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Industry Innovators: Marine Engineering

  • by: Ryan Abbot
  • On: 18, Sep 2017
3 min read

For centuries, man has been developing machines to travel the ocean. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, Robert Fulton (1765 – 1825) would revolutionise the marine industry and lay the foundations for future developments. 

Who Was Robert Fulton And how Did He Change the Marine Industry?

Fulton was an American inventor who, without any engineering or marine experience, introduced the steam engine into vessels and commercial navigation. A painter and jeweler from Philadelphia, Fulton became an engineer after arriving in England aged 23, and was especially fascinated by the ‘canal mania’ influenced by the work of James Watt and Benjamin Franklin. Fulton’s ideas soon led him to Paris to develop steamboat technologies.

The First Submarine

The war between the British and the French inspired Fulton to design the Nautilus, considered by many to be the first working submarine in history, and the first known torpedoes. The Nautilus was intended to creep under the hulls of British ships to place a powder charge for detonation at a later stage, and Fulton offered it to the French government for that purpose, before realising that the submarine was vulnerable under the effect of the winds and tides and therefore couldn’t compete with the high speed of the British warships. In 1804 Fulton switched allegiance and offered his wartime inventions to the English government, with his attempts thwarted by Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar.

Learn more about the history of the submarine

The Steamboat

Seemingly unabashed by his failure in painting, canal engineering and bellicose designs, Fulton remained confident of his talent and switched his attention to steamboats. A partnership with Robert R. Livingston, an American politician who obtained a 20-year monopoly for steamboat navigation in New York, finally provided Fulton with the resources to build his steamboat in 1802. Although the initial attempts to propel a ship using a steam engine had already begun in 1775 – until that point, vessels and sea vehicles relied on sailing power – Fulton broke through and converted steam engine technology into practical and commercial success.

The partners constructed a first version of Fulton’s steamboat in France and it successfully navigated the Seine at 3 mph. This was a 66 foot (20 meters) long boat with an eight-horse power engine design and paddle wheels. In 1806 Fulton constructed improved ship powered by a paddle wheel and using a powerful steam engine of the side-lever type created by his hero James Watt, and in the following year the brand new North River Steamboat took her maiden voyage from New York upriver to Albany, in the north end of the state. The 150-mile journey through the Hudson River took 32 hours at the speed of 5 miles per hour; a significant reduction of 64 hrs. The North River Steamboat became an instant sensation and Fulton launched many other ships after that.

In 1812 Fulton designed the World’s first steam warship to defend New York from the English blockade in the war between England and the United States. The Demologos included new and exciting technical innovations such as two parallel hulls with the paddle wheel placed between them, with the engine in one hull and the boilers and stacks in the other. Measuring 156 feet (48 meters) in total the new vessel endured successful trials in 1814, although the war was over before it could be used in real battle, and was renamed The Fulton after the inventor’s death.

The steam engine of the Industrial Revolution delivered an enormous leap in progress for marine engineering, and although efforts to navigate using the new technology began earlier, Fulton’s marine inventions made the breakthrough possible: all voyages could now be made much more quickly with smaller engine spaces allowing bigger boats to transport people and goods in unprecedented quantities. Fulton’s ideas changed the industry forever and his story of perseverance and innovation is a source of inspiration for modern marine engineering.

Find out more about the history of the boat, or read about what's changing in the marine industry

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