On this date in 1815, Robert Fulton, the American inventor and and engineer widely credited with inventing the first commercially success steamboat, died.
Fulton was born in 1765 into a poor family on the Pennsylvania frontier. From an early age, Fulton showed an aptitude for working with machinery of all kinds, as well as an all-consuming drive to avoid his father’s poverty.
As a young man he contrived useful inventions at an astonishing rate, a marble-cutting saw here, a canal-digging engine there; he also cultivated friendships and connections with influential men on both sides of the Atlantic, and soon he was doing business with the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte (to whom he sold a prototype submarine, the Nautilus).
Fulton’s most lasting accomplishment, however, may have been to develop a steamboat fleet that dependably plied the waters in and around New York and eventually extended to rivers in the western interior, providing “a tool by which the dominant commercial interests could extend their reach and power, by which the reigning political forces could communicate and consolidate their influence, by which a restless people could penetrate new lands and develop new industries.”
If you’d like to know more about Robert Fulton, I recommend the book The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream.