Today, we ride Robert Fulton's last boat. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Robert Fulton built his
first steamboat in 1807. Steamboats caught on very
quickly after that, and when the War of 1812 began
-- five years later -- he pitched in to design a
steam warship -- a really remarkable boat. Let's
begin by looking at the Achilles' heel of a
steamboat. It's the paddle-wheel. One well-placed
shot, and crunch; the boat is stopped.
Every warship since the Monitor and
the Merrimack has solved that problem
with submerged propellers. But boat propellers had
been around for only two decades in 1812. They were
still pretty primitive. Paddle wheels almost had to
be used back then.
So in 1813 Fulton unveiled his radical ship
designed to protect the paddle-wheel. It had two
hulls side by side, with the paddle-wheel in the
middle -- out of harm's way. He created a
catamaran, 150 feet long and 60 feet wide, with a
14-foot slot down the center.
People had trouble naming this strange boat. Fulton
called it Demologos, or "the word of
the people." But the Navy called it, variously, the
Fulton Steam Frigate, the Steam Battery, and Fulton
the First. In any event, its double keel was laid
in June, 1814, and it was launched that October.
Four months later the war ended, and Robert Fulton
died. He was only 50 years old.
The Navy went on to finish the ship, shake it down,
and correct a few deficiencies. They were clearly
pleased with Fulton's design. The ship saw
peacetime service in the New York harbor area until
one summer day in 1829. That afternoon, a gunner
went below to the powder magazine to get gun-powder
for the evening salute. He carried a candle with
him -- and managed to set off 2½ kegs of
gunpowder. 24 men, one woman, and the ship itself
perished in the resulting blast.
Fulton might have rewritten naval history, but for
two things. One was the end of the War of 1812. The
other was the development of the screw propeller.
The next radical step in naval warships was the
Union Monitor. It was built almost
fifty years later, and it was propeller-driven.
Still, Fulton's ingenious double-hull steam-warship
was copied many times over during the 19th century.
It was such a deliciously good idea -- the sort of
thing designers don't like to let go of -- even
after its purpose has passed.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds