History Timeline 1790s

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U.S. Timeline - The 1790s

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  • 1791 Detail

    August 26, 1791 - The steamboat is patented in the United States by John Fitch. First launched on the Delaware River in 1787, and operated passenger service from Philadelphia to Burlington, New Jersey, which proved unprofitable.

    Fitch Steamboat on Delaware River
    John Fitch had started to work on his plan for the steamboat in 1786 and was far enough along during the Constitutional Convention that he invited some of the politicians for his first public review on the Delaware River the next year, August 22, 1787. The ship was named the Perseverence. The test was a success, but it's rumoured the George Washington was in favor of another inventor working on the same idea.

    So without federal protection and no patent system in place, Fitch went to state legislatures for some protection. Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Virginia issued patents for his steamboat after the 1787 successful trial.

    Over the next several years Fitch ran additional tests and made the steamboat better with the assistance of Henry Voight. That boat was sixty feet long with stern mounted oars. He got financing for a third boat, which they intended to use commercially. It sped across the Delaware River from Philadelphia to Trenton, Burlington, Bordentown, and Wilmington, Delaware. It could hold thirty passengers and run at six to eight miles per hour. The service ran three times a week. It was even superior to that of Robert Fulton, whose boat, more than a decade later, was only half as fast.

    Fitch and Voight, however, got few passengers, thus failing to prove commercial viability. So while the trial service worked; they had trouble making money that only a monopoly could easily provide if service could be expanded and promoted to other locations around the country.

    So John Fitch applied for one of the first patents from Thomas Jefferson, a Rumsey supporter, who was head of the patent board. It was granted on August 26, 1791. However, it was not granted as a monopoly. Three other steamboat pioneers, one of which was Washington's favorite, James Rumsey, and another, John Stevens, married into Chancellor Robert R. Livingston's family, were granted a patent for their designs on the same day. Admittedly, the patents used different systems, ... Fitch used a Watt-type engine with a separate condensor transmitting power to oars mounted to stroke like a paddle; Rumsey used direct force, described as yesterday's jet propulsion.

    "Mr. Rumsey ... at that time applying to the Assembly for an exclusive Act ... spoke of the effect of Steam and ... its application for the purpose of inland Navigation; but I did not conceive ... that it was suggested as part of his original plan ... It is proper however for me to add, that some time after this Mr. Fitch called upon me on his way to Richmond and explaining his scheme, wanted a letter from me, introductory of it to the Assembly of this State the giving of which I declined; and went so [far] as to inform him that tho' I was bound not to disclose the principles of Mr. Rumsey's discovery I would venture to assure him, that the thought of applying steam for the purpose he mentioned was not original but had been mentioned to me by Mr. Rumsey...," George Washington letter to Thomas Jefferson, November 22, 1787.

    Fitch's Reaction

    Fitch was angry at the patent board, and Jefferson's refusal, that he was first to prove viability. Fitch sailed to France in 1793, looking for foreign backing. He found none. Fulton had arrived in France during the height of the French Revolution. He then arrived in England and showed his plans to potential investors plus the American consul at Lorient. The consul showed them to another visiting American, Robert Fulton. Hmmm. When he returned to the United States, he tinkered with the design, using a screw-propeller on his next design, again showing it to investors, including Robert Livington. Nobody was interested, although Livington would later invest in Fulton.

    Prior to going overseas, Fitch wrote, but never sent the following letter to Thomas Jefferson.

    "I Sir am sorry to live in a State that no soner becomes a Nation than it becomes depraved. The injuryes which I have Received from my Nation or rather from the first Officers of Government has induced me for a lesson of caution to future generations to record the treatment which I have received which will in a Very Few Days be sealed up and placed in the Library of Philadelphia to remain under Seal till after my Death in which Sir your candour is Very seriously called in question.

    I Sir altho an Indigent Citizen feal myself upon an equal floore with the first Officers of Government therefore trust that your Exalted Station will not permit you to treat this proposal with contempt as I do not wish to take any undue advantage and should I out live you and you not haveing it in your Power to make your Defence I should think it unmanly to conceal it from you therefore offer you the perusal of all my Manuscripts for Six days on your giveing in writing your Plighted faith of honor to return them all safe in that Time and on these conditions that if you should make any observations upon them that you will furnish me with a Coppy of the same. This Sir is from a poor but an independant Citizen of the United States of America and from one who wishes to subscribe himself your most Sincear Friend," John Fitch, July 24, 1792.

    In the end, it all became moot, neither Rumsey or Fitch would get credit for inventing the steamboat, that would go to Robert Fulton, who on August 17, 1807, made the first practical steamboat journey (that could be contested), navigating the Hudson River from New York City to Albany in thirty-two hours, a trip of 150 miles. This becomes the first successful commercial steamboat service in the world. In 1814, Fulton then established regular service between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi. That was also a success. Between 1814 and 1834, steamship arrivals at New Orleans rose from twenty per year to twelve hundred per year.

    John Fitch would be inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006 for his contribution to Propelling Boats with Steam.

    Photo above: Illustration of John Fitch's steamboat on the Delaware River, 1856, John Franklin Reigart. Courtesy Library of Congress. Image below: Plan for the John Fitch Steamboat, 1786, John Fitch, the Columbian Magazine. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: americaslibrary.gov; Library of Congress; George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division; explorepahistory.com; invent.org; "Poor John Finch, the Inventor Few Remember," 1993, Ian de Silva, paheritage.wpengine.com; founders.archives.gov; Wikipedia Commons.

    Plan for Fitch's first steamboat

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