Stevens, John

views updated May 14 2018

Stevens, John



John Stevens was one of America's early inventors and engineers. A pioneer of steam-powered transportation and of patent laws, John Stevens devised efficient innovations for steam engines and helped popularize their use in ships and locomotives.

Personal Life

John Stevens was born into a wealthy family in New York City in 1749. Stevens was born more than 25 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and more than 30 years before the United States existed as a sovereign state. His father was a ship owner and merchant and provided handsomely for his family. When John was a boy, the Stevens family moved to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where he attended Kenersley's College. The family moved back to New York City and there John attended King's College, which today is Columbia University. He graduated in 1768.

John Stevens became a lawyer and was admitted to the bar in 1771. His attention quickly turned to politics. During the revolution, he served as treasurer of New Jersey during the years 1776 to 1779 and surveyor general of eastern New Jersey from 1782 until 1783. He achieved the rank of colonel for his services in the revolution.

Stevens had three sons: John Cox, Robert Livingston, and Edwin Augustus. All three worked with their father during his career as an engineer and inventor. In 1784, John Stevens bought a huge estate on the west side of the Hudson River for his growing family. The estate comprised most of present-day Hoboken, New Jersey.

Career Details

After his brief career in law and politics, Stevens turned his attention to steam navigation. He was truly a pioneer of this science, as it was then only in an experimental stage. His political connections came in handy later, however. In order to protect his inventions, Stevens petitioned Congress for patent laws to prevent others from unjustly appropriating proprietary inventions. The first American patent law was passed in April 1790. Its form was essentially what Stevens had outlined to Congress, and the new law allowed Stevens to claim his first patent in 1791.

Stevens' early work produced improved steam boilers and steam engines. Stevens teamed up with his brother-in-law and college friend, Robert R. Livingston, to attempt to build a steamboat. After a few years of unsuccessful experiments, Stevens and Livingston teamed up with mechanic Nicholas Roosevelt.

Robert Livingston purchased an exclusive charter for steamships on the Hudson River. Soon thereafter, he went to France to serve as the U.S. minister. During his tenure there, he convinced Robert Fulton, the man credited with the invention of the steamboat, to produce his 5-mile-per-hour steamship in America.

One of Stevens' most important inventions came in 1802, still early in his steam experimentation. He designed the screw propeller, which was a great advance in steamship operation. The screw propeller was a large screw with four blades on it, driven by the steam engine. In 1803, Stevens used this technology in building the Little Juliana. It was powered by a multitubular boiler, which Stevens had patented. Using a new high-pressure steam engine and two screw propellers, the Little Juliana crossed the Hudson river in 1804.

Upon Livingston's return to the United States, he met with Stevens to discuss their steamship plans. He was unimpressed, however, with the Little Juliana. The ship failed to meet the speed requirements of his Hudson River charter. He offered Stevens a partnership in Fulton's future steamboat. Stevens declined this proposal, feeling betrayed by Livingston. From then on, there was fierce competition between Stevens and the Livingston-Fulton team.

Next, John Stevens designed an engine for a paddle-wheel steamboat. His hope was to establish a ferry service between New Jersey and Manhattan and another between New York City and Albany. Unfortunately for him, Livingston fulfilled his charter when Fulton's Clermont made its first successful voyage from New York City to Albany, New York, in 1807. Fulfilling the charter gave Livingston-Fulton monopolistic rights to steam navigation on the Hudson.

Just one year later in 1808, Stevens launched his 100-foot Phoenix. Since Stevens' ship could not sail the Hudson, the Phoenix took a trial run to Philadelphia by sea in June 1809. With that maiden voyage, captained by John Stevens' son Robert Livingston Stevens, the Phoenix became the world's first ocean-traveling steamboat. Stevens used the Phoenix to set up steam-powered ferry service on the Delaware river. In 1811, Stevens' built another steamship, the Juliana which was used as a ferry on Long Island Sound.

After building and launching the Juliana, John Stevens turned his attention to using steam locomotion for land travel. Again, his political past facilitated his endeavor. He argued the advantages of rail transportation over canals in Congress. His efforts resulted in the passage of the first American railways act. In 1815, Stevens received the first railroad charter in America from the state of New Jersey. The charter granted him rail rights from the Delaware River, near Trenton, to the Raritan River in New Brunswick. He was granted a similar charter in 1823 from the Pennsylvania state legislature. With that, he and partners Horace Binney and Stephen Girard established the Pennsylvania Railroad. The rails ran from Philadelphia to Columbia, Pennsylvania, but soon failed financially.

John Stevens constructed the first steam locomotive in the United States in 1825, when he was over 75 years old. He operated the train on a circular track on his Hoboken estate. In 1830, he formed the Camden & Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company, his first successful rail company. Before his death in 1838, Stevens also designed a bridge and underwater tunnel to run from Hoboken to New York City and an elevated railroad system for New York City.

Two of Stevens' sons, Edwin and Robert, worked closely with their father on his steam-powered transportation projects. Both are respected inventors in American history. Robert assisted his father in the construction of Little Juliana, the small screw-propeller steamboat that crossed the Hudson in 1804. In 1809 he captained their Phoenix on its maiden voyage to Philadelphia. After this trip, Robert Stevens piloted the Phoenix as a ferry along the Delaware River. The War of 1812 led him to the idea of developing metal-clad ships with his brother Edwin, but navy officials showed no interest in the project until the 1840s. Stevens was unable to construct one before his death. In 1830, he joined his father's rail company and went to England to study locomotives. As a result, he designed the T-shaped type of rail which is still used. He also discovered that iron rails over wooden cross ties over a gravel bed—as is used today—provided a safer, more comfortable ride than others of that day. Robert Livingston Stevens was named president and chief engineer of the Camden & Amboy Railroad Company that year. Steam railroad service in New Jersey began in 1831. The English locomotive used on the John Bull line was later preserved at the Smithsonian Institute. Stevens developed a two-wheeled guide called a pilot that he attached to the front of the locomotive. This important innovation reduced derailments on sharp curves. In 1844, Stevens returned to his naval roots and designed Maria, a yacht recognized as the world's fastest sailing ship for the next twenty years.

Also an inventor, Edwin Augustus Stevens was the businessman of the family. He managed his father's estate and oversaw the family's commercial ventures. He invented a plow in 1821 with his brother that came into wide use. He initiated construction of the Union Railroad between Philadelphia and New York City in 1825 as its manager. By 1827, the Stevens family owned the Union Railroad and later merged it with the Camden & Amboy Railroad Company. Edwin Stevens served as manager and treasurer of the Camden & Amboy Railroad Company for 35 years. He worked with his brother on the design of metal-clad ships. Congressional approval of the project was won in 1842, but construction did not begin until 1854. Robert's death in 1856 ended the brothers' efforts in producing armored ships for the navy.

Social and Economic Impact

The ability of entrepreneurs to protect their inventions can be traced back to John Stevens. Stevens outlined a patent law and is credited with convincing Congress to pass it. He was also among the first to be granted a patent under that law.

Stevens patented several important inventions in steamboat engine design. Stevens, in competition with Fulton, Livingston, and Roosevelt, was among the first to introduce commercially successful steamboats. Stevens' oceangoing steamboat offered new possibilities for ferrying people and for trading between cities. A dedicated inventor, Stevens did not stop experimenting and learning once the steamboat had been invented. Instead, he used his knowledge to promote something he strongly believed in, rail travel by steam locomotive.

Stevens' impact on the world continued long after his death. His promotion of rail travel and invention of the steam locomotive changed trade, travel, and expansion in the United States in ways that he did not see during his lifetime. His children's contributions to steamboats, railways, naval ships, and plows are attributed in part to him because they worked with him during most of his career.

Chronology: John Stevens

1749: Born.

1771: Admitted to the Bar Association.

1776: Became treasurer of New Jersey.

1790: Presented patent law to Congress.

1791: Received first patent for first multitubular boiler.

1804: Little Juliana crossed the Hudson River.

1809: Phoenix made the world's first sea voyage by a steam vessel.

1815: Received first U.S. railroad charter.

1825: Constructed first steam locomotive in the United States.

1838: Died.

Models of Stevens work can be found at the Smithsonian Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, is named for the Stevens family. The Stevens Institute was endowed with land and money by Edwin Augustus Stevens on his death.

Sources of Information


Preston, Wheeler. American Biographies. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1940. Reprint, Detroit: Gale Research, 1974.

Thurston, Robert H. "A History of the Growth of the Steam Engine." Available from

"Tales of the Early Republic." Available from

Van Doren, Charles, ed. Webster's American Biographies. 1979 ed. Springfield, MA: G & C Merriam Co., 1974.

World of Invention. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.

Stevens, John

views updated May 21 2018


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


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.

Stevens, John (1749-1838)

views updated Jun 08 2018

John Stevens (1749-1838)



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.


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).

John Stevens

views updated Jun 08 2018

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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