Monday, Aug. 17, 1807, was another hot summer day in New York City, and most of the women of fashion on the Hudson River pier, arms linked to laced and ruffled gentlemen, had their pastel parasols up against the sun. It was unusual for such a crowd to gather midday on a Monday, particularly by the village of Greenwich, far from the stylish promenades of Broadway. But a good deal of excitement had been stirred up in the city by the prospect of Robert Fulton’s strange and improbable steamboat making its maiden voyage to Albany.
This was not the first steamboat -- John Fitch had run a boat on the Delaware nearly 20 years before. But Fulton’s was superior in design and engineering. If he made the voyage without mishap that day, it would prove that his craft could go faster than any boat on the river, in any kind of weather, and thus lead to the first commercially viable steamboat operation in the world.
Interest was particularly high because the boat had successfully and dramatically puffed and roared its way up from its shipyard on the East River around the tip of Manhattan the day before, in clouds of smoke and spangles of sparks, its bizarre paddles churning at the sides. Higher still because it was widely held that the whole outlandish contraption was likely to explode.
On the steamboat that day, in addition to half a dozen crewmen, were relatives and friends of Fulton’s partner in the venture, the rich and well-connected Robert R. Livingston. Not all were convinced that the idea of a steam engine powering a flat wooden boat made much nautical sense, and Livingston’s brother, John, was reported to have said, “Bob has had many a bee in his bonnet before now, but this steam folly will prove the worst yet.”
In his later account, Fulton noted that “in the moments before the word was to be given for the boat to move,” the people on deck showed “anxiety mixed with fear” and were “silent, sad and weary.” Indeed, “I read in their looks nothing but disaster, and almost repented of my efforts.”
But he had not spent much of the previous five years learning about steam propulsion, and the previous six months and nearly $10,000 of his own money (plus an equal amount from Livingston) actually building the boat, just to give in to a few skeptics. At 1 p.m., he gave the signal for the engine to be powered and the boat to be cast off.
The boat glided a few yards into the Hudson, then stopped. “To the silence of the preceding moment,” Fulton reported, “now succeeded murmurs of discontent, and agitations, and whispers and shrugs.” He started examining the machinery and wheels, and in less than half an hour, “the boat was again put in motion” and “continued to move on.” He cherished the moment: “All were still incredulous. None seemed willing to trust the evidence of their own senses.”
But there it was, moving at a steady 4 miles an hour northward, and Fulton proudly noted, “I overtook many sloops and schooners . . . and parted with them as if they had been at anchor.”
The voyage to Albany, broken by a stopover at Livingston’s Clermont estate halfway up the Hudson, took two days and was, by Fulton’s laconic account, “150 miles in 32 hours, equal near 5 miles an hour.” And the return trip was equally swift and successful: “time 30 hours, space run through 150 miles, equal 5 miles an hour.” A mundane way to describe what Fulton himself knew was a momentous achievement.
The creation of the age of steam meant many things to America. At the end of the century, historian Henry Adams, in assessing Fulton’s feat that day, marked it “as the beginning of a new era in America -- a date which separated the colonial from the independent stage of growth,” for the U.S. was alone in possessing such a vessel and would be for decades. He added that “the problem of steam navigation, so far as it applied to rivers and harbors, was settled, and for the first time America could consider herself mistress of her vast resources.”
North America, unlike Europe, was a huge continent of long rivers, and the conquest of them in a land of few roads and many mountains meant that the Ohio and Mississippi valleys could be settled and become the basis of prosperous economies -- agriculture and industry in the North, plantations and slavery in the South. In the 20 years after the first steamboat on the Mississippi, more people were drawn to middle America -- 2.4 million -- than the original colonies had attracted in 200 years.
A hundred years on, Mark Twain could take the full measure of Fulton’s achievement: “He made the vacant oceans and the idle rivers useful. He found these properties a liability; he left them an asset.
“By his genius Robert Fulton laid the foundation of the greatness of New York, and with his brother immortals, Watt and Stephenson, he created the stupendous prodigy, the globe’s modern commerce, and with it, in vast measure, the really stupendous moral and material civilization which has resulted from it.”
Two hundred years on, we can only agree.