The SS Savannah left May 22, 1819, from Savannah, Georgia, and 25 days later arrived in Liverpool, England, completing the first trans-Atlantic voyage by steamship. To pay tribute to the American Merchant Marine, President Franklin Roosevelt designated May 22, 1933, as National Maritime Day.
Ronald Reagan commented, May 20, 1986: “When steam-powered vessels began to eclipse sailing ships in the latter part of the 19th century, it was largely the result of pioneering work by two Americans, John Fitch and Robert Fulton.”
As a young man, Robert Fulton met Benjamin Franklin, who was renown as an inventor. In fact, Franklin had written on using steam to propel boats and supported the earlier inventor James Rumsey in his attempt develop steam-powered jet propulsion.
Another inventor competing for patent protection was John Fitch, whose design was to use a steam engine attached to a bank of oars to paddle the boat. Samuel Morey successfully invented a steam power paddle wheel, but he lacked financial backing. John Stevens built a screw-driven steamboat in 1802.
Robert Fulton went to France where he successfully developed the first practical submarine in 1800, but Napoleon was uninterested. When told of Robert Fulton’s plan for a steam-powered engine, Napoleon Bonaparte replied: “What, sir? You would make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her decks? I pray you excuse me. I have no time to listen to such nonsense.”
Robert Fulton secured the financial backing of New York founding father Chancellor Robert Livingston, who was on the committee with Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence. With Livingston’s support, Robert Fulton built the first commercial steamboat, Clermont. In 1807, the Clermont carried passengers 150 miles from New York City to the state capital of Albany in just 32 hours.
In “The Thorny Road of Honor,” 1856, Hans Christian Anderson wrote: “We are in America, on the margin of one of the largest rivers, an innumerable crowd has gathered, for it is said that a ship is to sail against the wind and weather. … The man who thinks he can solve the problem is named Robert Fulton.”
Hans Christian Anderson continued: “The ship begins its passage, but suddenly stops. The crowd begins to laugh. … Then suddenly … the wheels turn again … the ship continues its course … between the builder of the bridge and the earth – between Providence and the human race.”
Called “the father of steam navigation,” Robert Fulton wrote about his first trip from New York City to Albany on the ship Clermont, Aug. 7, 1807: “The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved. The morning I left New York there were not perhaps thirty persons in the city who believed that the boat would ever move one mile an hour or be of the least utility; and, while we were putting off from the wharf, which was crowded with spectators, I heard a number of sarcastic remarks. …”
Robert Fulton continued: “It was the early autumn of the year 1807 that a knot of villagers was gathered on a high bluff just opposite Poughkeepsie, on the west bank of the Hudson, attracted by the appearance of a strange, dark looking craft, which was slowly making its way up the river. Some imagined it to be a sea monster, while others did not hesitate to express their belief that it was a sign of the approaching judgment. What seemed strange in the vessel was the … lofty and straight black smoke-pipes rising from the deck, instead of the gracefully tapered masts. … The working-beam and pistons and the slow turning and splashing of the huge and naked paddle-wheels met the astonished gaze. The dense clouds of smoke, as they rose wave upon wave, added still more to the wonderment of the rustics.”
Robert Fulton’s statue was placed in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall by the State of Pennsylvania in 1889.
Ronald Reagan stated June 11, 1981: “The future has always looked bleak til people with brains and faith … found a way to make it better, people like Robert Fulton.”
Ninety percent of the world’s goods are transported by sea and the waterways. There are approximately 1.2 million seafarers worldwide in 10,000 commercial ships and maritime vessels.
The National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for Mariners and People of the Sea is celebrated May 22.
Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, Georgia, promoter of Apostleship of the Sea (AOS), stated: “Mariners serve the needs of human kind in quiet and unobtrusive ways. These hardworking men and women contribute to global economic vitality. The nature of the industry requires their absence from home and family for many months without a break. Their labor and sacrifice make possible our access to the goods of the world.”
On National Maritime Day in Washington, D.C., 2012, Rev. Canon James D. Von Dreele, vice president of the North American Maritime Ministry Association, stated: “I am honored once again to make a presentation at this observance of the 2012 National Maritime Day. … Not a ship in ancient times was launched or set out on a voyage without proper prayers. … The Bible is filled with sailing images and some of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen. Seafarers … look for special blessings for their ships from the church. … The launching of new builds requires a minister to bless the ship. … Maritime ministry got its start in America in the early 1800s. Earnest church clergy and laity formed missions in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, the prime ports of this nascent nation. … Their prime concerns were the religious, moral and physical well-being of seafarers.”
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