A Short Biography of
When Robert Fulton, Sr. & his wife Mary (Smith) Fulton settled in Little Britain Township after emigrating from Ireland their dreams were of building a family and a prosperous farm. Eventually they would have five children, Robert Jr., Isabella, Elizabeth, Mary and Abraham. Their dreams of a successful farm, however, were not to be and they relocated to Lancaster City several years later.
In 1844 a new township was formed from a portion of Little Britain Township. The Fulton homstead was included & the new township was named Fulton Township.
From an early age son Robert showed an aptitude for engineering & mechanics. He would visit various businesses throughout the area studying their processes & techniques. By the time he was 13 he was already building paddle wheels for his father’s fishing boats. His fascination with mercury, guns & bullets earned him the nickname “Quicksilver Bob”
Fulton received little formal education, instead choosing to self-educate in the areas where he had the most interest. This would also include art. An accomplished painter, he relocated at age 17 to Philadelphia, where he gained notoriety as a painter of miniatures.
Six years later, Fulton moved to Europe where he would turn back to his first love. His interests would take him to Paris where he built the first successful submarine or diving boat. It stayed under 25 feet of water for 17 minutes. He named the submarine Nautilus. In 1870, writer Jules Verne in a tip-of-the-hat to Fulton named the submarine in his classic novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Nautilus.
Robert Fulton would eventually partner with Robert Livingston who was the U.S. Ambassador to France, to build a steamboat. Experimentation by many inventors had some early successes, but no one had been able to produce a commercially successful product. Their partnership did produce a boat that ran, but not for long and it sank.
Reteaming with Robert Livingston, Fulton went back to work on his steamboat. By 1807 the North River Steamboat was fully operating and carried the mantel of “first commercial steamboat”. Later it would be renamed and today is known as the Clermont.
In 1815 Robert Fulton developed pneumonia after a friend fell through ice & Fulton attempted to rescue him. He died at 49 years old in New York, New York leaving behind a wife (the niece of his partner Livingston) and 4 children.
A beloved figure his funeral remains, to this day, one of the largest in New York history. A statue of Robert Fulton given by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, sits in the National Statuary Hall in Washington DC. The majority of his paintings that still exist are owned by the Pennsylvania Historical Society.
His final invention, built for U.S. use in the War of 1812 was a “steam driven warship” named Demologos. The ship, which was not finished until after he died, would be renamed The Fulton.
Back in England, Fulton developed naval weapons for the Royal Navy in their war with Napoleon including the first odern naval torpedoes. His inventions were met with limited success & he made the decision to return to the United States.