Steamboats:  The Race is Not Always to the Swift  [1787 CE – 1812 CE]

As often, the adjectives and adverbs gave the game away.  When I was in grade school Robert Fulton was casually credited with inventing the steamboat in 1807 CE.  As my education proceeded, statements regarding Fulton’s achievements were more and more hedged.  The more reliable secondary sources now carefully attribute the first commercially successful steamboat in North America to Fulton.  This formulation glosses over, among other things, tangled legal and financial details that do not enhance the reputations of Fulton, several of the Founding Fathers, or the young American Republic.

Twenty years before Fulton’s launch, John Fitch had demonstrated a functioning steamboat to observers including delegates from the Constitutional Convention [1787].  Fitch had read of James Watt’s efforts in the United Kingdom and, collaborating with a Philadelphia inventor named Henry Voigt, created a working steam engine to power his boat.

In 1790 Fitch launched the first commercial steamboat service in America, providing transportation between Philadelphia and Trenton.  This boat was faster than the stagecoach, at half the price.  Estimates of the distance traveled by Fitch’s steamboat that summer range from 1,300 to 3,000 miles [2100 to 4800 km].  Fitch claimed the vessel often ran 500 miles [800 km] between maintenance repairs.  His ultimate goal was the Mississippi River trade.  His service between Philadelphia and Trenton, however, was plagued by slow public acceptance and mismanagement by his financial partners.

Fitch’s boat was propelled by sets of oars rather than a paddlewheel.  This may have been in part a response to Ben Franklin’s very public dismissal of paddlewheels for boats.  Franklin favored using a stream of water to power the movement of boats, similar in concept to the design of modern jet skis.

Fitch had asked George Washington for support when they met in November of 1785.  Washington had already been approached by James Rumsey, who was also developing a steamboat.  Rumsey had not worked out a reliable method of propulsion, but had designed a water tube boiler that held the potential for significantly improving engine efficiency.  Washington had endorsed Rumsey’s efforts.

Fitch asked Washington for a letter of introduction to the Virginia Assembly.  Washington refused without giving any reason.  James Madison enabled Fitch to approach the Assembly, which offered encouragement but no funding.  Governor Patrick Henry suggested a subscription scheme.

Ben Franklin offered Fitch some moral encouragement, which turned to insult when Franklin’s response to Fitch’s further explanations was to proffer five or six dollars rummaged from a desk drawer.  Fitch, who must have struggled to maintain his composure, declined and left.

Thomas Jefferson, head of the nation’s first patent board, granted Fitch a patent on his steamboat design in 1791. Jefferson also granted patents dated the same day for steam engines to three other men, including James Rumsey.   Jefferson’s handling of the patent applications ultimately proved disastrous to both Fitch and Rumsey.  Because Fitch did not receive an exclusive patent, several of his key investors withdrew, leaving his commercial enterprise financially unviable.

Fitch, also holding a patent from France, lined up an investor and made plans to develop steamboats there.  France had been the site of experiments on the Saône with a paddle steamboat powered by a Newcomen engine as early as 1783.  Traveling in 1793, Fitch arrived just as the Reign of Terror was beginning.  After fleeing France and failing to find support in London, Fitch returned to the United States   in 1794.

Following a few more fruitless attempts to find funding for his steamboat projects, Fitch moved to lands in Kentucky he had acquired in the early 1780s.  They were occupied by squatters.  Fitch was tied up in legal disputes regarding land titles until his death in 1798.

He left a model engine to his daughter.  Staff from the Smithsonian Museum examined it in the 1950s and declared it to be a practical prototype of a land engine for a vehicle to operate on tracks, in other words, a steam locomotive.

Fulton, who used an imported English engine on his steamboat 17 years after Fitch launched his service in Philadelphia with an American-made engine, could not get a patent for steamboats.  With the aid of political efforts on his behalf by the well-connected Robert Livingston, however, Fulton did receive a 20 year monopoly for steamboat traffic on the Hudson from the State of New York.

Fulton, along with Livingston, organized ventures in which Nicholas Roosevelt, the great-grand-uncle of Theodore Roosevelt, traveled from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.  Roosevelt first made the journey on a flatboat with his pregnant wife.

After returning north, he retraced his route, piloting the first steamboat on the Mississippi [1811 – 1812].  Traveling with his again pregnant wife Lydia and their toddler, they were en route when the New Madrid earthquake struck, creating a temporary waterfall on the Mississippi and locally reversing the river’s flow.  Despite this and other adventures, The Roosevelt’s completed their trip downstream to New Orleans.  Then, more importantly, they steamed upstream against the current to Natchez, opening the Mississippi to two-way traffic, and providing a model for the transportation needed to unite and develop the center of the United States.

Further Reading:

  • Andrea Sutcliffe describes the development of steamboats in America with balanced insights regarding the technology, personalities, social context, legal proceedings, and commercial considerations involved in Steam: The Untold Story of America’s First Great Invention.
  • The Autobiography of John Fitch, based on his journals and memoirs, is fascinating reading.
  • Mary Dohan’s Roosevelt’s Steamboat describes Nicholas Roosevelt’s travels 1811 – 1812.
  • Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi is the product of deep love for and intimate knowledge of the river and steamboats. In many ways, it is his most genial and enjoyable book.

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