In the summer of 1787, two events that would change the course of human history converged in Philadelphia. The first, of course, was the writing of the U.S. Constitution. The second was the running of the world’s first fairly reliable machine-powered vessel. To call it a steamboat would be correct, but it didn’t look anything like the Mississippi riverboats that came later. Alongside the graceful sloops and schooners on the Delaware, it stood out, an ugly duckling among swans. A dozen crank-driven oars, mounted six to a side on a large wooden rack, creaked and groaned as they slowly pushed the boat along. The inventor of this odd contrivance was a tattered genius named John Fitch, who had started out wanting to build a steam-powered car.
Steam power was an idea whose time was at hand, the motive force the new nation needed to help secure its economic independence. After the Revolution, George Washington’s chief concern was how to unify a country divided by a hundred-mile-wide mountain range. He was certain that trade was the key to binding the two halves, but the roads of the day were hardly more than trails, and carting goods across the Appalachians was difficult, slow, dangerous, and expensive. Across the mountains, the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and their tributaries formed a network of natural superhighways. But without boats that could move upstream as easily as down, those rivers were one-way only.
In September 1784, less than a year after resigning his military commission, Washington crossed the mountains to examine road, river, and canal possibilities for connecting the Potomac River with points west. Five days into his trip, he met a Virginia millwright named James Rumsey, who showed him a model of a boat that could move upstream. Excited by the boat’s potential, Washington publicly supported Rumsey’s plan for a mechanical, pole boat driven by a water wheel. A year later, he would reject John Fitch’s plea of support for his steamboat idea. It may have mattered that Rumsey was a well-dressed, well-mannered southern gentleman, while Fitch was a straight-talking New Englander in threadbare clothes.
Steamboat Pamphlet Wars Between Rumsey and Fitch
Washington warned Rumsey about Fitch, and the steamboat wars began with acrimonious pamphlets. These two men spent the next several years fighting each other, their investors, politicians, and the world in general. With nothing to lose but their pride, they refused to work together, and they each refused to quit.
The scientific leaders of the day—Benjamin Franklin and David Rittenhouse in particular—didn’t believe steamboats would ever work well enough to be practical. Franklin, in fact, would have been dismayed to learn that he inadvertently hindered steamboat development. In a paper he published on his return from France in 1785, just as the steamboat inventors were getting started, Franklin theorized that paddlewheels were an inefficient way to propel boats. He proposed using air- or water-jet propulsion instead. Because Rumsey and Fitch were desperate for Franklin’s approval, neither man ever gave paddlewheels a try. Rumsey went for jet propulsion, while Fitch used paddles that dipped in and out of the water like the oars of a canoe. Paddlewheels were never as efficient as the screw propellers that came much later, but given the weak engines of the day, they beat jet propulsion hands down.
In the spring of 1786, Fitch came to Philadelphia determined to build his steamboat. His first challenge was to devise a Watt-type steam engine without the benefit of ever having seen one. Although the English manufacturing firm of Boulton & Watt had recently begun selling steam engines, a new British law banned their export. Not a single Watt engine existed in America. Undaunted, Fitch formed a company of investors, hired a clockmaker as his lead engineer, and coaxed blacksmiths to make precision parts. In the new Fitch’s unique 1786-87 steamboat republic’s heady first years, the belief that anything was possible and that individuals could make a difference (and perhaps a fortune) encouraged men like Fitch. “What cannot you do,” he told himself at the beginning of his quest, “if you will get yourself about it.”
Constitutional Convention Delegates Taken on a Cruise
On August 22, 1787, Fitch demonstrated his remarkable steamboat with unique canoe-like paddles to delegates attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and took several for a memorable ride on the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers.
Several months after Fitch’s 1787 success on the Delaware, Rumsey came to Philadelphia to attack Fitch head on, fuming that Fitch had stolen his idea. Not long after, Franklin and several other influential Philadelphians formed a company to send Rumsey to England, where he could apply for a patent for his boat design and simply buy a steam engine. Just days after he arrived, Rumsey met with Matthew Boulton and James Watt. They were so impressed with his plans that they offered him a partnership. But after several rounds, their negotiations broke down and Rumsey returned to London to go it alone. He spent the next few years dodging creditors while trying to build a water-jet-propelled steamboat on the Thames.
Fitch: Technological Triumph … Financial Disaster
By 1790 Fitch had redesigned his steamboat and built an engine reliable enough to run regular passenger service between Philadelphia and Trenton. But even at eight miles an hour—twice the speed of Fulton’s steamboats years later—he couldn’t compete with stagecoaches. Most of his investors bailed out for good when Thomas Jefferson, as head of the first patent board, awarded Fitch and Rumsey federal patents dated the same day. Jefferson’s unwillingness to choose one man over the other helped ruin both inventors. The government act that was meant to stimulate technological progress—and in fact was pushed into law to settle the steamboat wars—instead stifled it for many years.
Fitch and Rumsey persevered for a while longer, mocked by the public and dogged by bad luck. Rumsey died the day before his first scheduled steamboat trial in London. Fitch traveled to France for one last attempt but arrived to find himself in the middle of the Reign of Terror. The steamboat pioneers who followed—Oliver Evans, John Stevens, Samuel Morey, Nicholas Roosevelt, and a few others—faced similar hardships. In those days of steam technology, most citizens viewed inventors as self-indulgent crackpots, not pioneers of progress.
In 1806, Robert Fulton, after a string of failures in other endeavors, returned to America after living twenty years in Europe and made the steamboat a success. He was a shrewd and ambitious businessman who had money and advantages the early inventors could only dream of.
Fulton Builds the First Commercially Successful Steamboat
Fulton found the perfect partner in Robert R. Livingston, whose political pull gained them a twenty-year navigation monopoly on the Hudson River—geographically and commercially a perfect place to run a steamboat. Unlike his predecessors in steamboat building, Fulton by then was able to hire European immigrants who had mechanical expertise. Ignoring (or perhaps unaware of) Franklin’s warning, he used paddlewheels. By studying the failures and successes of the previous inventors, he knew what would work and what wouldn’t. Probably most important, a few years earlier he had craftily added a clause to his British militarycontract that allowed him to purchase and export a Boulton & Watt steam engine.
Although Fulton later received two U.S. patents, he never claimed to be the inventor of the steamboat. In fact, the head of the U.S. patent office in the early 1800s—a thorn in Fulton’s side for years—often declared that Fulton’s patents would be indefensible in court. But Fulton knew that navigation monopolies were better than patents, and he spent the last years of his life fighting to hold on to them. It would take a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court nearly a decade after his death to strike down his Hudson River monopoly as unconstitutional. After that, the steamboat business boomed in the east and on the Mississippi. By the mid-1800s, some six thousand steamboats were running on the Mississippi.
The effect of steamboats on the nation’s growth and economy was tremendous. Before they came along, it took four to six weeks to float a cargo-laden flatboat or barge downriver from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. It took another four months for the crew to walk back to their home port and start the process all over again. The high costs of labor, added to the product loss and spoilage that often occurred over such long periods, raised the price of goods to the point where they were nearly unaffordable. Trade languished. When the first Mississippi steamboat paddled up the river from New Orleans to Pittsburgh in 1815, it did so in twenty-five days, an enormous leap forward.
Steam engines transformed America. By the 1830s and for a century to come, they were powering not only boats and ships but railroad locomotives, mills, factories—and even cars. Productivity soared and prices dropped. The nation, united by trade made possible by easy transport, grew and prospered, as Washington had hoped. But it didn’t happen overnight. It had begun with the need for a boat that could push itself upstream and an idea for a steam-powered carriage.
© Copyright Andrea Sutcliffe 2004.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
The full story is given in the book “Steam, the Untold Story of America’s First Great Invention” by Andrea Sutcliffe. This limited-edition book is currently available for $24.95 from the John Fitch Steamboat Museum, Box 2042, Warminster, PA 18974.
Book reviewer John H. Lienhard wrote: “What a ride! It’s all there: duplicity, steamy intrigue, and scandal, with cameo roles played by Napoleon, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson Thomas Paine, and James Watt. My personal hero, the tormented American steamboat inventor, John Fitch, rises above the glorious fray like cream upon milk. His is a story whose incompleteness has dogged us over the years. Indeed, we are, at last, shown the full tapestry of the steamboat invention in one fast-moving book. Hard history and good fun. You’ll love it.”
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