The Clermont Steamboat: Ful[ton] Speed Ahead!

The critics stood on the riverbank looking disapprovingly at Robert Fulton’s new-fangled steam-powered boat, the Clermont, which Fulton hoped to navigate up the Hudson River to Albany, New York. “It’ll never start! It’ll never start!” they cried in derision, but suddenly the engine did start and the Clermont began steaming up the river. The critics were stunned into silence, but only for a moment before running after the boat, waving their arms and shouting, “It’ll never stop! It’ll never stop!” 

Not a true story, although Fulton’s Clermont did begin its journey up the Hudson this week (Aug. 17) in 1807. What’s more, if those particular critics didn’t actually exist, over the years Fulton certainly came up against a number of their real life counterparts.  Having already failed as a commercial artist, Fulton turned to engineering during a stay in France, but failed to interest either the French or, later, the British in any of his experimental boat designs.  Finally, he caught the attention of America’s ambassador to France, Robert Livingston, who persuaded him to concentrate on designing steamboat engines. Thus did Fulton return to the U.S. where, with Livingston’s financial backing, he built and successfully deployed the Clermont.

Contrary to popular belief, Fulton did not invent the steamboat, but he was the one who made the boat a reliable — and therefore commercially viable — mode of transportation, which was to have a tremendous impact on the young United States. Prior to Fulton’s steamboat, river navigation — like its ocean counterpart — was at the mercy of capricious winds and currents, meaning predictable, regularly scheduled movement of both passengers and products was impossible.  As a result, transporting perishable products to new markets was a gamble, so slower, more expensive land routes were usually used, or the products remained confined to local markets.

Fulton’s steamboat changed all that, and as steam-powered technology improved, allowing for bigger, faster and even more reliable boats, it resulted in increased shipping of goods and services, as well as the large-scale navigation of America’s rivers and inland waterways.  This, in turn, allowed trade to expand rapidly, and paved the way for Americans to explore and settle the western territories, especially those lands around the mighty Mississippi, which had become part of America under the Louisiana Purchase just a few years earlier.

In his later years Fulton became a nationally recognized expert on steam engines and navigational issues, and, ironically, it was while crossing his beloved Hudson River after giving testimony in Trenton, New Jersey, about repealing laws hindering steam boat operations that he caught a cold which ultimately proved fatal.  He died on February 24th, 1815, just as his young country was, literally and figuratively, beginning to gather steam.