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 Robert Fulton  (1765 - 1815)

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Lived/Active: New York/Pennsylvania / England/France      Known for: portrait, miniature and landscape painting

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Drawing of a detonator and muzzle for an underwater cannon
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Robert Fulton, better known as the inventor of the steamboat, was also a painter of portraits including miniatures.  In art historian James Flexner's book, The Light of Distant Skies, the author described Fulton as having "no skill" as a painter. (145) However, he was noteworthy in that in the latter part of the 18th century, Robert Fulton became one of the early American artists to study abroad when he went to England as a student of Benjamin West.  Others in this category were Rembrandt Peale, Samuel Waldo and Gilbert Stuart.

Robert Fulton was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in Little Britain (now Fulton), where his father had settled upon his arrival from Kilkenny, Ireland. As a thirteen-year-old, Fulton showed clear signs of his inventive mind and future scientific course when he applied paddle wheels he made to a fishing boat.

From 1782-1785, he tried to make a living as an artist in Philadelphia, and his work ranged from architectural and mechanical drawing to landscapes and miniatures. Benjamin Franklin was a friend.  Fulton went to London in 1786, studying for several years with history painter Benjamin West. With the support of wealthy individuals, he later worked as an artist in Devonshire, England, and is reported to have painted a portrait of Lady Jane Grey.

Fulton was encouraged to experiment in mechanics by his friendship with nobility including Francis Egerton Bridgewater, the Duke of Bridgewater, who was famous for construction of a navigable canal; and Charles, Earl of Stanhope, who invented the Stanhope printing press.

Fulton, in 1798, worked to improve canal navigation, receiving in 1799 a patent from the British government for a system of raising and lowering boats from one water level to another.

His mind was fertile with invention; he patented a mill for sawing marble in 1794. In 1796, his plan for a cast-iron aqueduct was built over the River Dee, and bridges of his design along the Surrey railroad. Various boats, dredging and spinning machines of his design were also patented in England.  His Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation was published in 1796. He wrote the President of the United States and other leaders, supporting canal navigation.

Fulton was in Paris in 1794, where the indefatigable American painted the first panorama ever exhibited there.  But by 1797, his invention had turned to implements of war, experimenting with a submarine in the Seine River. By 1801, his attempts to blow up British ships for the French failed. The British, encouraged by Lord Stanhope, hired Fulton in 1804, but the submarine was deemed impractical, and English attempts to blow up French ships with Fulton's torpedoes also failed.  A later effort in 1805, proved successful in the sinking of a target ship supplied by the British.

Fulton had been thinking of steam-powered ships since 1793.  His first steamboat was launched in the Seine in Paris in 1803, but sank because of a design flaw. Another boat proved slow, but Fulton just kept moving forward.  He ordered the manufacture of a steam engine from the English firm of Watts and Boulton. Meanwhile, the boat that would successfully point up the advantages of steam travel was being constructed in New York on the East River.  The steam engine was shipped to America and installed in the boat, and on August 11, 1807, the Clermont traveled thirty-two hours from New York City to Albany.

Like all successful ventures, Fulton's aroused jealousy and animus. His claims to his invention were disputed.  He was in danger of losing all his profits because of lawsuits, but his is the credit for bringing to reality the first practical use of the steamboat.  He would be given charge of building other steamboats, including Car of Neptune, Paragon, Firefly, Richmond, Washington, Vesuvius, Olive Branch, Emperor of Russia, Chancellor Livingston, and several ferryboats.

In 1814, a steam warship carrying forty-four guns, called the Demologos (later named Fulton the First), was launched.  The War of 1812 ended before it could meet that test.  He also worked to improve his submarine, Nautilus, but died before construction was completed.  He became ill from exposure crossing the Hudson River after testifying in a steamboat case.

The locations of any of Robert Fulton's paintings are unknown.  James Renwick wrote a life of Fulton in Sparks' American Biography, as did Cadwallader D. Colden in 1817.

James Flexner, The Light of Distant Skies

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