Robert Fulton was born in a farm in Little Britain, Pennsylvania, on November 14, 1765. His father, Robert Fulton, married Mary Smith, daughter of Captain Joseph Smith and sister of Col. Lester Smith, a comparatively well off family. He had three sisters – Isabella, Elizabeth, and Mary, and a younger brother, Abraham.
For six years, he lived in Philadelphia, where he painted portraits and landscapes, drew houses and machinery, and was able to send money home to help support his mother. In 1785, Fulton bought a farm at Hopewell Township in Washington County near Pittsburgh for £80 (equivalent to $13275 in 2018) and moved his mother and family into it.
At the age of 23, Fulton traveled to Europe, where he would live for the next twenty years. He went to England in 1786, carrying several letters of introduction to Americans abroad from prominent individuals he had met in Philadelphia. He had already corresponded with artist Benjamin West; their fathers had been close friends. West took Fulton into his home, where Fulton lived for several years and studied painting. Fulton gained many commissions painting portraits and landscapes, which allowed him to support himself. He continued to experiment with mechanical inventions.
Fulton became caught up in the enthusiasm of the "Canal Mania". In 1793 he began developing his ideas for tugboat canals with inclined planes instead of locks.
As early as 1793, Fulton proposed plans for steam-powered vessels to both the United States and British governments. The first steamships had appeared considerably earlier. The earliest steam-powered ship, in which the engine moved oars, was built by Claude de Jouffroy in France. Called Palmipède, it was tested on the Doubs in 1776. In 1783, de Jouffroy built Phyroscaphe, the first paddle steamer, which sailed successfully on the Saône. The first successful trial run of a steamboat in America had been made by inventor John Fitch, on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787. William Symington had successfully tried steamboats in 1788, and it seems probable that Fulton was aware of these developments.
In 1794, he moved to Manchester to gain practical knowledge of English canal engineering. While there he became friendly with Robert Owen, a cotton manufacturer and early socialist. Owen agreed to finance the development and promotion of Fulton's designs for inclined planes and earth-digging machines; he was instrumental in introducing the American to a canal company, which awarded him a sub-contract. But Fulton was not successful at this practical effort and he gave up the contract after a short time.
He obtained a patent for this idea in 1794 and also began working on ideas for the steam power of boats. He published a pamphlet about canals and patented the dredging machine and several other inventions.
While living in France, Fulton designed the first working muscle-powered submarine, Nautilus, between 1793 and 1797. He also experimented with torpedoes. When tested, his submarine operated underwater for 17 minutes in 25 feet of water. He asked the government to subsidize its construction, but he was turned down twice. Eventually, he approached the Minister of Marine and in 1800 was granted permission to build. The shipyard Perrier in Rouen built it, and the submarine sailed first in July 1800 on the Seine River in the same city.
In Britain, Fulton met the Duke of Bridgewater, Francis Egerton, whose canal, the first to be constructed in the country, was being used for trials of a steam tug. Fulton became very enthusiastic about the canals, and wrote a 1796 treatise on canal construction, suggesting improvements to locks and other features.
In 1797 Fulton went to Paris, where he was well known as an inventor. He studied French and German, along with mathematics and chemistry. In Paris, Fulton met James Rumsey, an inventor from Virginia with an interest in steamboats, who in 1786 ran his own first steamboat up the Potomac River.
Working for the Duke of Bridgewater between 1796 and 1799, Fulton had a boat constructed in the Duke's timber yard, under the supervision of Benjamin Powell. After installation of the machinery supplied by the engineers Bateman and Sherratt of Salford, the boat was duly christened Bonaparte in honor of Fulton having served under Napoleon. After expensive trials, because of the configuration of the design, the team feared the paddles might damage the clay lining of the canal and eventually abandoned the experiment. In 1801, Bridgewater instead ordered eight vessels for his canal based on Charlotte Dundas, constructed by Symington.
In France, Fulton met Robert R. Livingston, who was appointed U.S. Ambassador to France in 1801. He also had a scientifically curious mind, and the two men decided to collaborate on building a steamboat and to try operating it on the Seine. Fulton experimented with the water-resistance of various hull shapes, made drawings and models, and had a steamboat constructed. At the first trial, the boat ran perfectly, but the hull was later rebuilt and strengthened. On August 9, 1803, when this boat was driven up the River Seine, it sank. The boat was 66 feet (20.1 m) long, with an 8-foot (2.4 m) beam, and made between 3 and 4 miles per hour (4.8 and 6.4 km/h) against the current.
In 1804, Fulton switched allegiance and moved to Britain, where he was commissioned by Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger to build a range of weapons for use by the Royal Navy during Napoleon's invasion scares. Among his inventions were the world's first modern naval "torpedoes" (modern "mines"). These were tested, along with several other of his inventions, during the 1804 Raid on Boulogne, but met with limited success. Although Fulton continued to develop his inventions with the British until 1806, the decisive naval victory by Admiral Horatio Nelson at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar greatly reduced the risk of the French invasion. Fulton was increasingly ignored.
In 1806, Fulton returned to the United States.
In 1807, he and Robert R. Livingston built the first commercially successful steamboat, North River Steamboat (later known as Clermont). Livingston's shipping company began using it to carry passengers between New York City and up the Hudson River to the state capital Albany. Clermont made the 150-mile (240 km) trip in 32 hours. Passengers on the maiden voyage included a lawyer Jones and his family from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His infant daughter Alexandra Jones later served as a Union nurse on a steamboat hospital in the American Civil War.
On January 8, 1808, Fulton married Harriet Livingston (1786–1824), the daughter of Walter Livingston and niece of Robert Livingston, prominent men in the Hudson River area, whose family dated to the colonial era. Harriet, who was nineteen years his junior, was well educated and was an accomplished amateur painter and musician. Together, they had four children.
From 1811 until his death, Fulton was a member of the Erie Canal Commission, appointed by the Governor of New York.
From October 1811 to January 1812, Fulton, along with Livingston and Nicholas Roosevelt (1767–1854), worked together on a joint project to build a new steamboat, New Orleans, sturdy enough to take down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, Louisiana. It traveled from industrial Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where it was built, with stops at Wheeling, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; past the "Falls of the Ohio" at Louisville, Kentucky; to near Cairo, Illinois, and the confluence with the Mississippi River; and down past Memphis, Tennessee, and Natchez, Mississippi, to New Orleans some 90 miles (140 km) by river from the Gulf of Mexico coast. This was less than a decade after the United States had acquired the Louisiana Territory from France. These rivers were not well settled, mapped, or protected. By achieving this first breakthrough voyage and also proving the ability of the steamboat to travel upstream against powerful river currents, Fulton changed the entire trade and transportation outlook for the American heartland.
Fulton's final design was the floating battery Demologos. This first steam-driven warship in the world was built for the United States Navy for the War of 1812. The heavy vessel was not completed until after Fulton's death and was named for him in his honor.
Fulton was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1814.
Fulton died in 1815 in New York City from tuberculosis (then known as "consumption").
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania donated a marble statue of Fulton to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol. Fulton was also honored for his development of steamship technology in New York City's Hudson-Fulton Celebration of the Centennial in 1909. A replica of his first steam-powered steam vessel, Clermont, was built for the occasion.
The Guatemalan government in 1910 erected a bust of Fulton in one of the parks of Guatemala City.
Loviisa is the site of two of Finland's nuclear reactors, two VVER units each of 488 MWe, at the Loviisa Nuclear Power Plant. The other operating reactors are at the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant.
The Olkiluoto plant consists of two boiling water reactors (BWRs), each producing 890 MW of electricity. A third reactor, Unit 3, is expected to be online in February 2022.
In 2006, Fulton was inducted into the "National Inventors Hall of Fame" in Alexandria, Virginia.