Fulton’s folly was the name given to the first effective steam powered ship, the Clarmont. It was named so after it’s designer, Robert Fulton, and on the popular assumption that this new ship was destined to fail.

Robert Fulton, famous engineer and businessman, was born in a farmhouse outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1765. Fulton worked in France and England during his early career, attempting to develop the precursors to the modern-day aquatic mines and submarines. But his real interest was in creating a workable steam-powered ship. After being snubbed by the British and French governments, Fulton returned to the United States with some amount of fame in 1806 to attempt such a task. Congress even granted him $5,000 for his experiments. With this and financial backing from Robert Livingston, Robert Fulton began to build his steamship, “Fulton’s folly.”

Fulton’s new ship seemed like such a crazy idea because it was a radical jump from the traditional sailing ships of the early 19th century. Most notably, the new boat not only had a special steam engine with smokestacks, developed by James Watt in 1765 and refined by Fulton. The steamship also featured a flat-bottom, walled-sides, and a squareed-stern, designs far different from traditional streamlined sails. Fulton’s ship was propelled by paddle wheels midway along each side of the boat with the engine installed just forward of the wheels. Fulton showed his entrepreneurial talents by equipping his ship with fairly luxurious sleeping berths, a saloon, and a ladies' lounge. In 1807, Fulton christened his ship the “Clermont.” The boat ended up costing $20,000 to build, a considerable sum in those days.

Fulton set out to test his steamboat prototype on August 17, 1807. He planned to travel along the Hudson River, from New York City to Albany and back. A large crowd gathered to see what this bizarre new baot could do. Amazingly, most of those present were jeering at “Fulton’s Folly” and nearly everyone expected that the crude steamboat would fail miserably. The steam engine started up with great noise and smoke and the Clarmont began to lurch forward. But soon after it had begun, the ship stalled and refused to move any further, just as everyone had expected. Fulton and his staff franticly searched for the problem and tried to get the Clarmont moving again while the crowd snickered and jeered all the more. A half-hour later, Fulton’s efforts paid off and the mighty paddles began to churn again. The Clarmont averaged about 5 miles per hour moving against the Hudson’s current. The strange ship bewildered and shocked bystanders as it slow made its way up river. A scant 32 hours and 150 miles after it set out from New York City, the Clarmont reached Albany. The Clarmont then made the return trip to New York in 30 hours and Robert Fulton returned the most famous man in America. Upon his return, Fulton triumphantly proclaimed, "The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved." "Fulton’s folly" had proven all the naysayers wrong.

Robert Fulton didn’t invent the steamship with the Clarmont, but he was the very first steamboat to be a practical and financial success. Indeed, Fulton’s folly made Fulton a very rich and famous man. On September 4th he put the Clarmont into commercial service, charging $7 per ticket. The state of New York granted Fulton the exclusive rights to steamboat transport on the Hudson River(the monopoly was not deemed unconstitutional until 1825).

Fulton’s folly opened a new age in maritime history. The new steamboats opened up the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase to settlement and commercial enterprise. Within a few short years of Fulton’s successful trial with the Clarmont, steamships were cruising most American rivers, particularly the Mississippi River. Steamboats dominated personal and freight transport in America until the rise of the railroad in the late 19th century. If Fulton’s folly had turned out to be as big a folly as it was expected to be, the development of the American interior would have been severely hampered.

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