"by lighting a fire under its decks..." Fulton and his Steamboat and Napoleon in 1803

9 August 1803, 210 years ago in Paris, the American engineer Robert Fulton showcased his design of a steamboat to Napoleon.

“You wish to sail a ship up stream by lighting a fire under its decks, I have no time for such nonsense.” (Napoleon Bonaparte)

A mid-19th century lithograph showing Fulton during his ill-fated presentation in Paris   

In 1803, when Napoleon concocted various plans of how to best invade England, the idea of a steam-propelled vessel was not exactly new. Twenty years before, John Fitch had put a steam ferry into service on the Delaware river, regularly operating between Philadelphia and Burlington and Jouffrey d’Abbans had successfully tested a small paddle steamer on the Saône about the same time, along with other engineers who tried to use James Watt’s steam engine as propulsion for ships, about the same time when Trevithick, Murray and Stevenson built the first locomotives. Fulton came to France in 1788 and first worked on the construction of a submarine, with moderate success, the vessel was able to run two knots while submerged, powered by two men working a hand-cranked propeller and could remain under the water surface for more than an hour. However, French naval officials didn’t support the project, and Fulton dismantled his “Nautilus” and when Napoleon finally decided to have look at the thing in 1801, he was branded a charlatan. However, this early prototype inspired Jules Verne to name his famous fictional sub after Fulton’s construction.

A drawing of Fulton's invention "Nautilus"

Together with Robert R. Livingston, the American ambassador in France, Fulton then decided to construct a surface steamboat. The two succeeded to engineer a steam driven 60ft vessel that would make 4 mph against the current of the Seine and, after several test runs, to parade the craft in front of Napoleon in 1803, probably with the idea in mind to equip the French Navy with a fleet of steam launches to cross the Channel. Napoleon agreed to attend to the presentation and when the little vessel steamed up the Seine in presence of the emperor, it sank for some mysterious reasons. Fulton decided it was best to leave France for England after this fiasco, arrived there by means of conventional transport, offered his services to the Royal Navy, who at least tested his torpedo-catamarans and other devilries invented by Fulton against the assembled French invasion fleet in Boulogne in 1804 – again with moderate success. After the victory at Trafalgar and the end of the invasion scare in England, interest in Fulton’s designs vanished completely and a second, larger submarine he devised was never built.

USS "Demologos", later named "Fulton the First"

He returned to the States in 1806, and finally managed to launch something successful, the “North River Steamboat” that ferried passengers between New York and Albany at a record speed of 5 mph, shortening the travel time between the two cities from a week down to two days. In 1811, he and his old friend Livingston operated three steamers on the line and when war with the British broke out in 1812, Fulton designed the first steam-powered warship, the “Demologos”, a floating battery that would defend New York Harbor. It never saw service because the war ended before its completion, but was renamed “Fulton” after its builder died in February 1815 of tuberculosis he caught when he tried to rescue a friend who broke through the ice of the Hudson River.

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