Steam, in its application to the purposes of navigation, was first successfully employed by Robert Fulton, a native of Little Britain, Pennsylvania. His peculiar genius manifested itself at an early age, in an irrepressible taste for producing drawings and various mechanisms. At the age of twenty-one he was intimate with Franklin. He had previously painted portraits and landscapes in Philadelphia, and derived considerable profit from the occupation. He subsequently sailed for England, with the view of seeking Mr. West’s aid in the prosecution of his art. That great painter took him into his family, at once. In 1793, Fulton was actively engaged in a project to improve inland navigation. Even at that time he had conceived the idea of propelling vessels by steam. In 1804 he had acquired much valuable information upon the subject, and written it down, as well as much concerning his own life, and sent many manuscripts from Paris to this country, but the vessel was wrecked and most of the papers destroyed. About this period, the subject of canals seems to have been the principal object of his attention, although not exclusively. In 1806, Mr. Fulton left Europe for New York, and on his arrival in this country, he immediately commenced his arduous exertions in the cause of practical science. The fertility of his mind in this direction may be understood, when it is stated that, in 1794, he had been engaged by the Duke of Bridgewater in canal projects, had adopted and patented the system of inclined planes as a substitute for locks, and had written a treatise on canals. He also invented a mill for sawing marble, patented several methods of spinning flax and making ropes, and constructed a torpedo to be used in war, for the destruction of an enemy’s vessels.

At what time Mr. Fulton’s mind was first directed to steam navigation, is not definitely known; but even in 1793, he had matured a plan in which he reposed great confidence. No one, previously to Mr. Fulton, had constructed a steamboat in any other way, or with any other result, than as an unsuccessful experiment; and although many have disputed his right to the honor of the discovery, none have done so with any semblance of justice. Miller’s experiments, which simply proved the practicability of the principle of propelling vessels by steam, were made in 1787, in Scotland; but Fulton’s boat, which began to navigate the Hudson in 1807, was certainly the first practical demonstration of this application of steam, being five years prior to the success of Henry Bell on the Clyde, and nearly ten years preceding the first attempts on the Thames river, under Brunel’s direction. The incompleteness of Fitch’s plan is matter of history, though his inventive ingenuity was very great.

Among those of Fulton’s own countrymen who had previously made unsuccessful attempts to render the force of steam subservient to practical and useful purposes, was Chancellor Livingston, of New York. As early as 1798, he believed that he had accomplished his object, and represented to the legislature of the state of New York, that he possessed a mode of applying the steam engine so as to propel a boat on new and advantageous principles; but he was deterred from carrying it into effect, by the uncertainty and hazard of a very expensive experiment, unless he could be assured of an exclusive advantage from it, should it be found successful.

The legislature in March, 1798, passed an act vesting Mr. Livingston with the exclusive right and privilege of navigating all kinds of boats which might be propelled by the force of fire or steam, on all the waters within the territory or jurisdiction of the state of New York, for a term of twenty years from the passing of the act, — upon condition that he should within a twelvemonth build such a boat, the mean of whose progress should not be less than four miles an hour.

The bill was introduced into the house of assembly by Dr. Mitchell, upon which occasion the wags and the lawyers united their powers in opposition to the bill in such a manner that the good doctor had to encounter all their jokes, and parry all their blows.

According to Mr. Livingston’s own account of these most interesting circumstances, it appears that, when residing as minister plenipotentiary of the United States in France, he there met with Mr. Fulton, and they formed that friendship and connection with each other, to which a similarity of pursuits naturally gives birth. He communicated to Mr. Fulton his views of the importance of steamboats to their common country; informed him of what had been attempted in America, and of his resolution to resume the pursuit on his return; and advised him to turn his attention to the subject. It was agreed between them to embark in the enterprise, and immediately to make such experiments as would enable them to determine how far, in spite of former failures, the object was attainable. The principal direction of these experiments was left to Mr. Fulton.

On the arrival at New York of Mr. Fulton, which was not till 1806, they immediately engaged in building a boat — of as was then thought — very considerable dimensions, for navigating the Hudson. This boat, named the Clermont, was of one hundred and sixty tons burden, one hundred and thirty feet long, eighteen feet wide, and seven feet deep. The diameter of the paddle-wheels was fifteen feet, the boards four feet long and dipping two feet in the water. She was a queer-looking craft, and, while on the stocks, excited much attention and no small amount of ridicule. When she was launched, and the steam engine placed in her, that also was looked upon as being of a piece with the boat built to float it. A few had seen one at work raising the Manhattan water into the reservoir back of the almshouse; but, to the people at large, the whole thing was a hidden mystery. Curiosity was greatly excited. Nor will the reader be at all surprised at the statement made by an eye-witness and narrator of these events, that, when it was announced in the New York papers that the boat would start from Cortlandt street at six and a half o’clock on Friday morning, the fourth of August, and take passengers to Albany, there was a broad smile on every face, as the inquiry was made, if any one would be fool enough to go? One friend was heard to accost another in the street with —

“John, will thee risk thy life in such a concern? I tell thee she is the most fearful wild fowl living, and thy father ought to restrain thee!”

When Friday morning came, the wharves, piers, housetops, and every ‘coigne de vantage’ from which a sight could be obtained, was filled with spectators. There were twelve berths, and every one was taken through to Albany. The fare was seven dollars. All the machinery was uncovered and exposed to view. The periphery of the balance-wheels, of cast iron, some four or more inches square, ran just clear of the water. There were no outside guards, the balance-wheels being supported by their respective shafts, which projected over the sides of the boat. The forward part was covered by a deck, which afforded shelter to the hands. The after-part was fitted up, in a rough manner, for passengers. The entrance into the cabin was from the stern, in front of the steersman, who worked a tiller, as in an ordinary sloop. Black smoke issued from the chimney; steam issued from every ill-fitted valve and crevice of the engine. Fulton himself was there. His remarkably clear and sharp voice was heard above the hum of the multitude and the noise of the engine; his step was confident and decided; he heeded not the fearfulness, doubts, or sarcasm of those by whom he was surrounded. The whole scene combined had in it an individuality, as well as an interest, which comes but once and is remembered forever.

Everything being ready, the engine was set in motion, and the boat moved steadily but slowly from the wharf; as she turned up the river, and was fairly under way, there arose such a huzza as ten thousand throats never gave before. The passengers returned the cheer, but Fulton stood upon the deck, his eyes flashing with an unusual brilliancy as he surveyed the crowd. He felt that the magic wand of success was waving over him, and he was silent.

As the boat sailed or steamed by West Point, the whole garrison was out, and cheered most lustily. At Newburg, it seemed as if all Orange county was collected there; the whole side-hill city seemed animated with life. Every sailboat and water-craft was out. The ferryboat from Fishkill was filled with ladies, but Fulton was engaged in seeing a passenger landed, and did not observe the boat until she bore up nearly alongside; the flapping of a sail arrested his attention, and, as he turned, the waving of so many handkerchiefs, and the smiles of so many bright and happy faces, struck him with surprise, and, raising his hat, he exclaimed, “That is the finest sight we have seen yet.”

In a letter to his friend and patron, Mr. Barlow, Fulton says of this Clermont trial trip: “My steam-boat voyage to Albany and back has turned out rather more favorable than I had calculated. The distance to Albany is one hundred and fifty miles. I ran up in thirty-two hours and down in thirty. The latter is just five miles an hour. I had a light breeze against me the whole way, going and coming, so that no use was made of my sails, and this voyage has been performed wholly by the power of the steam engine. I overtook many sloops and schooners beating to the windward, and passed them as if they had been at anchor.” Such was the modest description of this greatest of modern inventions.

Of peculiar interest and entertainment is the following narrative connected with this historic voyage, from the graphic pen of one who was a personal actor in the scene described: —

I chanced to be at Albany on business when Fulton arrived there in his unheard of craft, which everybody felt so much anxiety to see. Being ready to leave, and hearing that this craft was going to return to New York, I repaired on board and inquired for Mr. Fulton. I was referred to the cabin, and there found a plain, gentlemanly man, wholly alone, and engaged in writing.

“Mr. Fulton, I presume.”

“Yes, sir.”

Do you return to New York, with this boat?”

“We shall try to get back, sir.”

“Can I have a passage down?”

“You can take your chance with us, sir.”

I inquired the amount to be paid, and, after a moment’s hesitation, a sum, I think six dollars, was named. The amount, in coin, I laid in his open hand, and, with his eye fixed upon it, he remained so long motionless, that I supposed it might he a miscount, and said to him, “Is that right, sir?” This question roused him as from a kind of reverie, and, as be looked up, the big tear was brimming in his eye, and his voice faltered as he said —

“Excuse me, sir; but memory was busy as I contemplated this, the first pecuniary reward I have ever received for all my exertions in adapting steam to navigation. I should gladly commemorate the occasion over a bottle of wine with you, but really I am too poor even for that, just now; yet I trust we may meet again, when this will not be the case.”

Some four years after this (continues the writer of this agreeable reminiscence), when the Clermont had been greatly improved and her name changed to the North River, and when two other boats, viz., the Car of Neptune and the Paragon had been built, making Mr. Fulton’s fleet consist of three boats regularly plying between New York and Albany, I took passage upon one of these for the latter city. The cabin in that day was below; and, as I walked its length to and fro, I saw I was very closely observed by one I supposed a stranger. Soon, however, I recalled the features of Mr. Fulton; but, without disclosing this, I continued my walk. At length, in passing his seat, our eyes met, when he sprang to his feet, and, eagerly seizing my hand,
exclaimed —

“I knew it must be you, for your features have never escaped me; and, although I am still far from rich, yet I may venture that bottle now!”

It was ordered; and during its discussion Mr. Fulton ran rapidly, but vividly, over his experiences of the world’s coldness and sneers, and of the hopes, fears, disappointments, and difficulties, that were scattered through his whole career of discovery, up to the very point of his final, crowning triumph, at which he so fully felt he had arrived at last. And in reviewing all these matters, he said —

“I have again and again recalled the occasion, and the incident, of our first interview at Albany; and never have I done so without renewing in my mind the vivid emotion it originally caused. That seemed, and does still seem, to me, the turning point in my destiny — the dividing line between light and darkness, in my career upon earth; for it was the first actual recognition of my usefulness to my fellow-men.”

Even at this early period in the employment of so dangerous and slightly understood a motive power as steam, the rivalry and diversion of racing was indulged in. It was in the month of September, 1809, that the exciting and criminal scene of a steam-boat race was first enacted. A company from Albany had been formed for the purpose of competing with Fulton. The first vessel of this opposition line was advertised to leave Albany at the same time as Fulton’s. Parties ran high in the hotels of Albany. The partisans of Fulton were enrolled under Professor Kemp, of Columbia College; those of the opposition under Jacob Stout. The victory was long in suspense; and it was not until after the thirtieth hour of a hard struggle that the result was proclaimed by Dr. Kemp, on the taffrail of Fulton’s vessel, and holding out, in derision, a coil of rope to Captain Stout, for the purpose, as he remarked in so doing, of “towing him into port.” When the age, high standing, and sedate character of these two gentlemen are considered, it is not surprising that, in course of time, women at the West learned to devote their bacon to feeding the furnace fires of rival steam-boats.

The complete success attending steam navigation on the Hudson and the neighboring waters, previous to the year 1809, turned the attention of the principal projectors to the idea of its application on the western waters; and in the month of April of that year, Mr. Roosevelt, of New York, pursuant to an agreement with Chancellor Livingston and Mr. Fulton, visited those rivers, with the purpose of forming an opinion whether they admitted of steam navigation or not. Mr. Roosevelt surveyed the rivers from Pittsburg to New Orleans, and, as his report was favorable, it was decided to build a boat at the former place. This was done under his direction, and in the year 1811 the first boat was launched on the waters of the Ohio. It was called the New Orleans.

Late at night, on the fourth day after quitting Pittsburg, they arrived in safety at Louisville, having been seventy hours descending a distance of somewhat more than seven hundred miles. The novel appearance of the vessel, and the fearful rapidity — as it was then regarded — with which it made its passage, excited a mixture of terror and surprise among many of the settlers on the banks, whom the rumor of such an invention had never reached.

Mr. Livingston’s former associate in his experiments with applying steam to this purpose was Mr. John Stevens, of New Jersey, who persevered independently of Fulton and his patron, in various attempts to construct steam-boats. In this enterprise he was aided by his son, and his prospects of success had become so flattering, that he refused to renew his partnership with Livingston, and resolved to trust to his own exertions. Fulton’s boat, however, was first ready, and thus secured the grant of the exclusive privilege of the state of New York. The Stevenses were but a few days later in moving a boat with the required velocity. Being shut out of the waters of the state of New York, by the priority of Livingston and Fulton, Stevens conceived the bold design of conveying his boat to the Delaware by sea; and this boat, which was so near reaping the honor of first success, was the first to navigate the ocean by steam. One of the most efficient advocates of the new mode of navigation by steam was DeWitt Clinton.

From the date of Fulton’s triumph in 1807, steam navigation became a fixed fact in the United States, and went on extending with astonishing rapidity. Nor could a different result have been rationally expected in such a country as America.

In person, Mr. Fulton was about six feet high, slender form, but finely proportioned. Nature had made him a gentleman, and bestowed upon him ease and gracefulness. A modest confidence in his own worth and talents, gave him an unembarrassed deportment in all his social intercourse. He expressed himself with energy, fluency, and correctness, and, as he owed more to his own experience and reflections than to books, his sentiments were often interesting from their originality. But what was most conspicuous in his character, was his calm constancy, his industry, and that indefatigable patience and perseverance, which always enabled him to overcome difficulties.