How Did Fulton's Steamboat Work?

How Did Fulton's Steamboat Work?

1 Fulton's Steamboat Not His Invention

Not to take anything away from Robert Fulton but history shows his steamboat was not an original design. It was built on the successes of different inventors before him. He took the best elements from different designs or used experts in particular areas to build his workable steamboat. Even Fulton had his setbacks, though. He first began experimenting with steamboats while living in France in the early 1800s. His first prototype broke in two and sank before a trial journey could be made in the summer of 1803.

2 The Heart of the Steamboat

A schematic showing how a steam engine works. Courtesy of

The heart of Fulton's steamboat was a 24-horsepower Boulton and Watt engine. The engine had a separate condenser and drove itself through the difference in pressure between steam and a partial vacuum. Boulton and Watt also developed a centrifugal regulator that controlled the engine speed by regulating the amount of steam admitted. The engines had been used to replace water wheels in England and Fulton knew he could use something that mimicked a water wheel.

3 The Rest of the Boat

Charles Brown built the hull of the North River Steamboat (sometimes called the Clermont). The design is based on a Durham boat, which was essentially a river barge. The dimensions of the boat vary in different accounts, but one version has it as 133 feet long, 16.5 feet wide and 7 feet deep.

4 The Journey Into Fame

The North River Steamboat made its first journey on August 17, 1807 at an average speed of 4.7 miles per hour. It traveled 150 miles from New York to Albany in 32 hours. By comparison, a schooner would have taken 4 days, depending on winds and tides.

James Rada, Jr. was a newspaper reporter for eight years and earned 23 awards from the Maryland Delaware D.C. Press Association, Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists, Maryland State Teachers’ Association and CNHI. He also worked for 12 years as a marketing communications writer, earning a Print Copywriter of the Year Award from the Utah Ad Federation. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications.