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Great Engineers & Scientists

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

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Robert Fulton

Posted May 03, 2006 10:05 AM by Steve Melito
Pathfinder Tags: February 24 November 14

Robert Fulton was born on November 14, 1765 in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Although he had little formal education, Fulton displayed considerable artistic talent as a child. In 1782, the 17-year old Fulton moved to Philadelphia to become a painter of miniature portraits. The city, a hub of commercial and political activity, was home to Benjamin Franklin, a talented inventor who had served as America's first ambassador to France. In 1785, Fulton painted Franklin's portrait, securing the diplomat's friendship and support. Armed with a letter of introduction, Fulton moved to London in 1786 and continued his work in the fine arts. The Pennsylvania native also developed an interest in steam engines and secured several English patents.

When the British Navy rejected his steam-powered designs, Fulton moved across the English Channel and offered his services to the French fleet. In 1800, Fulton built a cigar-shaped, submersible ship called the Nautilus and piloted the submarine for 17 minutes in 25 feet of water. Despite this successful field test, the French Navy was reluctant to commit resources to Fulton's vision. In 1804, Fulton returned to England to design submarines for use against the French Navy. The former painter's inventions included torpedoes, floating mines that could tear a 300-ton ship in half. Upon his return to the United States in 1806, Fulton sunk a ship during a demonstration in New York Harbor and was awarded $5,000 by Congress for continued research.

Although President Thomas Jefferson sought Fulton's services as a canal builder, the inventor soon devoted his attention to the development of a steamship. Modifying a powerful steam engine patented by James Watt, Fulton incorporated a propulsion system that channeled water along the length of the ship. "Fulton's Folly" was a flat-bottomed riverboat with a square stern and paddle wheels on each side. On August 17, 1807, the ship made its maiden voyage from New York City to Albany in a trip that lasted 32 hours. Fulton's reward, the exclusive right to steamboat transportation along the Hudson River, did not deter his rivals, who envied his monopoly from the State of New York. In 1809, Fulton wisely obtained a patent from the U.S. government.

Fulton's last major project, the Demologos, combined his mastery of steam power with his interest in naval warfare. Although Fulton's steam-powered battleship boasted 44 guns and a series of underwater cannons, the U.S. Navy abandoned the project with the conclusion of the War of 1812. On February 24, 1815, Robert Fulton died from complications caused by a pulmonary infection. In response, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution of mourning and businesses in New York City closed for the day. Years later, in 1824, the U.S. Supreme court struck down Fulton's government-granted monopoly in Gibbons v. Ogden, a landmark case which established the principle that states cannot regulate interstate commerce.

Resources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Fulton
http://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/robert-fulton

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The Engineer
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#1

Steamboats

05/03/2006 11:27 AM

It's amazing how much Steamboats and Railroads changed the face of the world. They were basically the cars and airplanes of the 20th century. It makes you wonder what innovations in transportation will define this century. For the record, I don't think it will be the Segway. Was it me, or was that the most overhyped piece of junk ever. Don't get me wrong, I think that for people with disabilities it is a wonderful invention. I just didn't like how it was promoted as so much better than walking and all that.

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#2

Fulton & Submarines

05/03/2006 11:36 AM

I just finished reading The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky. He spends a few pages discussing Fulton and his effect on commerce up and down the Hudson. More interestingly, though, was his discussion of how Fulton was far more successful in designing submarines (able to fire working torpedoes!!) than he was with steamships.

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