No. 1674:
Fulton's Battery-Catamaran

Today, 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.

Fulton's first steamboat, The ClermontRobert Fulton was only forty-six, and at the peak of his powers, when the War of 1812 was declared. He'd built his first steamboat only five years before, and he already seemed to be on his way to creating a steamboat monopoly in America. He was hugely respected as both an engineer and an inventor.

Then war began, and Fulton returned to naval warfare -- which had been his consuming interest before he turned to steamboats. He tried to build a huge submarine. It was never finished, but a smaller version was. It washed up on shore with one hand dead. He tried to make a torpedo that could be shot from a harpoon gun. He was working on a nearly-submerged attack vessel. But the grandest item in the armory of Fulton's imagination was a remarkable steam warship, and it actually did see service.

The Achilles' heel of any steamboat during wartime was its paddlewheel. One well-placed shot would stop the boat. Most warships after the Monitor and the Merrimac solved that problem with submerged propellers. But propellers were very new, and still primitive, in 1812. Paddlewheels were an unavoidable liability.

So Fulton unveiled this radical new ship with a perfectly protected paddlewheel. It had two hulls, side by side, with the paddlewheel tucked away between them. What he'd created was a catamaran. It was a hundred and fifty feet long, sixty feet wide, and it had a slot, fourteen feet wide, down its 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 Fulton died from complications of a common cold.

The Navy finished the ship, corrected a few deficiencies, and was clearly pleased with the design. Demologos saw peacetime service in the New York Harbor area until late one summer day in 1829. A gunner went down to the powder magazine to get gunpowder for the evening salute. He carried a candle and managed to set off two-and-a-half kegs of powder. Twenty-four men, one woman, and the ship itself perished in the resulting blast.

Fulton might have rewritten naval history. But the war ended, and screw propellers came to maturity. We wouldn't see so radical a warship design again until we had the Union Monitor. That was almost fifty years later, and it was propeller-driven.

Fulton's double-hull warship eventually evolved into a series of Civil War steam gunboats with paddlewheels simply located inside. But now, after almost two centuries, the Navy once again has a true catamaran design in service. They are the ASR 21 Pigeon and ASR 22 Ortolan, and (as if to close back on Fulton) these are vessels especially designed for submarine rescue operations.

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 is a greatly revised version of Episode 156.

I do not have a good image of Demologos, but here's a modern catamaran naval vessel, The ASR 22 Ortolan:

ASR 22 Ortolan

Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton
From H. W. Dickenson, Robert Fulton: Engineer and Artist, London, 1913