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Who is Robert Fulton?

by Colleen Slentz

Robert Fulton is a figure in history whose achievements, while well-known, are mired in reservations because of his dubious character. Although his perfection and commercialization of the steamboat undoubtedly had a profound effect on American history, his is a rarely celebrated, mostly unknown and hardly ever loved persona. This probably has something to do with his almost maniacal obsession with torpedoes and other weapons of war, and his willingness to market them illegally and treasonously to the French. An extremely miserly man, Fulton had even fewer admirers in life than he has in death, and lies in a grave belonging to another man.

Fulton neither invented nor perfected the steamboat. What he did do, however, was effectively market and produce it. He first did this in the city of New York. The steamboat's first commercial voyage was taken up the Hudson to Albany. The success of this trip and subsequent ones was only a forerunner of the steamboat industry that was to follow. Fulton operated on both the Hudson and East Rivers. The latter was based out of none other than present-day South Street Seaport, and in 1816, the street connecting these two operations was named after the man, in one of the few recognitions history has accorded him. The famous, and unfortunately late, Fulton Fish Market, also carries his name, but was named more after the street than the man.

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