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No. 156:
Fulton's Battery-catamaran

Today, we ride Robert Fulton's last boat. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Robert Fulton built his first steamboat in 1807. Steamboats caught on very quickly after that, and when the War of 1812 began -- five years later -- he pitched in to design a steam warship -- a really remarkable boat. Let's begin by looking at the Achilles' heel of a steamboat. It's the paddle-wheel. One well-placed shot, and crunch; the boat is stopped.

Every warship since the Monitor and the Merrimack has solved that problem with submerged propellers. But boat propellers had been around for only two decades in 1812. They were still pretty primitive. Paddle wheels almost had to be used back then.

So in 1813 Fulton unveiled his radical ship designed to protect the paddle-wheel. It had two hulls side by side, with the paddle-wheel in the middle -- out of harm's way. He created a catamaran, 150 feet long and 60 feet wide, with a 14-foot slot down the center.

People had trouble naming this strange boat. Fulton called it Demologos, or "the word of the people." But the Navy called it, variously, the Fulton Steam Frigate, the Steam Battery, and Fulton the First. In any event, its double keel was laid in June, 1814, and it was launched that October. Four months later the war ended, and Robert Fulton died. He was only 50 years old.

The Navy went on to finish the ship, shake it down, and correct a few deficiencies. They were clearly pleased with Fulton's design. The ship saw peacetime service in the New York harbor area until one summer day in 1829. That afternoon, a gunner went below to the powder magazine to get gun-powder for the evening salute. He carried a candle with him -- and managed to set off 2½ kegs of gunpowder. 24 men, one woman, and the ship itself perished in the resulting blast.

Fulton might have rewritten naval history, but for two things. One was the end of the War of 1812. The other was the development of the screw propeller. The next radical step in naval warships was the Union Monitor. It was built almost fifty years later, and it was propeller-driven.

Still, Fulton's ingenious double-hull steam-warship was copied many times over during the 19th century. It was such a deliciously good idea -- the sort of thing designers don't like to let go of -- even after its purpose has passed.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Part of this story is told by Flexner, J. T., Steamboats Come True. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1944, 1978.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1674.