John Fitch: Inventor of the Steamboat

John Fitch was granted a U.S. Patent for the Steamboat in 1791

"Plan of Mr. Fitch's Steam Boat", The Columbian Magazine (December 1786), woodcut by James Trenchard. Public Domain  

The era of the steamboat began in America in 1787 when inventor John Fitch (1743-1798) completed the first successful trial of a steamboat on the Delaware River in the presence of members of the Constitutional Convention. 

Early Life

Fitch was born in 1743 in Connecticut. His mother died when he was four. He was raised by a father who was harsh and rigid. A sense of injustice and failure wreathed his life from the start. Pulled from school when he was only eight and made to work on the hated family farm. He became, in his own words, "almost crazy after learning."

He eventually fled the farm and took up silversmithing. He married in 1776 to a wife who reacted to his manic-depressive episodes by raging at him. He finally ran off to the Ohio River basin, where he was caught and taken a prisoner by the British and the Indians. He came back to Pennsylvania in 1782, caught up with a new obsession. He wanted to build a steam-powered boat to navigate those western rivers.

From 1785 to 1786, Fitch and competing builder James Rumsey raised money to build steamboats. The methodical Rumsey gained the support of George Washington and the new U.S. government. Meanwhile, Fitch found support from private investors then rapidly built an engine with features of both Watt's and Newcomen's steam engines. He had several setbacks before he built the first steamboat, well before Rumsey.

The Fitch Steamboat

On August 26, 1791, Fitch was granted a United States patent for the steamboat. He went on to build a larger steamboat which carried passengers and freight between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey. Fitch was granted his patent after a legal battle with Rumsey over claims to the invention. Both men had invented similar inventions.

In a 1787 letter to Thomas Johnson, George Washington discussed Fitch's and Rumsey's claims from his own perspective:

"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 timeafter 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 . . ."

Fitch constructed four different steamboats between 1785 and 1796 that successfully plied rivers and lakes and demonstrated 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.

While his boats were mechanically successful, Fitch failed to pay sufficient attention to construction and operating costs and was unable to justify the economic benefits of steam navigation. Robert Fulton(1765-1815) built his first boat after Fitch's death and would become known as the "father of steam navigation."

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Bellis, Mary. "John Fitch: Inventor of the Steamboat." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). John Fitch: Inventor of the Steamboat. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "John Fitch: Inventor of the Steamboat." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).