Let's Learn From the Past: Robert Fulton

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Inventor, engineer and Pennsylvania native Robert Fulton revolutionized river commerce by developing the first commercial steamboat to successfully navigate the Western waters after launching his invention from Pittsburgh in 1811.

Born in 1765 to Irish immigrants about 60 miles west of Philadelphia, the self-educated Fulton showed an aptitude for engineering and mechanics at a young age. By the time he turned 13, he already learned to build paddle wheels for his father’s fishing boats.

He eventually moved to London and traveled throughout Europe, experimenting with mechanical inventions. He designed plans for canal systems and steam-powered vessels, and even developed the world’s first working submarine — the Nautilus — in 1797. While in Paris in 1801, Fulton met the U.S. minister to France, Robert Livingston, with whom he formed a professional partnership.

Fulton and Livingston eventually moved back to the U.S. and developed the North River Steamboat (often mistakenly referred to as the Clermont), which became the world’s first successful commercial steamboat after its 1807 voyage from New York City to Albany, N.Y., and back along the Hudson River.

After their triumph in New York, Fulton and Livingston turned their attention to Western river travel. The two commissioned the building of the Steamboat New Orleans, which launched from Pittsburgh in October 1811. The New Orleans navigated through poor weather conditions, tree snags and even an earthquake to make a successful trip to its namesake city on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The journey gave birth to the steamboat building industry in Pittsburgh and by the 1830s, Western Pennsylvania manufacturers built nearly 40 percent of all steamboats in the U.S.

Fulton’s innovation left quite a legacy, as steamboat travel served as a key component of the industrial revolution and exploration of the West.

Visitors can learn more the steamboat industry in Pittsburgh and see 2,000 perfectly preserved artifacts from the cargo of the Steamboat Arabia as part of the Heinz History Center’s new exhibition, “Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia.” For more information, visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org.

— By Kaitlyn Thoma, History Center communications assistant


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