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Stevens, John (1749-1838)

John Stevens (1749-1838)

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Inventor

Background. Unlike many of the inventors of this periodmen who were self-educated and started out relatively poorJohn Stevens was born in 1749 to a wealthy Perth Amboy, New Jersey, family. He received his education at private schools and Kings College (now Columbia University). During the Revolutionary War he served as a colonel and the treasurer of New Jersey, and after the war spent several years developing his large estate and home on the Hudson River (the site of present-day Hoboken). Stevens seems to have been satisfied with this life of managing his private affairs until about 1788 when he learned of the steamboat inventions of John Fitch and James Rumsey. From that point on Stevens devoted his life (and much of his fortune) to steam-powered transportation.

Steamboat Innovator. Stevens read everything he could find on steam technology and soon was designing boilers and engines of his own. Since the federal government did not yet have a patent system, he motivated friends in Congress to pass the first U.S. patent law in 1790; the next year he was awarded patents on his boiler and engine improvements. Eager to put his ideas into practice, he formed a partnership with his brother-in-law Robert Livingston (later U.S. minister to France), and in 1798, through Livingstons political connections, they acquired the exclusive rights to steamboat transportation in New York State. In 1803 he patented a multitubular boiler. By 1804 Stevenss own steamboat, Little Juliana, with twin screw propellers, was operational. He made plans for a bigger boat, the one-hundred-foot Phoenix, which would carry passengers and freight between New York and Albany, but was beaten to it by Robert Fulton, whose Clermont made its historic trip in 1807. More disturbing was the fact that Fulton now had his own partnership with Livingston and had managed to get a monopoly on steamboat transportation on the Hudson River. Squeezed out of the New York market, Stevens sent his Phoenix to Philadelphia in 1808, the first time in history that a steamboat made a successful ocean voyage.

Railroad Pioneer. In 1810 Stevens gave the steamboat business over to his sons and turned his attention to railroads, and in 1812 published a detailed study called Documents Tending to Prove the Superior Advantages of Rail-ways and Steam-carriages over Canal Navigation. Three years later he received from the state of New Jersey the first railroad charter in the United States. In 1825, at the age of seventy-six, in order to prove to skeptics that steam railways were feasible, he designed and built his own steam locomotive, which he demonstrated on a track on his estate. After years of promoting his ideas, he managed to convince the New Jersey and Pennsylvania legislatures to appropriate money for railways; he is in fact considered the founder of the Pennsylvania railroad system.

Visionary. John Stevens was far ahead of his time. In addition to his steamship and railroad accomplishments, he also proposed other visionary concepts that eventually became reality, such as armored ships, a tunnel under the Hudson River, and an elevated railroad for New York City. For brilliant technical ideas as well as practical achievement he ranks with Robert Fulton. After Stevenss death in 1838, his two sons carried on his legacy by becoming engineers and inventors.

Sources

L. Sprague De Camp and Catherine C. De Camp, The Story of Science in America (New York: Scribners, 1967);

Bernard Jaffe, Men of Science in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1958).

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John Stevens

John Stevens

The American engineer and inventor John Stevens (1749-1838) was one of the country's earliest experimenters with steamboats. He spent his entire career promoting better transportation in the form of steam railroads, canals, and steamboat lines.

John Stevens was born in New York City, where his father was a shipowner and shipmaster and a wealthy landowner prominent in politics. Young Stevens was raised in Perth Amboy, N.J., and educated primarily by tutors until he attended King's College (now Columbia University), from which he graduated in 1768. Three years later he was admitted to the bar but never practiced law as a profession. During the American Revolution he rose to the rank of colonel, largely for his efforts in raising funds for the patriot cause. He married in 1782 and 2 years later acquired at auction a large tract of land around the present site of Hoboken, N.J., which he developed.

In 1788 Stevens saw John Fitch's steamboat on the Delaware River and became convinced of the bright future for that mode of transportation. Within a few months he petitioned the New York Legislature to grant him the exclusive privilege of steam navigation within the state, but that privilege went to another. Frustrated by his attempts to gain patents from the several states, he aided in drawing up the first Federal patent law in 1790. In August 1791 he was awarded a patent for improvements in steam machinery.

Stevens's father died in 1792, and for the next few years he was busy administering the family estates. About 1797 he entered into partnership with Nicholas I. Roosevelt and Chancellor Robert R. Livingston to build and operate steamboats. The partners differed over such matters as the proper way of applying steam (Stevens preferred the use of screw propellers), and no successful boat was ever built by the group. Stevens then became consultant for the Manhattan Company, which was building a water system for the city of New York, and in 1802 he became head of the Bergen Turnpike Company.

In 1804 Stevens achieved a measure of success with his small steamboat Little Juliana and began to build a larger boat, the Phoenix, in 1806. Before he could get it into operation, however, Robert Fulton successfully ran the Claremont on the Hudson River (1807). The Phoenix was sent by sea to the Delaware River and put into ferry service between Philadelphia and Trenton.

About 1810 Stevens turned his steamboat interests over to his sons, who became prominent engineers in their own right, while he concentrated on the development of steam railroads, which he preferred to the more popular canals. In 1825 he constructed and operated on his estate the first steam locomotive built in the United States. He was a leader in establishing the utility of steam railroads in the United States.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Stevens is Archibald Douglas Turnbull, John Stevens: An American Record (1928). An older book, which gives information on his sons as well, is R. H. Thurston, The Messrs. Stevens, of Hoboken, as Engineers, Naval Architects and Philanthropists (1874). The best book on early steamboat developments, including those of Stevens, is James Thomas Flexner, Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action (1944). □

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Stevens, John

STEVENS, JOHN


John Stevens (17491838) was an engineer and inventor who was one of the earliest U.S. experimenters with steamboats. He built his career on promoting better transportation, not only with steamboats but also with railroads. Stevens built the first steam-powered locomotive in the United States. He firmly believed that efficient transportation on both land and water would be the main source of progress and prosperity for the country.

John Stevens was born to a wealthy family in New York in 1749. His father was a merchant and ship owner who was also politically active. Stevens was raised in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and educated in small schools devoted to business training. He graduated from King's college (now Columbia University) in 1768 and then studied law. Three years later Stevens began working as a practicing attorney for the royal governor of New York. He soon discovered that he was more interested in politics than law and he became treasurer of New Jersey during the American Revolution (17751783). He rose to the rank of colonel through his fundraising efforts for the patriot cause.

In 1782 John Stevens married. Two years later the couple bought a large estate on the west side of the Hudson River, in what is now Hoboken, New Jersey. It was there that Stevens became fascinated with the idea of steam-powered transportation. Stevens bought a ferry service between Hoboken and New York and sought to improve it with steam-powered boats. He was inspired by John Fitch's steamboat, which ran along the Delaware River in 1788. At age forty Stevens taught himself the engineering science behind steam power. Soon he was able to draw his own designs for boilers and engines. Stevens then petitioned the New York legislature to grant him the exclusive privilege of steam navigation in the state, but he was unsuccessful. He was also unsuccessful in several other states, so he instead turned to his political connections in Congress and petitioned for the first federal patent laws in 1790. In August, 1791, Stevens was awarded a patent for improving steam machinery.

In 1797 Stevens joined his college friend Nicholas I. Roosevelt, and his brother-in-law Robert R. Livingston, in a partnership to build and operate steamboats. The partners disagreed over technical matters, such as the proper way to apply steam and they never built a successful boat together. In 1804 Stevens did manage to build a prototype, however, with the help of his sons. The boat, called Little Juliana, used a new high-pressure steam engine and two screw propellers. Meanwhile, Stevens' brother-in-law Livingston had purchased a temporary exclusive contract for steamboats on the Hudson River. Livingston believed that Stevens' boat did not meet the contract's speed requirements, so he instead convinced inventor Robert Fulton (17651815) to produce his five-mile-an-hour steamboat in the United States. Stevens was offended by Livingston's actions and he refused a place in the partnership of Fulton's future steamboat. In 1807 Fulton's boat, the Clermont, made its historical round trip voyage from New York to Albany.

Soon afterwards Stevens launched his first ocean-going, 100-foot steamboat called the Phoenix. In June of 1809 his son, Robert Livingston Stevens, captained the boat on its maiden voyage to Philadelphia. Because Fulton monopolized the use of the Hudson River, Stevens operated a ferry service on the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Trenton.

Stevens decided to pursue other transportation interests and around 1810 handed his steamboat interests over to his sons, who had also become capable and respected engineers. He turned his attention to adapting steam technology to the railroad, educating Congress on the advantages of the railroad over canals. Stevens succeeded in persuading Congress to pass the first U.S. railway act, which then led to the formation of companies to construct railroads, including a line from the Delaware to the Raritan River. Stevens also invented and constructed the first steam locomotive built in the United States. In 1825 he ran the experimental locomotive on a circular track on his estate in Hoboken.

Stevens dedicated his life to improving transportation and educating others about the benefits of efficient modes of transportation. He became a leader in promoting the utility of steam railroads in the United States. He also explored other transportation improvements before his death in 1838. For example, he designed a bridge and underwater tunnel from Hoboken to New York, and he also planned an elevated railroad system for New York City.

See also: Baltimore and Ohio, Fulton, Robert, Steamboats


FURTHER READING

Greene, Jack P., and J. R. Pole eds. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Malden, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

Gregg, D. Men in Business: Essays on the History of Entrepreneurship. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952, s.v. "John Stevens, General Entrepreneur, 17491838."

Karwatka, Dennis. "John Stevens: American Pioneer in Steam-Powered Transportation." Tech Directions, February, 1998.


Turnbull, Archibald Douglas. John Stevens: An American Record. New York: Century Co., 1928.

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