Britain . No single person was responsible for the invention of the steamboat. Rather, it was a long series of innovations and improvements, starting with the first steam engines of Thomas Savery and Thomas New-comen in the early 1700s. Early steam engines were “atmospheric,” which meant that heated water created steam that raised a piston in a cylinder; when cold water was injected into the cylinder, the steam condensed and atmospheric pressure drove the piston down, creating the power stroke. The Newcomen engine was called the “miner’s friend,” because it was typically used to pump water out of British coal mines. By 1725 the steam engine was also used for raising water to turn a waterwheel which then drove machinery. The next significant innovation was James Watt’s invention of the separate condenser and the “double-acting” engine, both of which greatly improved the efficiency of the steam engine. With their patents and astute business sense, Watt and his partner, Matthew Boulton, dominated British steam technology throughout the last quarter of the eighteenth century.
America. John Fitch of Connecticut claimed that the idea of a steam engine came to him in a flash of insight one day in 1785. Having never heard of Watt or Newcomen, Fitch in effect reinvented the steam engine in America. His goal was to use steam power to propel a boat. With a few small investors and a great deal of ingenuity and perseverance, he was able to demonstrate to the Constitutional Convention delegates in 1787 a boat propelled by a small steam engine that drove twelve paddles. By 1790 Fitch had established commercial steamboat transportation on the Delaware River, providing service between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey, traveling at a rate of four miles an hour over a distance of twenty miles. Although his boat was remarkably reliable, the venture was a financial failure, owing partly to the good roads already available in the area, and partly to Fitch’s unpredictable and sour personality.
Competition. At about the same time another inventor, James Rumsey, entered the picture. Rumsey’s ideas ranged from the impractical, such as a system of steam-driven poles to push boats upstream, to the futuristic: a steamboat that drew water in at the bow and squirted it out the stern. Benjamin Franklin liked Rumsey’s ideas, especially the jet stream because it coincided with an idea that Franklin himself had once had. Franklin helped promote a Rumsean Society to solicit funds for the inventor. Soon the smooth-talking Rumsey had convinced influential Americans that he had invented the steamboat. The less personable Fitch could not get Franklin’s endorsement. When that famous inventor, whom Fitch had asked to subscribe to his steamboat company, declined to invest but instead offered a donation, Fitch refused the money and later wrote that he wished he could have treated Franklin “with the indignity which he merited, and stomped the paltry ore under my feet.” This behavior was unfortunately quite typical—Fitch had no flair for public relations.
A War over Rights. Rumsey and Fitch both patented their inventions in the same year, 1791. Federal patent laws were lax at this early stage, and inventions of dubious value (such as “patent” medicines) were accepted, and overlapping or conflicting claims sometimes left unresolved. As a result, Fitch and Rumsey were involved in a fierce pamphlet war and lawsuits against each other over their rights. Neither succeeded: Rumsey died while constructing one of his boats in England in 1792, and Fitch, unable to get along with his partners and frustrated by his lack of success, took his own life in 1798. The evidence is clearly on the side of Fitch as the earlier inventor; Rumsey was just the better businessman.
Next Wave of Inventors. Oliver Evans and John Stevens made more innovations in steam technology between 1795 and 1805. Evans put most of his energy into applying the steam engine to the mechanization of factories. His 1790 patent for an automated flour mill was only the third U.S. patent granted. In 1804 he invented a high-pressure steam engine and demonstrated a steam-powered dredger in Philadelphia’s harbor. Stevens, a New Jersey inventor, patented several boiler improvements and also built practical steamboats, one of which made the first steam-powered ocean voyage in 1808. Stevens was perhaps the steamboat’s primary innovator, but by luck, timing, and politics he has been overshadowed by Robert Fulton.
Thomas Jefferson was a devoted amateur scientist who took great pride in being president of the American Philosophical Society (1797–1815). He administered America’s first patent office, although he never patented his own invention of a more efficient plow. Among his other inventions was a “polygraph” machine with a second pen that automatically copied letters as he wrote them—a handy device, since he wrote forty thousand letters in his lifetime. In 1785 Jefferson published Notes on the State of Virginia. Originally conceived as a refutation of a French naturalist’s view that nature is “less active, less energetic” in the New World than in Europe, and that the animals of America are smaller than those of the Old World, Notes on Virginia covers geography, history, climate, religion, laws, and society, as well as his controversial views on slavery. As a promoter of science Jefferson helped popularize smallpox vaccination and planned the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. In addition to his skills in architecture (he designed his gracious brick home, Monticello, and the original buildings of the University of Virginia), he was also a collector of weather data, a student of American Indian languages, and a general tinker with tools and appliances.
Jefferson was an eminently practical man who had little use for the medical theories of the day, especially bleeding. As he once wrote to a friend: “The patient, treated on the fashionable theory, sometimes gets well in spite of the medicine.” He was much more optimistic about science and technological invention, and understood well the process of continuous improvement, rather than isolated brilliant flashes of genius, that produced useful inventions. “One idea leads to another,” he wrote, “that to a third, and so on through a course of time until someone, with whom no one of these is original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new creation.”
Sources: Russell Bourne, Invention in America (Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Press, 1996);
Success. Fulton’s different sort of genius made steamboats practical. Fulton was not the lonely genius inventor of popular history. He made excellent use of partnerships and earlier advances in technology. His partner Robert Livingston, former ambassador to France, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and an influential New York politician, helped Fulton secure a monopoly on Hudson River steam transportation, and Fulton, with an engine imported from James Watt, built the boat. On 17 August 1807 Fulton’s Clermont made its maiden voyage,
carrying passengers from New York to Albany. Because these two important cities were poorly connected by road, other modes of transportation offered little competition to his steamboat. Fulton kept improving his design (building twenty-one steamboats in all), cooperating with other mechanics and tinkering with his engines until they ran reliably.
Fulton Legend . As poor John Fitch demonstrated, technical talent alone was no guarantee of success. Fulton’s achievement was so complete that he became a symbol of American business and technical genius—to the point where the other important innovators in steam engines and steam transportation are all but forgotten. Fulton may not have invented the steamboat, but he had the combination of engineering, marketing, financial, and personal skills necessary for bringing technological innovation to commercial success.
Russell Bourne, Invention in America (Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1996).