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.
Robert 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
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
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.