation and ambitions, it was an age when private lives of the famous mostly stayed private and citizens could negotiate deals with foreign nations that now might be considered treasonous. Redeeming himself during the War of 1812, Fulton built the world’s first steam warship to defend New York City. However, events prevented a demonstration of the vessel’s unique qualities in battle and an opportunity for Fulton to revolutionize naval warfare as he did transportation.
Influenced by his father’s bankruptcy and family hardship after the father’s early death, Fulton avidly pursued material success all his life. An early ambition was to win fame and fortune as an artist. To obtain training and exposure at the center of the art world, Fulton journeyed to London in 1787 armed with a letter of introduction to noted American artist Benjamin West. Generous in his support of young American artists, West was just one in a succession of influential people who, charmed by the handsome, diligent, and self-assured Fulton, helped to advance his career. Commissioned to paint the portrait of Viscount William Courtenay, a flamboyant young homosexual, Fulton stayed with him a year and a half, winning further commissions from Courtenay’s companions. Although little else is known about that time, Fulton probably participated in his host’s activities to some extent, which might help to explain his unconventional lifestyle later.