Fulton, Robert, 1765–1815, American inventor, engineer, and painter, b. near Lancaster, Pa. He was a man remarkable for his many talents and his mechanical genius. An expert gunsmith at the time of the American Revolution, he later turned to painting (1782–86) landscapes and portraits in Philadelphia. In England and France his painting gained some notice, but he became interested in canal engineering and the invention of machinery. He worked at making underwater torpedoes and submarines as well as other mechanical devices. In 1802 he contracted to build a steamboat for Robert R. Livingston, who held a monopoly on steamboat navigation on the Hudson. In 1807 the Clermont, equipped with an English engine, was launched. A number of men had built steamboats before Fulton (see steamship), including John Fitch and William Symington. Fulton's steamship, however, was the first to be commercially successful in American waters, and Fulton was therefore popularly considered the inventor of the steamboat. He also designed other vessels, among them a steam warship.
See biographies by B. Richnak (1984) and C. O. Philip (1985).