The History of Steamboats

Before Steam Engine Trains, There Was the Steamboat

Steamboat on water - black and white drawing
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The era of the steamboat began in the late 1700s, thanks initially to Scotsman James Watt, who, in 1769 patented an improved version of the steam engine that helped usher in the Industrial Revolution and spurred other inventors on to explore how technology could be used to propel boats, revolutionizing transportation in the United States.

The First Steamboats

John Fitch was the first inventor to build a steamboat in the United States -- a 45-foot boat which successfully traveled on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787. He later built a larger vessel that carried passengers and freight between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey. After a contentious battle with another inventor, James Rumsey, over claims to a similar design for a steamboat, he was ultimately granted his first United States patent for a steamboat on August 26, 1791. However, he was not awarded a monopoly so was still in competition with Rumsey and other inventors.

Between 1785 and 1796, John Fitch constructed four different steamboats that successfully plied rivers and lakes to demonstrate the feasibility of using steam for water locomotion. His models utilized various combinations of propulsive force, including ranked paddles (patterned after Indian war canoes), paddle wheels and screw propellers. But while his boats were mechanically successful, Fitch failed to pay sufficient attention to construction and operating costs and, having lost investors to other inventors, was unable to stay afloat financially. 

Robert Fulton, the "Father of Steam Navigation" 

That honor would go to American inventor Robert Fulton, who had successfully built and operated a submarine in France in 1801, before turning his talents to the steamboat. His achievements in making steamboats a commercial success was why he’s known as the "father of steam navigation."

Fulton was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on November 14, 1765. While his early education was limited, he displayed considerable artistic talent and inventiveness. At the age of 17, he moved to Philadelphia, where he established himself as a painter. Advised to go abroad because of ill health, he moved to London in 1786. Eventually, his lifelong interest in scientific and engineering developments, especially in the application of steam engines, supplanted his interest in art. 

During this time, Fulton secured English patents for machines with a wide variety of functions. He was also interested in canal systems. In 1797, European conflicts led Fulton to begin work on weapons against piracy, including submarines, mines, and torpedoes. He later moved to France, where he worked on canal systems. In 1800, he built a successful "diving boat" which he named the Nautilus. Neither the French nor the English was sufficiently interested to induce Fulton to continue his submarine design. 

His interest in building a steamboat continued, however. In 1802, Robert Fulton contracted with Robert Livingston to construct a steamboat for use on the Hudson River. Over the next four years, he built prototypes in Europe.

He returned to New York in 1806. On August 17, 1807, the Clermont, Robert Fulton's first American steamboat, left New York for Albany and served as the inauguration of the first commercial steamboat service in the world.

Robert Fulton died on February 24, 1815, and was buried in Old Trinity Churchyard, New York City.

The Clermont and the 150-Mile Trip

On August 7, 1807, Robert Fulton's Clermont went from New York City to Albany making history with a 150-mile trip taking 32 hours at an average speed of about five miles-per-hour. Four years later, Robert Fulton and his partner Robert Livingston designed the "New Orleans" and put it into service as a passenger and freight boat along the lower Mississippi River. And by 1814, Robert Fulton together with Robert Livingston’s brother Edward was offering regular steamboat and freight service between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi. Their boats traveled at the rates of eight miles per hour downstream and three miles per hour upstream.

Steamboat Developments

In 1816, inventor Henry Miller Shreve launched his steamboat “Washington,” which completed the voyage from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky in twenty-five days. Vessel design continued to improve and by 1853, the trip to Louisville took only four and one-half days.

Between 1814 and 1834, New Orleans steamboat arrivals increased from 20 to 1200 a year. The boats transported cargoes of cotton, sugar, and passengers. Throughout the eastern part of the U.S., steamboats contributed greatly to the economy as a means of transporting agricultural and industrial supplies.

Steam propulsion and railroads developed separately, but it was not until railroads adopted the technology of steam that they began to flourish. By the 1870s, railroads had begun to supplant steamboats as the major transporter of both goods and passengers.