CAN STEAM BE USED to propel boats on a commercial basis? That was the question occupying people’s minds in the early 1800s. No, steam will simply not work, said the eminent engineer Benjamin B. Latrobe in a paper delivered to the American Philosophical Society in 1803. Yes, steam will work, said an inventor called Robert Fulton.
Latrobe maintained that the reasons why steam wouldn’t work were these:
Ø The weight of the engine and fuel
Ø The large space the engine occupies
Ø The tendency of the engine to rack the vessel and cause leaks
Ø The expense of maintenance, and
Ø Problems with the paddles breaking (if light) or from their weight (if made strong).
Four years later, Latrobe’s face must have been very red when Fulton launched a ship 133 feet long with two British-made steam engines, a huge smoke stack, and (believe it or not) a huge tiller attached to an outboard rudder.
She was called the Clermont and on August 17, 1807, she chugged all the way from New York to Albany, 150 miles, and back at an average of 5 knots. Here is Fulton’s description of the voyage in a letter to a friend:
“My steamboat voyage to Albany and back has turned out rather more favorable than I had calculated. The distance from New York to Albany is 150 miles. I ran it up in 32 hours and down in 30. I had a light breeze against me the whole way, both going and coming, and the voyage has been performed wholly by the power of the steam engine.
“I overtook many sloops and schooners beating to windward and parted with them as if they had been at anchor. The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved. The morning I left New York there were not, perhaps, 30 persons in the city who believed the boat would even move one mile an hour, or be of the least utility; and while we were putting off from the wharf, which was crowded with spectators, I heard a number of sarcastic remarks.
“This is the way in which ignorant men compliment what they call philosophers and projectors.”
Steam enginitis is very catching.
— R. D. (“Pete”) Culler, boat designer and builder
“Why so gloomy?”
“I parked my car outside my house and my Seagull outboard was visible on the back seat. I came back just 10 minutes later. I found the car had been broken into — and someone had left another Seagull next to mine.”
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