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Robert Fulton Didn't Invent the Steamboat

The story of Robert Fulton inventing the steamboat and sailing the Clermont down the river for all to see is so familiar to any student of American history that it must be true. Right?


The steamboat was invented by John Fitch in the early 1790s. But like so many other sad stories of the history of invention, Fitch didn't have the money to turn a profit on his invention.

Fulton got into the act at the urging of his friend Robert Livingston, who was the American ambassador to France in the early 1800s. Fulton was living in Paris at the time and designed an experimental submarine. Livingston, who knew about Fitch's troubles, invited Fulton back to the U.S. to try to make the steamboat idea go.

Fulton, himself having a good bit of money and also having rich friends like Livingston, gets the credit but what he really did was make steamboat travel profitable.

Even Fulton didn't get it right the first time. The first voyage of the Clermont, in 1807, failed. After a good bit of tinkering, Fulton got the boat up and running, and the little steam-powered floater made it from new York to Albany in 32 hours (at a speed of five miles an hour).

By the way, the ship wasn't named Clermont at first. Fulton called it the North River Steamboat. When he decided to redesign the boat to accommodate passengers, he did the work at Clermont, Livingston's estate near Hudson. The redesigned boat's name was North River Steamboat of Clermont. Through the years, it has been shortened to Clermont.


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