Friday, August 17, 2012

Robert Fulton and the Steamship Company

A replica of the Clermont, the first commercially
operating steamship constructed by Robert Fulton in 1807
From the invention of a new power source or engine up to a vehicle that applies this power source to move forward sometimes is only a small step. But, to become a commercial success, this step might take even decades. Just think of the oldest type of engine powered by steam. Although the principle of the steam engine was already described by ancient Greek mathematician Heron of Alexandria, it took almost 17 centuries to become a practical device, as the steam-powered waterpump invented by Thomas Savery in 1698. Finally James Watt made the necessary improvements to the steam engine in the 1770s to become a major commercial success and also the power source for the just starting industrial revolution.

By that time, steam engines were rather huge. Thus, one of the first ideas to use them for any kind of vehicle was not an automobile, but for a ship. In France, already in 1774 Marquis Claude de Jouffroy had built a 13-metre working steamboat with rotating paddles, the Palmipède. In June and July1776, the ship sailed on the Doubs River, apparently the first steamship to sail successfully. But still, the commercial success failed, because the engine of the successor ship broke only 15 minutes after starting operation and bureaucracy thwarted further progress.

In the United States, the first successful trial run of a steamboat had been made by inventor John Fitch on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787. Fitch was granted a patent on August 26, 1791. But, unfortunately the newly created Patent Commission did not award the broad monopoly patent that Fitch had asked for, but a patent of the modern kind, for the new design of Fitch's steamboat. It also awarded patents alternative steamboat designs and the loss of a monopoly caused many of Fitch's investors to leave his company. While his boats were mechanically successful, Fitch failed to pay sufficient attention to construction and operating costs and was unable to justify the economic benefits of steam navigation. It was Robert Fulton who would turn Fitch's idea profitable decades later.

Robert Fulton was the first to operate steamboats commercially. Fulton may have become interested in steamboats at the age of 12 when he visited William Henry during a trip to Britain and France in 1777. He built and tested an experimental steamboat on the River Seine in 1803. Before returning to the United States, Fulton ordered a steam engine from Boulton and Watt, and on return built what he called the North River Steamboat (later known as Clermont). On August, 17, 1807, the Clermont began a regular passenger service between New York City and Albany, New York, 240 km distant, which was a commercial success. She could make the trip in 32 hours.

At yovisto you might learn more about the principles behind steam engines and thermodynamics in the lecture videos of Prof. Ranamurti Shankar from Yale on 'Fundamentals of Physics', where he also discusses the laws of thermodynamics.

References and further Reading:

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