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.
Lacking a sufficient commitment to art, Fulton turned to invention, making good use of his developed eye and mechanical drawing skills in designing marble-cutting, ditch-digging, and rope-making machines and planning prefabricated iron bridges. Most promising was a project for small-canal construction, using inclined planes instead of locks, that was expounded on in a lengthy treatise the never-shy inventor sent to President George Washington and others. In 1797, in furtherance of the project, Fulton undertook a trip to France. That journey stretched into seven years, during which he inexplicably walked away from canals and adopted more martial interests.
In Paris Fulton made the acquaintance of Joel and Ruth Barlow, a prominent and cosmopolitan expatriate couple. Author of an epic poem titled Vision of Columbus glorifying the American republic, Joel Barlow was then considered one of America’s most eminent poets. Once part of a politically conservative circle of poets known as the Hartford Wits, he became an impassioned liberal under the influence of Thomas Paine, earning citizenship from revolutionary France. Joel Barlow’s connections embraced numerous cultural and political figures, including a particularly close friendship with Thomas Jefferson. In his role as diplomat, he undertook important missions for America in North Africa and France. Highly practical and alert to every opportunity, he had acquired a fortune speculating in French securities. With the considerable charms of Ruth Barlow added in, there was much to appeal to Fulton, and the Barlows responded in equal measure. A joint household was soon formed that lasted many years. While there is some dispute whether this was a ménage à trois in the full sense of the term, the association points up Fulton’s tremendous personal charm that played an important part in his success.
Joel Barlow’s many interests included the mechanical arts. Most likely, it was from him that Fulton first learned about a submarine that was employed without success in New York Harbor during the American Revolution. With France then at war with England, and sharing Barlow’s strong republican sentiments, Fulton quickly devised ways to improve that earlier design and offered a remarkable plan to the ruling French Directory. He would construct at his own cost a submarine he called theNautilus that would attack British warships using “torpedoes” (what are now called mines). In return, he proposed to collect bounties based on the size of the warships destroyed and the number of guns on board.
To forestall criticism of such an unconventional, covert method of warfare, Fulton promoted the Nautilus as “a curious machine for mending the system of politics.” He reasoned that for nations to “peacefully enjoy the Fruits of their Virtuous Industry,” they must all enjoy “the liberty of the seas.” Fulton touted his weapon as so formidable it would doom existing navies and inaugurate an age of free trade and peace by ending commercial rivalry.
Of course, even if such noble sentiments were sincere, the consequences could hardly be so predictable. Also, considering that France and the United States were then engaged in the Quasi-War, an undeclared conflict at sea, the possibility existed that France might use the weapon against America. Although Fulton’s proposal included a provision prohibiting such use, France would likely have evaded it if the tensions with the United States escalated into full-scale war and the weapon proved as potent as Fulton claimed. Disturbing too was Fulton’s readiness to wage war against Great Britain, whose hospitality he had enjoyed for a decade. As a confirmed republican, Fulton may have considered monarchical government as the foe and hoped that the regime would be overthrown by like-minded Britons with French help. If so, later events showed that such sentiments did not outweigh his desire for gain.
Over more than three years and after repeated overtures to successive French governments, Fulton tirelessly pursued the Nautilus project without assurance that France would ever accept the plan. Using funds from a private source, he built the submarine, completing her in early 1800. Measuring 20 by 5 feet and manned by a crew of two, the Nautilus submerged by filling a tank in the boat’s interior with water, and surfaced by expelling the water. Propulsion was by a hand-cranked propeller, with a retractable sail available for use on the surface. To mount an attack, an augur, or “horn,” ending in an eye ring was to be implanted in the underside of a target vessel. A mine with a primitive contact fuse was attached to one end of a line that ran through the ring. As the submarine withdrew to safety, it would pull the line taut.
After successful dives in the Seine River and English Channel, two attacks were attempted against blockading ships, from a small harbor near Cherbourg. Alert for such an operation, the British vessels slipped away to safety. To his considerable credit, Fulton put his life on the line participating in the tests and attempted attacks. Despite a lack of tangible results, he obtained an audience with First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte and finally secured a signed agreement over recompense for the destruction of Royal Navy warships, although on less lucrative terms than he hoped. Then, after another abortive attack and to everyone’s surprise, Fulton destroyed the Nautilus . While ostensibly this was done because the craft was no longer seaworthy, it was most likely through concern that the French would copy the design without compensation.
As nothing in the agreement mandated a method of attack, Fulton next concentrated on perfecting mines and determining the best means of delivery. Built of copper with a capacity to hold from 10 to 200 pounds of powder and equipped with gun locks to ignite the charges, the devices could be prepared to detonate either on contact or at a time set on an attached timing device. In addition to floating mines, Fulton designed anchored mines that could seal up enemy harbors and rivers.
For his next attempted attack, the inventor used a small boat operated by hand cranks that proved too slow and loud to achieve surprise. Longboats were then tried with no better result. Finally, resurrecting the submarine idea, Fulton proposed that the French build larger vessels that would sow mines in Britain’s harbors, disrupting its commerce. If the original rationale for attacking British warships was something of a stretch, warring on their merchantmen made a mockery of Fulton’s professed dedication to freedom of the seas. Napoleon was initially receptive to this idea. However, after learning that theNautilus no longer existed for inspection, he suspected that the entire venture was a swindle and stopped all dealings with Fulton. Within months, hostilities between France and Britain ended with the 1802 Peace of Amiens.
That same year Fulton met Robert Livingston, who was in Paris on a diplomatic mission for President Thomas Jefferson that would culminate in the Louisiana Purchase. Livingston’s distinguished public career embraced service in the Continental Congress, participation in drafting the Declaration of Independence, administering the presidential oath of office to George Washington when New York State chancellor, and appointment by Washington as the first Secretary of Foreign Affairs. A wealthy Hudson Valley landowner, Livingston had for five years tried unsuccessfully with others to develop a steamboat that could operate between New York City and Albany. In Fulton, who had first investigated steamboat travel nine years earlier in Britain, Livingston finally found someone with the technical ability and perseverance to see the project through.
While engaged in this new venture, resumption of war between France and Britain in 1803 presented Fulton with fresh opportunities. With steamboats his latest passion, he proposed to Napoleon through an intermediary the construction of an entire fleet of them to transport a French army in an invasion of England. An advisory group reporting unfavorably on the plan was the end of an audacious idea that preceded construction of even one workable steamboat.
British spies were well aware of Fulton’s earlier activities, and there was concern that he might try again with greater success while invasion by Napoleon threatened. To forestall that, a British agent approached Fulton with an offer to change sides, and the staunch republican and hater of monarchy agreed to do so for the right price. More remarkably, Fulton was prepared to assist a nation whose overwhelming naval power could destroy America’s young merchant and naval fleets in a war that was already on the horizon.
Unashamedly, Fulton later described his initial proposal as follows: “Should [the British government] conceive that the introduction of [the weapons] into practice in France, America, or elsewhere to be injurious to the interests of Great Britain, I proposed to [collect] 100,000 pounds to let the discovery lie dormant.” This attempt at blackmail did not work, but within months an agreement on different lines was reached. A commission decided that the submarine was too undeveloped to be of use. It was the mines, which could be delivered by rowboat, that were wanted while Napoleon’s fleet at Boulogne threatened invasion. Fulton was to receive a monthly salary, monies to build and test the mines, plus payments for all French ships destroyed.
Fulton now developed a new idea to improve chances that his mines would reach and destroy their targets. Two mines were attached by a long line and thrown overboard after setting their timing mechanisms. The tide then carried the attached weapons to a point where the line might catch on and wrap around a ship’s anchor cable, holding the mines beside the target until the time set for detonation.
In the course of a year, attacks were made twice against French ships at Boulogne and once against a fort at Calais, with little result. British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies Robert Castlereagh stayed sufficiently enthused to award Fulton 10,000 pounds for “annoying the enemy in their own ports with little comparable risk to ourselves.” But after Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar ended all fear of invasion, interest in the whole enterprise disappeared and Fulton’s monthly salary stopped.
Unwilling to admit defeat, Fulton threatened to go public with his inventions. An arbitration committee went no further than awarding a small final payment and allowing him to keep the Castlereagh award. While the 15,000 pounds plus costs that he collected in total was very generous considering his weapons never achieved a single success, Fulton demanded more and threatened to turn his weapons against Britain. He was simply ignored.
In late 1806, after a 20-year stay in Europe, Fulton returned to America and rejoined the Barlows, who had returned earlier. Within months the steamboat project initiated in Europe resulted in the epochal voyage of the North River (erroneously named the Clermont by Fulton’s first biographer) in August 1807. However, as Fulton had written previously to Joel Barlow, “I will not admit that [the steamboat] is half so important as the torpedo system of defense and attack.” Further underlining this special interest in naval armaments was a notice Barlow arranged for in The National Intelligencer , the Washington newspaper of record, when Fulton first returned. The inventor was heralded as “an important acquisition to our country in the various branches of public improvement.” But it was the submarine and not the steamboat that was singled out for special mention.
In a proposal to his friend President Jefferson, Barlow recommended Fulton’s weapons for the defense of America’s harbors. Such relatively low-cost armaments were especially attractive to Jefferson, who wanted to avoid construction of the large and costly warships favored by Federalists. After a meeting with Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith and Secretary of State James Madison, funding was obtained for a demonstration of the mines in New York Harbor. Fulton cockily claimed the test a success, but that was not the reaction of the onlookers, who waited through three attempts before an anchored brig was blown up. As Washington Irving satirized the weapon in his magazine Salmagundi : “All that’s necessary is that the [enemy] ships must come to anchor in a convenient place; watch must be asleep, or so complacent as not to disturb any boats paddling about them—fair wind and tide—no moonlight—machines well directed—mustn’t flash in the pan—bang’s the word, and the vessel’s blown up in a moment.”
Not many days later, Fulton achieved immortality with the maiden voyage of the North River from New York City to Albany. A few months afterward at age 42, Fulton reluctantly gave up living with the Barlows and married into Robert Livingston’s wealthy and well-connected family. It was a change in lifestyle not made easily by the inventor, who had somehow hoped that his bride, Harriet, would acquiesce in an expansion of his living arrangement with the Barlows.
Although he had more than enough to do building a steamship fleet and establishing regular steamship service on the Hudson, plus preparing to do the same on the Mississippi, Fulton remained intent on marketing his naval armaments. In 1810 he produced as a sales tool a tract that laid out a complete system for employing underwater weaponry, including harpoon guns on board unsinkable boats to fire his mines against enemy hulls, and anchored mines for harbor defense. Again using his considerable powers of persuasion, Fulton obtained government funding for further weapons tests. Already one of the richest and most respected men in America, he tried yet again to sell his weapons system to whomever would buy, including France, Great Britain, Russia, and Holland. Fortunately for his reputation, which somehow had remained intact despite his earlier foreign activities, there were no takers.
After laying his weapons aside for two years for lack of buyers, Fulton leapt into action at the outbreak of the War of 1812, obtaining authority from the secretary of the Navy for renewed mine tests. He also sponsored mining expeditions against British warships on the Delaware River, Chesapeake Bay, and Long Island Sound, none of which succeeded. Later in the war, he would rush his mines to Baltimore when the city was under attack. There is no record that the local commander, who had previously witnessed an abortive mine test, chose to use them. Thus we sing of bombs bursting in air but not under British hulls.
Eager to thrust himself into the center of events, Fulton proposed to take command of a fleet of frigates that, equipped with his mines, would sweep the British from Lake Erie. With even more grandiose aspirations, he put himself forward to President James Madison to become the new secretary of the Navy. Despite the help of Ruth Barlow, who promoted the latter campaign with a letter to President Madison’s wife, Dolley, neither proposal was seriously considered by the administration.
The challenge of war also inspired Fulton to create new weapons. One was a submarine gun that could fire ordinary artillery shells underwater and penetrate enemy hulls, albeit only at very short range. To promote the new weapon, Fulton partnered with Commodore Stephen Decatur, whose exploits against the Barbary pirates and capture of HMS Macedonian had made him a national icon. Recommending it to President Madison, former President Jefferson observed: “Intersected as we are by many and deep waters, and unable to meet the enemy on them with an equal force, our only hope is in the discovery of the means . . . whereby the weak may defend themselves against the strong.” Despite such support and successful testing, the weapon was virtually ignored. But Fulton was later afforded a perfect opportunity to fulfill Jefferson’s dream by combining his steamship-building expertise with his consuming interest in naval armaments to produce a revolutionary defensive weapon for America.
In early 1813, Robert Livingston, Fulton’s valued partner in the steamboat venture, suddenly died. Fulton then sustained an even deeper wound. Joel Barlow, his helpmate and dearest friend (and perhaps more) had undertaken a diplomatic mission requiring that he meet with Napoleon during his Moscow campaign. Without opportunity to even see the emperor, who slipped back to France during the retreat, Barlow fell ill and expired in a Polish village.
For the first two years of the War of 1812, New York City enjoyed peace and prosperity. After recognition of the city’s exposed position as Britain intensified its blockade of the Northeast, a proposal was solicited from Fulton for construction of a harbor-defense vessel. The result was the world’s first steam warship, and no vessel like her had been seen before. Good republican that he was, Fulton named her the Demologos (Voice of the People), although she would also be variously known as theSteam Battery , Fulton Steam Frigate , Fulton the First , and, simply, Fulton . She consisted of two half hulls separated by a paddle wheel tucked into the middle for protection, with sides built of five-foot-thick timbers to render the ship impervious to enemy shell fire. One of the hulls housed her boiler while the other contained her steam engine.
Extremely broad in relation to her length and standing twice as high in the water as other ships, the Steam Battery was more a moving fortress than a conventional vessel. As the behemoth could not otherwise readily reverse course, she was fitted with rudders at both ends to move in either direction. Under steam alone, the ship could achieve a speed of 4.8 knots, although sails were added at the insistence of her commander. Armed with 32-pounders capable of firing red-hot shot to set enemy ships afire, the vessel was expected to make short work of any blockading warship unable to flee.
After completion of the hulls in just four months at an East River shipyard, a ceremonial launch was held on 29 October 1814. Next, the hulls were towed to Fulton’s own workshop in Jersey City for installation of the engine, boilers, and machinery. Completely caught up in an enterprise that promised to be his groundbreaking achievement as a naval inventor, Fulton wrote: “This is a new invention which requires all my care to render it as complete and useful as can reasonably be expected. I cannot trust the construction of the machinery or the fitting out of the vessel to be directed by anyone but myself.”
However, success could be measured only by performance in combat, and one critical element stood beyond Fulton’s control. While work continued, the Treaty of Ghent was signed and then ratified in Washington on 18 February 1815. A war-weary nation broke into celebration, but joy was dampened just five days later by news of the sudden death of the nation’s foremost inventor. After checking progress at the Jersey City site, Fulton was thoroughly chilled crossing the ice-clogged North River on foot while returning to New York. Rising too soon from his sickbed for another inspection of the work proved fatal.
The Steam Battery was ready for trials on 4 July 1815 and met all expectations. But afterward she sailed only once to ferry newly elected President James Monroe during his June 1817 visit to New York City. Serving as a floating barracks at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and stripped of her armament, the ship seemed destined for a quiet semiretirement and then scrapping. However, on 4 June 1829, a violent internal explosion left her a ruin. Ironically, the accidental igniting of a small store of gunpowder used to fire the signal gun, killing 25 and wounding 19, created greater destruction on board the seemingly unsinkable warship than had resulted from Fulton’s many offensive operations. It was an inglorious end for a revolutionary ship that was built with great expectation but never had the opportunity to fire a shot in anger.
Had the vessel come into service sooner, the world might have witnessed an epic clash and responded promptly as it did a half century later, when a Confederate ironclad in Hampton Roads made all wooden warships obsolete. Even without such a confrontation, had he lived, the irrepressible inventor would certainly have promoted steam warships using his considerable zeal and influence. Although one more steam warship, appropriately named the Fulton , followed in 1837, without the inventor’s prodding the Age of Sail continued into the second half of the century before steam became universal. As Theodore Roosevelt recognized in 1882 in The Naval War of 1812 , “The Fulton was the true prototype of the modern steam ironclad.” Submarines and mines also became staples of naval warfare, but without the salutary consequences Fulton so confidently predicted.
Robert Fulton was a man of many contradictions: republican idealist, naïve student of geopolitics, avaricious opportunist, patriot, and, like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, a visionary who pointed the way for a later age. No less eclectic in his personal life, he was far more complex than the one-dimensional inventor passed down in textbooks.
Donald L. Canney, The Old Steam Navy , Vol. 1 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990).
Henry W. Dickinson, Robert Fulton, Engineer and Artist, His Life and Works (London: John Lane, the Bodley Head, 1913).
William S. Dudley, ed., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History , Vols. 1, 2 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, 1985).
David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds., Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1997).
Wallace S. Hutcheon Jr., Robert Fulton: Pioneer of Undersea Warfare (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981).
Dumas Malone, Jefferson the President: Second Term 1805–1809 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1974).
Cynthia Owen Philip, Robert Fulton: A Biography (New York: Franklin Watts, 1985).
Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987).
Kirkpatrick Sale, The Fire of His Genius (New York: The Free Press, 2001).
James Morton Smith, editor, The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison , Vol. 3 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994).
The Torch Light and Public Advertiser : 11 June 1829 (Hagerstown, MD).