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Alexander Graham Bell did not invent the telephone, Antonio Meucci did; Thomas A. Edison did not invent the phonograph as we know it, Emile Berliner did; and Robert Fulton did not invent the steamboat, a score of inventors preceded him. But Fulton conceived and built the first efficient and profitable steamboat, and heralded a new age of transportation.
Fulton was born in 1765 in New Britain (now Fulton), Pennsylvania. His father died when he was 3. Growing up, Fulton enjoyed drawing and spending time with gunsmiths more than he did reading books. His teachers were not impressed; they thought he was dull. He was not; he just had a mind of his own. When one teacher rapped his knuckles with a ruler for being inattentive, Fulton said: "Sir, I came here to have something beaten into my head and not into my hand."
His ingenuity manifested itself early. When the community ran short of candles for Fourth of July festivities, Fulton astonished revelers by firing exploding rockets he had fashioned into the night sky and lighting up the town.
At 17, Fulton moved to Philadelphia to pursue a career in art; he painted portraits and miniatures to earn a living. Benjamin Franklin took notice of his work and suggested that he could become a greater painter by studying abroad. Franklin provided Fulton with a letter of recommendation to Benjamin West, a painter to the court of George III, founder of the Royal Academy, and known in London as the "American Raphael."