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 the work of Scotsman James Watt. In 1769, Watt patented an improved version of the steam engine that helped usher in the Industrial Revolution and spurred other inventors to explore how steam technology could be used to propel ships. Watt's pioneering efforts would eventually revolutionize transportation.

The First Steamboats

John Fitch was the first to build a steamboat in the United States. His initial 45-foot craft successfully navigated the Delaware River on August 22, 1787. Fitch later built a larger vessel to carry passengers and freight between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey. After a contentious battle with rival inventor James Rumsey over similar steamboat designs, Fitch was ultimately granted his first United States patent for a steamboat on August 26, 1791. He was not, however, awarded a monopoly, leaving the field open for Rumsey and other competitive inventors.

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

Robert Fulton, the "Father of Steam Navigation" 

Before turning his talents to the steamboat, American inventor Robert Fulton had successfully built and operated a submarine in France but it was his talent for turning steamboats into a commercially viable mode of transportation that earned him the title of 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 due to ill health, in 1786, Fulton moved to London. Eventually, his lifelong interest in scientific and engineering developments, especially in the application of steam engines, supplanted his interest in art. 

As he applied himself to his new vocation, Fulton secured English patents for machines with a wide variety of functions and applications. He also began to show a marked interested in the construction and efficiency of canal systems. By 1797, growing European conflicts led Fulton to begin work on weapons against piracy, including submarines, mines, and torpedoes. Soon after, Fulton moved to France, where he took up work on canal systems. In 1800, he built a successful "diving boat" which he named the Nautilus but there was not sufficient interest, either in France or England, to induce Fulton to pursue any further submarine design. 

Fulton's passion for steamboats remained undiminished, however. In 1802, he contracted with Robert Livingston to construct a steamboat for use on the Hudson River. Over the next four years, after building prototypes in Europe, Fulton returned to New York in 1806.

Robert Fulton's Milestones

On August 17, 1807, the Clermont, Robert Fulton's first American steamboat, left New York City for Albany, serving as the inaugural commercial steamboat service in the world. The ship traveled from New York City to Albany making history with a 150-mile trip that took 32 hours at an average speed of about five miles per hour.

Four years later, Fulton and Livingston designed the New Orleans and put it into service as a passenger and freight boat with a route along the lower Mississippi River. By 1814, 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 rates of eight miles per hour downstream and three miles per hour upstream.

Steamboats Rise Can't Compete with Rail

In 1816, when inventor Henry Miller Shreve launched his steamboat, Washington, it could complete the voyage from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky in 25 days. But steamboat designs continued to improve, and by 1853, the New Orleans to Louisville trip took only four and a half days. Steamboats contributed greatly to the economy throughout the eastern part of the United States as a means of transporting agricultural and industrial supplies. Between 1814 and 1834, New Orleans steamboat arrivals increased from 20 to 1,200 each year. These boats transported passengers, as well as cargoes of cotton, sugar, and other goods.

Steam propulsion and railroads developed separately but it was not until railroads adopted steam technology that rail truly began to flourish. Rail transport was faster and not as hampered by weather conditions as water transport, nor was it dependent on the geographical constraints of predetermined waterways. By the 1870s, railroads— which could travel not only north and south but east, west, and points in between—had begun to supplant steamboats as the major transporter of both goods and passengers in the United States.