Our Collection

At the Institute’s core is the Gilder Lehrman Collection, one of the great archives in American history. More than 70,000 items cover five hundred years of American history, from Columbus’s 1493 letter describing the New World to soldiers’ letters from World War II and Vietnam. Explore primary sources, visit exhibitions in person or online, or bring your class on a field trip.

Fulton, Robert (1765-1815) to [Robert Livingston] re: discussion of the steam boat

High-resolution images are available to schools and libraries via subscription to American History, 1493-1943. Check to see if your school or library already has a subscription. Or click here for more information. You may also request a pdf of the image from us here.

Log in
subscribe to see this thumbnail image

Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC03107.04464 Author/Creator: Fulton, Robert (1765-1815) Place Written: Philadelphia, [Pa.] Type: Autograph letter signed Date: 1807/01/25 Pagination: 12p. 25.4 x 20.6

A high-resolution version of this object is available for registered users. LOG IN or SUBSCRIBE

Summary of Content: Fulton writes a letter to describe the innovations of the steam boat, and how he has calculated its certain success. Docketed on p.12.

Full Transcript: Philadelphia January the 25th, 1807
Dear Sir
On my return from Washington yesterday I received your letter of the 8th Inst. In this I will endavour to demonstrate the power of ...the steam boat, and you will judge of its Utility on the Mississipi or Hudson.
Four years ago Mr. Clarke who is now delegate from Orleans, was in Paris, I then expressed to him my wish to have the Velocity of the Mississipi ascertained and begged of him to get it measured; I met him at Washington he informed me that he had it measured in several places his account is as follows: The rise of the water commences in february and diminishes to its slowest movements, in June, during this time of 5 months the current in mid channel is from 2½ to 3 miles an hour. and along shore 2 miles an hour
From June to February 7 months the current is in mid channel from 1 ½ to 2 miles an hour. Along shore one mile an hour. On my arrival at Lancaster I called on Mr. Ellicot who some years ago measured the current from the Ohio through the whole length of the Mississipi to Orleans, and found its Velocity as before [2] stated and nearly uniform
The secretary of War Genl Dearborn has been so good as to send orders to the officers of government stationed near the Mississipi, to measure its current in various parts and at different seasons of the year, which will no doubt establish facts. But resting at present on the information of Messrs Clarke and Ellicot. that is for 5 months 3 miles an hour & for 7 months 2 miles an hour I will now see what can be gained against such a stream, And if you will have the goodness to consider the following calculations you will see the great difficulty if not impossibility of driving a boat more than 5 miles an hour in still water, with such steam engines as are now known; and as yet I have not seen any engine or plan of an engine either by steam of a high temperature, or condensation which is so good as Mr. Watts: The one I have is on his most approved and Simple construction, it is 24 inches diameter & And has a 4 foot Stroke the superfices of the piston is 576 round inches, which at 8 lb purchase clear of friction and all deductions gives 4608 lb which [3] if the engine works well aught to run 3 feet a second equal 23½ double strokes a minuet; but that my calculations may not be pushed to an extreme point I will suppose the engine to make 15 double strokes a minuet I Shall then have 4603 lb moving two feet a second,
Should it be required to drive the boat 4 miles an hour, such speed is equal to 6 feet a second, while the piston runs but two feet in a second, the difference therefore is as three to one, and 4608 lb the power of the piston being divided by 3 gives 1536 lb, half of which will be consumed in the reaction of the paddles, and thus I have 768 to drive the Boat Do. for the paddles That is 768 lb will be felt at the end of the paddles thus
The paddes striking back with a power of 768 lb and overcoming a resistance of 768 lb at the bow. Let us now see if the, [4] Intended boat for Merchandise on the Mississipi will require this power, Suppose the boat 12 feet wide 80 feet long drawing two feet of water she would displace 1920 Cube feet, of water or 55 tons
The Engine with the water in the boiler and the whole machinery will weigh………20 tons
Boat say…………………………………………………………………............20 tons
Fuel for two or three days, and Sundries, 15 tons
55 tons
Such boat which I will hereafter shew must draw other boats, will present a bow to the water of 24 feet but which being on an angle of 60 degrees thus will make a resistance equal to 12 flat feet and require [illustration] 576 lb for the boat Do for the paddles. (to run 4 miles an hour). this leaves me a surplus of 384 lb to overcome the friction on the sides and bottoms of the succeeding boats as Shall be hereafter shewn- You will remember it was established by satisfactory experiment at Paris, that whatever may be the Velocity of a steam boat in still water, the speed of the current she has to act against must be deducted, and when running with the stream the speed of the current [5] must be added, Therefore having calculated the Steam boat at 4 miles an hour in still water, and the mississipi running two miles, I Shall gain two miles an hour Against the currents, which is equal 48 miles in 24 hours but for delays to take in fuel and unknown circumstances say 30 Miles in 24 hours. the voyage from New Orleans to Ohio 1,000 miles would be performed in 34 days which now requires 90 which dispatch is of much importance to merchants
To transport such a quantity of Merchandise as will render the Enterprise lucrative, the steam boat must carry fuel for only two or three days with accommodation for the boatmen and passengers should there be any, and she must draw after her a line of merchant boats thus [illustration]
Suppose each boat formed square at the ends and chained 6 inches or a foot from each other. the column of water between each will be carried along with them, and no resistance will be formed more than were it one long boat; that is the friction on the bottom and sides which is inconsiderable [6] this is a curious and important fact, and I believe the only mode in which a steam boat can be made to transport merchandise. the boats thus in a chain bend to the rivers sinuosities and follow in the [weak] wake of each other. there must perhaps be a man on each boat to Steer with an oar or pole,
Suppose each boat 40 feet long 12 wide drawing 2 feet of water she would carry 20 tons. 15 Such boats would carry 300 tons forming a line of 225 yards like a raft; having in these calculations kept within the power of the engine and given the full resistance to the Velocity of the boat and current of the river I am convinced that merchandise to this amount and speed is practicable, and if so the following is the prospect of emolument
The shipping entered at New Orleans last year 1806
From foreign ports ……………………………………………………………34,000 tons
From American ports ………...……………………………………………… 16 000 Do

Exports of Cotton …….………………………………….12,000 tons
Do. of Sugar…………………………………………….. 3,000 Do
[7] This exhibits the great existing trade.
The distance from New Orleans to Natches is by Land 225 miles by Water 270 miles, the expence of carriage is D1 .. 25 C the hundred or 25 dollars the Ton, the time required is 18 days which is only 15 miles a day. The steam boat would make the same voyage in 9 days and take from 100 to 300 tons, say two hundred tons 6 such voyages might be made in a year equal to 1200 tons - at 25 dollars a ton equal 30,000 dollars but suppose this quantity to be carried for one third less than is at present paid on 20,000 dollars. the expences to be deducted from this will be as follows
10 percent on the value of the engine and Boats which allows for wear and tare estimating them at 15,000 dollars………………………………………………………………1500
60 days coals, 40 bushels a day at 50 Cents
the Bushes which is the price of liverpool cash at Orleans …………………..1200
8 men at 30 dollars a month ………………………………………………….2880
This on the carriage of so small a quantity as 1200 tons gives 14,200 dollars a year profit, such is the estimate on short carriage
[8] From New Orleans to the Ilinois the price is 5 dollars the hundred, distance 1,000 miles time 90 days this is 11 Miles a day
500 Tons are carried each year from New Orleans to Kentucky at 4 dollars the hundred. this amounts to 40,000 dollars distance 1,000 miles time 90 days
The steam boat could make 3 Such voyages in a year and transport 900 tons. which at 3 dollars the hundred, would be 54.000 dollars. from which deduct the expences . . . . 5580 $ and there remains a profit of 48,420, $ In all these calculations I have not estimated return trade And passengers which would perhaps pay the expences-
This is a fair calculation on the prospect of emolument Arising from one establishment of boats on the Mississipi A trade which will increase with the population and in proportion as the communication is made cheap And easy by Art; a trade of 10,000 tons a year At 3 dollars a hundred would equal 600,000 dollars [9] such trade would require 12 sets of boats at the expence of Say 7,000 dollars a year each or 84,000 dollars leaving a profit of more than 500,000 dollars a year -
There is a bill now before congress to prolong patents to 28 years should it pass and my calculations prove correct, the patent in contemplation will be the most lucrative that ever was obtained.
Having said somuch of the Mississipi you will judge of the Hudson by the following calculations
I believe a Boat 100 feet long 12 feet wide maybe made to carry 100 passengers and not draw more than 18 inches of water, she consequently will present a bow equal to 9 flat feet suppose it required to drive such a boat 5 miles an hour that is equal to 7½ feet a second, say 8 feet this is 4 times faster than the piston, therefore divide 4603 the power of the piston by 4 equal 1152 lb halve this for the boat Do for the paddles equal 576 lb whereas to drive the 9 feet bow 5 miles an hour requires 675 lb here we see the difficulty of gaining 5 miles; though 4½ maybe accomplished; Suppose then 4½ and the tide 1½ equal 6 miles an hour; and we could [10] follow up the tide for 15 hours, it would give 90 miles then tide against us for 7 hours we should gain 3 miles an hour equal 21 miles this tide in favour for 6 hours we should accomplish the voyage in 28 hours- that is if this theory be right and of this you can judge much better than I can.
Suppose a voyage up or down to be made in every 48 hours, the expence would be about 40 bushels of coals north……………………………………………………………….20 dollars
4 men at a dollar a day each …………………………………………………………8
Wear and tare and interest of the engine 6
leaves a profit of
If a hundred passengers at 3 dollars each equal 300 dollars T 266 $ allowing 300 working days in the year free from ice and casualtes 150 such voyages might be made in a year equal 39.960 $ a year This looks better on paper than I at first supposed but I am afraid it will not all prove true, either there are not so many passengers or they will not pay so much, or the tide will not favor us so much as here calculated - That the [11] Boat can be made to run 4 ½ miles an hour in still water is certain, you will therefore have the goodness to reflect on all these calculations, the subject is an important one, and merits to be prosecuted with vigor. but always within the limits of calculations amounting to demonstration, please to let me know when you will be at New York or where we can meet to fix a plan of operations;
I Still advise you to hold half of this enterprise or let any part of your half which you may be disposed to part with be transferred to some one of your family. if to one who would be willing to devote part of his time to it and become master of the subject and aid in the establishments he perhaps will never find a more easy or certain road to ample fortune, the experiments have been satisfactory made, and the demonstrations are such as leaves little doubt of success; and the expences for the first establishment will not be more than 6,000 dollars I mean 6,000 in addition to my present advance which is 1150? sterling or 5111 dollars please to write me An answer to
this to Mrs. Woods N.o 312 High Street [12] Philadelphia, and You will find propriety of keeping the Information and prospects which this letter contains as secret as possible till our patent for the states be secured;
I return my thanks to the Ladies for their goodness. And in return kind souls I will make all their fortunes pin mony shall be as abundant as the hearts most ampl wish; but for this patience & faith are necessary. M.r. and M.rs Barlow who love you all, desire me to mention their sincere esteem & respect; you were not at Clermont when they passed to and from the north, or even with her bad health they would have been delighted to visit you,

Yours Sincerely
Rob.t Fulton
1807- Jan 7-

See More

People: Fulton, Robert, 1765-1815
Livingston, Robert R., 1746-1813

Historical Era: The New Nation, 1783-1815

Subjects: SteamboatInventorInventionScience and TechnologyTransportation

Sub Era: The Age of Jefferson & Madison

Order a Copy Citation Guidelines for Online Resources