Often credited with inventing the steamboat, Robert Fulton was actually the man who put the design into practice. As a young man, Fulton dreamed of becoming a painter and went to Paris to study. His commissions were few, and he turned to engineering and inventions. In Paris, Fulton designed an experimental submarine, which caught the eye of Robert Livingston, then the wealthy American ambassador to France. Livingston convinced Fulton to return to the United States and concentrate on steamboat design.

Fulton's first boat, the Clermont, was tested on the Hudson River. The former painter had shipped a small steam engine from England and constructed a hull similar to that of fast ocean- going ships. In the hull, he placed the engine, and on each side, a primitive paddle wheel. At the test in 1807, the Clermont initially failed; however, after a few adjustments to the engine, the boat carried on its way to Albany, arriving thirty-two hours later. It had moved against the Hudson current at an average of five miles an hour.

First Voyage of the Clermont

Ecstatic, Livingston and Fulton planned to expand. Through Livingston's influence, the two men obtained exclusive rights to run steamboats on New York rivers, as well as on the lower end of the Mississippi. Livingston recognized that the real need for steamboats lay not on the Atlantic rivers, but more urgently on the western veins and tributaries. The next large steamboat, the New Orleans, was constructed in a Pittsburgh boatyard and launched in the fall of 1811 on the Ohio. The boat did well until it reached Louisville, where it began to scrape the bottom; the hull of the New Orleans sat too low in the water for a western river of sandbars and snags. More than three months after leaving Pittsburgh, and having survived a bizarre series of earthquakes, the boat arrived in New Orleans. When it attempted to return to Pittsburgh, however, the crew found that the New Orleans was unable to move against the current above Natchez. Stuck, the boat spent the last two years of its life running between Natchez and New Orleans; finally it ran aground and sank.

The clear moral of the story was that someone needed to invent a more powerful steamboat with a flatter bottom to navigate the inland rivers. Fulton and Livingston bowed out at this point, backing away to concentrate on their eastern investments. Much resentment greeted them in the western territories as it was; tired of eastern failures, those along the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers turned to one of their own. The withdrawal of Fulton and Livingston allowed the rise of Henry Miller Shreve.