John Fitch and his Steamboat

John Fitch: Granted a U.S. Patent for the Steamboat in 1791

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

Background

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

He fled the farm and took up silversmithing. He married in 1776 a wife who reacted to his manic-depressive extremes by raging at him. He finally ran off to the Ohio River basin, spent time as a prisoner of the British and the Indians, then came back to Pennsylvania in 1782, afire with a new obsession. He meant to make a steam-powered boat to navigate those western rivers. In 1785 and 1786 Fitch, and competing builder James Rumsey, looked for money to build steamboats. The methodical Rumsey gained the support of George Washington and our new government. Fitch found private support, then rapidly built an engine with features of both Watt's and Newcomen's steam engines. He moved from mistake to mistake until he'd made our first steamboat, well before Rumsey.

The Steamboat

On August 26, 1791, John 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 battle with James Rumsey over claims to the invention. Both men invented similiar inventions.

John Fitch constructed four different steamboats between 1785 and 1796 that successfully plied rivers and lakes and demonstrated, in part, 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 it was Fulton who became known as the "father of steam navigation."

Fitch was granted his patent after a battle with James Rumsey over claims to the invention. 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 . . ."