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Classroom Activity 1

Activity 1

• Divide the class into groups of four. Students will be told that they have been hired by Robert Fulton to help persuade the general public to use the steamboat for the movement of people and goods throughout the United States.

In order to sell the steamboat, students will give a four- to five-minute presentation in which they will:

  • Introduce Robert Fulton and his “new” invention.
  • Diagram how steam is used to move the steamboat.
  • Explain why the general public or businesses should use the steamboat, and describe the benefits.
  • Include other useful information that will help sell the steamboat.
Project Rubric


4 points

3 points

2 points

1-0 points

Introduction of Fulton and invention

Contains all appropriate facts and details about Fulton and the steamboat.

Contains some facts and details about Fulton and the steamboat.

Contains few facts and details about Fulton and the steamboat.

Contains no facts and details about Fulton and the steamboat.

Diagram how steam is used to move the steamboat

Message is very clear and is accurately conveyed through the diagram.

Message is clear and is conveyed through the diagram.

Message is somewhat clear as shown through the diagram.

Message is not clear as a result of poor use of the diagram.

Explain the economic benefits of the steamboat

Clearly identifies economic benefits.

Identifies economic benefits.

Vaguely conveys economic benefits.

Benefits are missing or cannot be identified.

Overall effect

Presentation is very appealing. It is very well organized and contains all of the appropriate information.

Presentation is appealing. It is organized and contains appropriate information.

Presentation is somewhat appealing. It is mostly organized and contains some appropriate information.

Presentation is not appealing. It is disorganized and does not contain appropriate information.

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Background Information
Assign half of the class the job of persuading the general public and the other half the job of persuading businesses. Before students can make a presentation, they should gain some understanding of Robert Fulton and steamboat travel. They should also consider the pros and cons of persuading any individual or business to use a new form of technology. The following sample documents and instructional strategies can be used as a starting point.

• Have students read a short biography of Robert Fulton, like the sample found in the link below. Portions of any biography may need to be edited for clarity and readability. Assign each group the task of listing three to five important things about Fulton that can be used to sell his steamboat as a form of transportation. Students should ask questions about his life, his previous experience with boat making, and the first voyage of the Clermont. Sample questions are below.

Biography of Robert Fulton

Source: Allen Johnson & Dumas Malone (eds.),
Dictionary of American Biography, 1943
Courtesy of the New York State Library

  1. What skills did Fulton develop as a child? Describe how these skills led to his interest and ability in boat making.
  2. What boat-building experience did Fulton gain while living in France
  3. How did the steamboat work?
  4. How fast could the Clermont travel on the Hudson River?
  5. What did Fulton do after his steamboat became a success?

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Next, have students read the following newspaper accounts of the first successful trip of Fulton's steamboat, the Clermont. The second account was written by Fulton himself and directed to the newspaper's editors. Have students answer the questions below either individually or in their groups after they complete the reading.

Mr. Fulton's ingenious [original] Steam Boat, invented with a view to the navigation of the Mississippi from New-Orleans upwards, sails to-day from the North River, near the State Prison, to Albany. The velosity [sic] of the Steam Boat is calculated at four miles a hour; it is said that it will make a progress of two against the current of the Mississippi; and if so it will certainly be a very valuable acquisition [addition] to the commerce of the Western States.

New York American Citizen, August 17, 1807
Courtesy of the New York State Library

New York, August 20.

To the Editor of the American Citizen:


I arrived this afternoon at 4 o'clock, in the steam boat, from Albany. As the success of my experiment gives me great hope that such boats may be rendered of much importance to my country, to prevent erroneous [inaccurate] opinions, and give some satisfaction to the friends of useful improvements, you will have the goodness to publish the following statement of facts:

I left New-York on Monday at 1 o'clock, and arrived at Clermont, the seat of Chancellor Livingston, at 1 o'clock on Tuesday, time 24 hours, distance 110 miles; on Wednesday I departed from the Chancellor's at 9 in the morning, and arrived at Albany at 5 in the afternoon, distance 40 miles, time 8 hours; the sum of this is 150 miles in 32 hours, equal near 5 miles an hour.

On Thursday, at 9 o'clock in the morning, I left Albany, and arrived at the Chancellor's at 6 in the evening; I started from thence [there] at 7, and arrived at New-York on Friday at 4 in the afternoon; time 30 hours, space run through 150 miles, equals 5 miles an hour. Throughout the whole way my going and returning the wind was ahead; no advantage could be drawn from my sails - the whole has, therefore, been performed by the power of the steam engine.

I am, Sir, Your most obedient, Robert Fulton.

[below the letter]: We congratulate Mr. Fulton and the country on his success in the Steam Boat, which cannot fail of being very advantageous [favorable]. We understand that not the smallest inconvenience is felt in the boat either from heat or smoke.

New York American Citizen, August 22, 1807
Courtesy of the New York State Library

  1. How much time did the journey take from New York City to Albany? From Albany back to New York City? What was the average speed?
  2. Why was the Clermont's first trip considered a success?
  3. What implications did the success of the Clermont's first trip have for travel throughout the country?
  4. Why would Fulton write such a letter to the editor of a newspaper?

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• Next, have students analyze a line drawing of a steamboat engine. Students should explain through pictures and words how the engine powers the steamboat. Assign students to compare this engine to the ways that other types of boats are powered. Students can list the advantages and disadvantages of these various types of power.

The Engine of the Clermont,
Charles Hallenbeck, Annals of Steamboating on the Hudson River

gearing of the clermont engine

Courtesy of: New York State Library
(the smudges are from the glue leeching through from the back of the print)

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• Students should examine paintings and drawings of a full steamboat to understand its design. Using the painting below, they should prepare an explanation on how a steamboat operates. They should also list advantages to moving people and goods using this type of boat.

Richard Varick De Witt (1858), Clermont (Three-Part Study)

Richard Varick De Witt (1858), Clermont (Three-Part Study)

Courtesy of: Albany Institute of History & Art

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• Students should also explain how new modes of transportation change life. Using the painting below, they can describe how a steamboat could impact the daily life of villages, towns, and cities across New York State and the United States. They should list evidence from the painting to support their description.

Edward Lamson Henry (1910), Clermont Making a Landing at Cornwall
Edward Lamson Henry (1910), Clermont Making a Landing at Cornwall

Courtesy of: Albany Institute of History & Art

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• Students should generate their own questions in order to complete their research for the presentation. Provide them with the following questions as a guide. As they list group responses to these questions, have them brainstorm and respond to any other questions that can help sell the steamboat to businesses and individuals.

  1. How does steam power move a steamboat?
  2. Why would a business or a passenger not want to use a steamboat for transportation?
  3. What is projected to be the overall effect of the steamboat on transportation throughout New York State and the United States in 5 years? In 10 years?

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