FULTON, Robert (1765-1815), inventor. Autograph letter signed ("Robt Fulton") to Dr. [William] Thornton, head of the U.S. Patent Office in Washington; New York, 27 December 1807. 1 page, 4to (9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in.), integral address leaf with panel in Fulton's hand, recipient's docket later. In very fine condition.
THE INVENTOR OF THE STEAMBOAT ENQUIRES ABOUT ELI WHITNEY'S COTTON GIN
A fine letter, written the same year that Fulton's underwater torpedo was demonstrated in New York harbor (on 20 July) and his prototype steamboat, the Clermont, made her maiden voyage up the Hudson and back (on 17-22 August). "Mr. John R. Livingston of New York wishes to be informed of the particular Qualities of the machine which Gins and spins cotton at the same time; It has occurred to me that it might be particularly useful for coarse thread or candle wick, will you have the goodness to give your opinion, on its execution; where is the patentee, what his terms, where or how can he get one made and what the expence? I shall not see the Chancellor [Livingston] until I arrive at Clermont [Livingstone's home on the Hudson River]...."
Thornton (1759-1828), an engineer himself, had successfully demonstrated a steam-powered craft on the Delaware River before the members of the Constitutional Convention, but Fulton's vessel, the Clermont, named after the Hudson River estate of his patron, John R. Livingston, became the first commercially viable steamboat. Thornton headed the U.S. Patent Office from 1807-1828, and was the winner in the architectural competition for the design of the U.S. Capitol. Whitney's revolutionary cotton gin, patented in 1794, proved difficult to manufacture and to market; a crucial patent infringement suit had been resolved in the Georgia courts in December 1807, and this may have been the event which prompted Fulton's letter on behalf of Livingston regarding the invention.