Robert Fulton & the First Steam Warship

Robert Fulton, an American engineer and inventor best known for bringing steamboats to commercial success, also built the world’s first steam-powered warship. Although Demologos, or Fulton the First, heralded the conversion from sail to steam in naval warfare, she never saw battle and met a tragic end in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Robert Fulton’s Demologos, the first steam warship

Robert Fulton’s Demologos, the first steam warship

Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton was born on November 14, 1765, in Little Britain, Pennsylvania. Fulton’s father – an Irish immigrant – died when he was young. At age 17, Fulton became an apprentice in a Philadelphia jewelry shop where he specialized in painting miniature portraits for rings and lockets. In 1786, hoping to make his fortune as an artist, he sailed for England with a letter of introduction to the American painter Benjamin West. In 1791, Fulton exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy.

Fulton soon concluded that his art was unlikely to be profitable. In 1793 he turned to engineering. Among other things, he began developing ideas for canals that would use inclined planes instead of locks. In 1796 he published a Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation, which also proposed improvements in bridges and aqueducts. He designed a canal dredging machine and obtained patents for several related inventions.

Fulton’s submarine

As there was little interest in his inventions in Britain, Fulton moved to Paris in 1797. France was then at war with England. Fulton approached the French government with an idea for a “plunging boat” that could secretly maneuver under British warships and attach explosive charges to their hulls. Eventually Fulton was authorized to build his machine. He also, in 1799, took out a French patent on the panorama, a technology to which he had been introduced in England.

In July 1800, Fulton conducted the first test dives of his submarine, the Nautilus, on the Seine at Rouen. Based on this success, as well as later sea trials at Le Havre, in 1801 First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte authorized 10,000 francs for Fulton to make improvements to the Nautilus.

The new Nautilus could remain submerged at a depth of 25 feet for over four hours. In August 1801, Fulton obtained permission to attack British ships blockading a small harbor near Cherbourg. However, the British ships eluded the slower submarine. In September, Fulton wrote a long report on the experiments. He offered to sell the Nautilus to the French government and to supervise the construction of additional submarines. The government decided not to pursue the project. Fulton dismantled the Nautilus and destroyed key parts, so the French could not copy the design.

A cross-section of Fulton’s submarine design

A cross-section of Fulton’s submarine design

Fulton’s French steamboats

In 1801, Fulton met Robert R. Livingston, the American minister to France who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. Livingston owned a 20-year monopoly on steamboat navigation in New York State. In 1802, he and Fulton agreed to a business partnership in which Livingston would finance a steam-powered boat built by Fulton. In the spring of 1803, the boat was placed in the Seine. Unfortunately the hull was not strong enough to support the weight of the steam engine. During a storm the craft broke in two and sank to the bottom of the river. A second boat, with a strengthened hull, was successfully tested on the Seine on August 9, 1803. Although it did not reach the speed Fulton and Livingston had hoped for, they were pleased with the experiment and resolved to construct a larger boat to navigate the Hudson. Fulton ordered a steam engine from James Watt’s firm in Birmingham. This did not reach the United States until 1806.

Return to Britain

Alarmed by Fulton’s experiments in France, the British government sent an agent to offer him a sum of money to move back to England. Fulton arrived in London in May of 1804. As Napoleon was threatening to invade England, Fulton tried to interest the government in his plans for submersible and low-lying craft that would carry explosives (he called these “torpedoes” but they were more like modern mines). In July, Fulton met with Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Fulton proposed an assault on the French fleet that would use a combination of fireships, torpedoes and other explosive devices. The British government agreed to pay him a salary, give him funds to build and test the weapons, and reward him for French ships destroyed.

In October 1804, Fulton’s weapons were used in a raid on Boulogne. They exploded in spectacular fashion but did little damage. In October 1805, Fulton persuaded Pitt to allow him to blow up an old 200-ton Danish brig, the Dorothea, near Walmer Castle. Two torpedoes were used, each charged with 170 pounds of gunpowder, and fired by clockwork. The boat was destroyed, but this proved to be of little help to Fulton. Britain’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21 greatly reduced the risk of French invasion, thus Fulton’s inventions were no longer needed.

Fulton’s American steamboats

In December 1806 Fulton returned to the United States. He took his plans for torpedo warfare to the American government and was given a small amount of money for some experiments. The results were not sufficiently successful to persuade the government to adopt the system.

In the meantime, Fulton and Livingston resumed work on the steamboat they had planned in Paris. They constructed the North River Steamboat, later known as the Clermont. Launched in August 1807, it travelled the 150 miles (240 km) from New York City to Albany in 32 hours, a trip that took four days by sail. By 1810, Fulton-designed steamboats were providing regular passenger and freight transportation on the Hudson and Raritan rivers. Fulton also built the New Orleans, which in 1811-12 became the first steamboat to travel from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Among other things, the voyage demonstrated that the steamboat could move upstream against powerful currents. This transformed river travel and shipping throughout North America.

Demologos, the first steam warship


Fulton’s first steam warship design

Fulton’s steam warship design

In June 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. Britain began to blockade American ports and there was concern that the Royal Navy could attack New York. In early 1814, a coastal defence committee asked Fulton what he would recommend. He proposed a steam-powered warship that would carry battery of 44 guns. The committee approved the design and agreed to build the vessel, provided the federal government would accept and pay for the ship once its utility had been demonstrated. On March 9, 1814, Congress appropriated the sum of $500,000 “for the purpose of building, equipping, and putting into service one or more floating batteries of such magnitude and construction as shall appear to the President of the United States best adapted to attack, repel, or destroy any ships of the enemy which may approach the shores or enter the waters of the United States.” (1) A sub-committee of five was appointed to take charge of the work, with Fulton as engineer and constructor.

Fulton adopted a unique design for his steam warship, which he named Demologos (voice of the people). He essentially built a catamaran, using two parallel armour-clad hulls, with the paddlewheel located between the hulls to protect it from enemy fire. The 120-horsepower steam engine was located below the waterline of one of the hulls. The boilers were in the other hull. Demologos was 156 feet in length, with a beam of 56 feet. She weighed 2,745 displacement tons and stood twice as high in the water as other ships. Fulton guaranteed a speed for his warship of four to four and a half miles per hour.

Demologos was designed to be fitted with twelve 32-pounder guns on each side and three more each on the bow and stern, for a total of 30. She was also fitted to carry two “Columbiads,” cannons that could fire a 100-pound projectile below the waterline.

The keels were laid in the shipyard of Adam and Noah Brown on the East River in June 1814. After the hulls were completed, a ceremonial launch was held on October 19, 1814. Then the hulls were towed to Fulton’s workshop in Jersey City for installation of the engine, boilers and machinery.

Demologos on the water

The War of 1812 ended on February 17, 1815, when the Treaty of Ghent was ratified in Washington. One week later, on February 24, 1815, Robert Fulton died, probably of pneumonia, at the age of 49. New York went into mourning.

Work continued on Demologos, which was informally renamed Fulton the First. On June 1, 1815, she went on a four-hour voyage to try out her engines. The real trial run was arranged as the chief event of the Fourth of July celebration that year. Several guns were placed on the main deck, ready for action.

Having made a display off the Battery she proceeded to Staten Island, opposite the height on which his Excellency the Governor has taken up his summer residence. The cannon on the Governor’s hill loudly welcomed the approach of this new frigate, from which vessel the salute was returned. The Fulton the First then proceeded to Sandy Hook, went to sea, and with the afternoon tide returned to the city, having performed the two passages to sea and back in about seven hours. To use Captain Smith’s remark, ‘She performed all we want of her.’ (2)

On September 11, with twenty-six of her guns, ammunition, and stores on board, she made another trip, reaching an average speed of 5.5 miles per hour.

Launch of the steam warship Demologos / Fulton the First

Launch of the steam warship Demologos / Fulton the First

Demologos, informally renamed Fulton the First, saw very little use, none of it in battle. The world’s first steam warship made her last voyage under her own power in 1817, when she carried President James Monroe from New York to Staten Island. After this she was laid up in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which is where Napoleon visits the ship in Napoleon in America.

Scottish traveler John M. Duncan visited the Navy Yard in 1818 and left the following description of Fulton’s steam warship, which he found “dismantled and roofed in.”

‘Fulton the First’ is a most singular machine; in shape pretty nearly an oblong octagon, rounded off a little at the corners. A most tortoise-looking man of war. We entered by a gun port upon her principal deck, and carefully explored every nook to which we could find admittance. Since visiting her I have had an opportunity of reading an official description, by the commissioners who superintended her while building, and the following combines what I saw, with the information which that document affords; the accuracy of the details may, I believe, be relied on. The steam frigate is a double boat, resting upon two keels, with an intervening space, 156 feet long and 15 feet wide, in which the paddle wheel revolves; this is carefully covered in, so as to be as much as possible unapproachable by shot. The wheel has a free motion both ways upon its axis, so that it can propel the vessel with either end foremost: for this purpose each individual boat has two rudders, one at each end, which are also carefully defended; each pair acts simultaneously, and when the pair at one end is in operation, the other is secured so as to offer no obstruction to the vessel’s progress. She carries two bowsprits and two masts, which are intended to bear what are called lateen sails. The rigging formed no part of the original design, but was added at the suggestion of Captain Porter who had been appointed to her command. The sides are four feet ten inches thick, composed of four thicknesses of oak timber, alternately vertical and horizontal. Her gun ports, thirty in number, are all on the principal deck, and go completely round both ends of the vessel, so that if necessary her shot can fly simultaneously at every angle like radii from the centre of a circle. She carries thirty-two pounders, some of which are in the carriages; with these she is intended to throw red hot shot, for preparing which she is amply provided with furnaces. Fulton also intended that she should carry upon her upper deck four Columbiads, as they are called, enormous guns capable of discharging a ball of a hundred pounds weight, into an enemy’s vessel, under the water mark. At present however her upper deck is without any armament, but surrounded with a strong bulwark. The officers’ cabins are in the centre of the vessel, on the main deck. The steam boilers are contained in the one boat, and the engine in the other, but of their appearance or that of the paddle wheel, I can say nothing, as the whole were completely shut up.

Room is left for a machine which Fulton purposed to add, capable of discharging with great force an incessant stream of water either hot or cold, which it was anticipated would completely inundate an enemy’s armament and ammunition, if it did not also destroy the men. Our newspapers, copying the marvellous reports which were afloat respecting her, assured their readers that this non-descript man of war was to brandish along its sides some hundreds of cutlasses and boarding pikes, and vomit boiling pitch on her unfortunate antagonists; these however are poetical exaggerations. Her machinery impels her at the rate of five and a half knots an hour, and her inventor felt confident that in a calm, or light breeze, no seventy-four would be a match for her. …

The commissioners were harassed with numerous obstacles in getting her constructed, and their difficulties give a pretty lively idea of the distress which generally prevailed throughout the country. Our vessels kept the whole of the sea coast in a state of close blockade, and it was with the greatest difficulty that building materials could be got for her. Timber, copper, iron, lead, and coal, required to be imported from distant parts of the Union, or from foreign countries, and the vigilance of our cruisers allowed so little to escape, that they were all scarce and enormously expensive. Ship carpenters had been sent off in such numbers to the lakes, and so many stragglers had volunteered into the army and navy, that workmen could scarcely be procured, and only for very high wages. When she was launched, no artillery of a suitable description was to be found in New York; but a British prize was opportunely brought into Philadelphia, and twenty of her guns were dragged round through the deep roads of New Jersey. The state of public credit was another source of embarrassment. The commissioners were supplied by government with treasury notes, which were then at a considerable discount, but which they were positively forbidden to pay away under par. Even this depreciated paper was occasionally so long withheld that they had in some cases to pledge their private credit, and in spite of all their efforts, the men at one time actually broke off from working; while those who had furnished building materials were discontented and importunate. These interruptions were chiefly felt in the latter part of 1814, and they continued till winter made it impossible for the vessel to act, even had she been finished. Peace, which was concluded early next year, rendered her for the present useless, and it was thought unnecessary to furnish her with a full equipment; but the commissioners persevered in completing her construction, and in June she made the first trial of her machinery. On a subsequent occasion she made a trip to Sandy Hook, with a considerable part of her artillery and stores on board, saluting the forts as she passed them; and the last occasion on which her powers were put in requisition, was when the present President, Mr. Monroe, made an official tour through the Union.

I have endeavoured to ascertain whether as much confidence is reposed in her powers as to realize the anticipations of her projector, and to justify the panegyrics of the newspapers; but I am led to think, that considerable doubt prevails as to the possibility of working her, so as to make her efficient against an enemy’s vessel. Fulton died before her engine was put on board; had he lived to superintend its complete adjustment, it is impossible to say to what degree of perfection he might have brought it, but his biographer acknowledges that there are, at present, great and obvious defects in her machinery. During the trial voyages various inconveniences were experienced, one of these was the heat of the furnaces, which is so insupportable, that the engine-men cannot remain beside them for more than a minute or two at a time. In the confusion and bustle of an action it would probably be found extremely difficult, if not impossible, to regulate, with deliberation and coolness, the many complicated operations which would be necessary in such a machine; and where so much internal combustion is going forward, the slightest inattention or accident in managing the powder, might be instantaneously fatal to all on board. Should they succeed in overcoming these difficulties, and acquire that expertness in her management which practice alone can be expected to produce, we can scarcely imagine for a bay or harbour, a more powerful instrument of attack or defence. Independent of wind or tide, she could plough her way under an enemy’s stern, or across his bows, and vomit forth her flaming balls, wherever the foe was most vulnerable; while the reverting of the paddle wheel would instantly relieve her from a wrong position, without the delay of working round, and the enormous thickness of her sides would render any but the largest guns inefficient upon her timbers.

The commissioners in their last report recommended, that, notwithstanding the peace, she should be commissioned and sent to sea, that officers and men might be trained to her management, and that defects in her construction, might be discovered and obviated; but this recommendation could only have been complied with at an expense which would ill agree with American ideas of economy, and here she lies, slumbering in ignoble indolence and security. I would add with all my heart, Requiescat in pace! (3)

The end of Demologos

Demologos made her last public appearance in October 1825 during the celebration of the opening of the Erie Canal. She had an honorable place in the water parade, but was towed by a larger steamship as her steam engine had been removed in 1821. Demologos continued to be used as floating barracks or a depot or receiving ship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard until June 4, 1829. On that date, the accidental explosion of a small store of gunpowder used to fire the ship’s signal gun killed 25, wounded 19, and largely destroyed the vessel

Although Demologos was never used in war, her construction marked a turning point in naval warfare. Steam eventually replaced sail as the main means of propelling warships, although it took some time. It was not until 1837 that the US Navy built its second steam warship, called Fulton (the second), which saw some service in the West Indies. During the Civil War, the Navy operated a number of steam-powered gunboats, loosely based on Fulton’s design, on the Mississippi River. Other warships improved on Fulton’s design. Even today, large warships are propelled by steam, generated by nuclear power.

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  1. Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, Volume 3 (Boston, 1850), p. 104.
  2. New York Gazette, July 6, 1815.
  3. John M. Duncan, Travels through Part of the United States and Canada in 1818 and 1819, Volume I (Glasgow, 1823), pp. 35-41.

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Independent of wind or tide, she could plough her way under an enemy’s stern, or across his bows, and vomit forth her flaming balls, wherever the foe was most vulnerable; while the reverting of the paddle wheel would instantly relieve her from a wrong position, without the delay of working round, and the enormous thickness of her sides would render any but the largest guns inefficient upon her timbers.

John M. Duncan