Livingston-Fulton Steamboat Partnership
1807 - 2007
“My steamboat voyage to Albany and back has turned out rather more favorably than I had calculated. The distance from New York to Albany is one hundred and fifty miles. I ran it up in thirty-two hours, and down in thirty. I had a light breeze against me the whole way, both going and coming, and the voyage has been performed wholly by the power of the steam engine. I overtook many sloops and schooners, beating to the windward, and parted with them as if they had been at anchor. The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved.”
~ Robert Fulton, 1807
On August 17, 1807 Robert Fulton powered up thesteam-boat and began a trip up the Hudson River that changed the world. He and a small group of curious passengers were taking the first Fulton-built steamboat on her maiden voyage from Manhattan to Albany, a journey that had previously taken sloops as long as six days, but was to take them only 32 hours. The steady chug-chug of its engine and the churning of its paddlewheels were soon to become an iconic vision on American rivers and later lead to humongous ocean liners and speedy steam trains.
The steamboat’s journey had in fact begun some five years earlier in Paris, France, when Robert Fulton and Clermont’s own Chancellor Robert R. Livingston hatched a plan to build a steamboat monopoly in New York. Livingston, who had for a long time dreamed of operating a steam-powered packet boat on the Hudson, had already received a legal monopoly to this end, provided he could demonstrate a steamboat that would travel at least four miles per hour.
Although born in Pennsylvania, Fulton had traveled to England sometime in the 1780s to study painting. By the late 1790s, Fulton’s childhood interest in mechanics drew him to the craft of invention, and he began patenting his many ideas. In 1802 when he met the Chancellor in Paris, he was attempting to market a submarine to Napoleon. While the submarine failed to draw the attention of the French emperor, Fulton looked to the steamboat for paid employment.
The race for a working steamboat was one that many wealthy Americans, including Benjamin Franklin, had their eye on at the end of the eighteenth century. These other attempted boats were consistently bogged down with insufficient funding and designs that could not be made practical. It was the Livingston and Fulton partnership that finally congealed into a practical steamboat by combining the sound mechanical abilities of both men with the political and financial power of the Livingston family.
Fulton began experimenting in France where he conducted extensive research on hull shape, engine size, and propulsion method. Livingston remained closely involved, and he and Fulton shared regular correspondence on the issues that faced them. In August of 1803 Fulton built a 70 foot long model and successfully tested it on the Seine River near Paris, France. In 1806, the two returned to America separately, and construction of the full sized steam-boat was begun.
Less than a month after Livingston/Fulton steamboat was tested in August of 1807, it began service as a packet boat on the Hudson River. In its first year, it differentiated itself from all of its predecessors by turning a tidy profit. Fulton soon began constructing more steamboats, each more powerful and luxurious than its predecessor. When he died in 1815, he had built a total of seventeen steamboats, and a half-dozen more were constructed by other builders using his plans.
Chancellor Livingston died in 1813 and passed his shares of the steamboat company on to his sons-in-law. With Fulton’s death in 1815, the original power of the partnership dissolved, leaving the company prey to other hungry American businessmen. The monopoly was dissolved in 1824 via the landmark Gibbons vs. Ogden Supreme Court case, opening New York waters to competitive steamboat companies. In 1819 there were only nine steamboats in operation on the Hudson River. By 1840, customers could choose from over 100. The Steamboat Era had arrived.