Born January 21, 1743 (Windsor Township, Connecticut)
Died July 2, 1798 (Kentucky)
In 1787 American inventor John Fitch built the world's first working steamboat. He demonstrated the vessel on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for a panel of prominent politicians who were meeting in the city to take part in the Constitutional Convention, the meeting of delegates to draft the U.S. Constitution. Fitch's boat was moved by steam-powered oars, and he became involved in a bitter rivalry with an inventor from Virginia who had also constructed a steam-propelled vessel around the same time. Neither boat was a financial success, however, and Fitch died in poverty. It took twenty years and the achievement of Robert Fulton (1765-1815) to launch the age of steam travel in America.
"I know of nothing so perplexing and Vexatious to a man of feelings, as a turbulant Wife and Steam Boat building…. [F]or one man to be [faced] with Both, he must be looked upon as the most unfortunate man in this World."
Early life and work
Fitch was born on January 21, 1743, in Windsor Township, Connecticut. He was descended from an old but unexceptional colonial family. His paternal ancestors had left Essex, England, and settled in the Windsor area in the early 1600s. Fitch was the last of five children in the family, and his mother died when he was four years old. His father, a farmer who was also a devout Presbyterian, was strict with him, and the two had an unhappy relationship. Fitch attended a local dame school, an informal classroom run by a woman in her home, until he was nine, but his father took him out of school in order to put him to work on the farm. Fitch eagerly read any book he could find when he was done with his chores, however, and was particularly fascinated by geography, astronomy, and mathematics.
Fitch first tried to leave the family farm by signing on as a sailor on a vessel whose route was along the Atlantic Ocean. The ship endured terrible weather during his five-week tryout, and he gratefully returned to land. At the age of fifteen, he became an apprentice clockmaker but was not allowed to actually learn the trade. Instead he was given household chores, and complained so much about his duties that finally he was transferred to the shop of the man's brother, who was also a clockmaker. There, too, he was never allowed to even see a watch or clock being made or repaired. The brothers were probably not eager to train a future competitor in the area, and had simply wanted an extra hand for lowly jobs. Fitch did manage to learn some brass-making skills during his three years as an apprentice, and at the age of twenty-one he opened his own brass-smith business in East Windsor, Connecticut. He did well but lost a great deal of money on an investment in potash, a compound of potassium carbonate that was used in brass-making.
By this time Fitch had married Lucy Roberts of Simsbury, Connecticut, and was the father of a young son. Displeased with both his business and his marriage, he left in 1769, recounting in his autobiography that Lucy followed him out the door and far down the road pleading with him to stay. He did not know at the time that she was expecting a second child. He settled some distance away, in Trenton, New Jersey, where he again established a brass-making business that included some silversmith trade as well. With the onset of the American Revolution (1775-83), when the American colonists fought England to win their independence, Fitch enlisted in the Continental Army. He served briefly as a lieutenant but walked away when he was denied a promotion. Upon returning to Trenton, he found that his business had been looted and destroyed by English troops.
Settling around Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in late 1777, Fitch ran two successful businesses. He fixed guns for the Continental Army, and secretly sold tobacco and beer to the troops. In 1780 he headed west as a surveyor of lands. At the time the American West consisted of the areas past Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the start of the Ohio River there. In Kentucky he put in a claim for 1,600 acres, a common practice at the time in the unsettled territory. In 1782 he went west again but was taken hostage by Delaware Indians, a Native American tribe that was allied with the English. He was handed over to English military authorities, taken to Canada, and held there until late 1782. Fitch later said that dreams he had of being chased by Delaware Indians in their canoes inspired his idea for a much faster watercraft.
Fitch made one final trip out west in 1785 and gained a bit of fame for a map he made of the Northwest Territory, as the area surrounding the Great Lakes was called during this period. He settled in Philadelphia and began work on his steamboat project. He claimed to have come up with the idea from a book that included an illustration of a steam engine. Steam had been first mentioned by the ancient Greeks as a possible source of power, but only in 1681 did a French inventor, Denis Papin (1647-1712), manage to harness its power. Papin built the first pressure cooker, and by 1712 an English inventor named Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729) had created a steam-driven water pump that became widely used in England's mining industry. In 1784 a Scot named James Watt (1736-1819) teamed with an English metalsmith and engineer, Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), to build the first successful steam engine. The Boulton & Watt engines were used extensively during the Industrial Revolution in England, but their export to the former colonies was banned by English law because of the war.
Steamboat demonstrated in Philadelphia
Initially Fitch dreamed of building a steam-powered wagon, which might have been the first successful automobile. But he switched to building boats instead, perhaps recognizing that the new American nation had few roads connecting its major Atlantic seaboard cities with the new lands of the Northwest Territory. However, there was a rich network of rivers and large streams from Pittsburgh's rivers to the Great Lakes, and further south to the port of New Orleans. Ships sailed by using wind power, which was effective for east-west journeys by ocean but extremely inefficient for river travel. Trade in the newly independent colonies was increasing, but river transportation was almost impossible. To take goods from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, for example, a barge had to be hauled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers by the laborers on board, pushing the boat with poles for almost the entire distance, and it took six weeks. The crew then had to walk back.
Fitch hoped to receive money from the Continental Congress, the early American legislature, to pursue his idea but could only secure the exclusive right to operate steamboats from a few states. He was granted a contract for New Jersey in 1786, and by 1787 he had won similar rights for vessels that would operate in Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and Virginia. Each of these gave him a fourteen-year monopoly (the exclusive possession or right to produce a particular good or service) on steamboat travel, which state governments granted in order to encourage inventors at a time when they had little extra money to help finance such projects themselves.
Fitch convinced a group of Philadelphia investors to fund his project. He teamed with Henry Voight, a Philadelphia clockmaker and master mechanic, to build a steam engine, since he was unable to buy a Boulton & Watt one. In August 1787 a panel of state and federal officials, meeting in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, gathered to witness the steamboat's maiden voyage on the Delaware River. Fitch's method of moving the boat forward involved six steam-powered oars on either side of it, which made it look somewhat awkward, but it did move. Later steamboats that Fitch built employed a paddle wheel instead. This was a large wheel on the rear of a boat, part of which rested in the water. A steam engine made the wheel turn, and as it churned the water around, the boat went forward. This was a vast improvement over the oars.
Rival steamboat builder
Fitch's efforts were complicated by the arrival of James Rumsey (1743-1792) of Virginia, who was also working on a steamboat project. Rumsey had met George Washington (1732-1799) in 1784 and told him about his work. Washington was enthusiastic about Rumsey's idea for a boat and endorsed it publicly. Fitch went to see Washington in November 1785 at Washington's Virginia plantation and home, Mount Vernon. Fitch inquired about Rumsey's work, but Washington was hesitant to give answers. Fitch asked Washington for a letter of introduction to the Virginia Assembly, but Washington refused to write one. The former Continental Army commander may have remembered Fitch as a seller of beer and rum to his troops during the war. Furthermore, Fitch was the physical opposite of Rumsey. The Virginian was a handsome, well-dressed, gentleman farmer, while Fitch was scruffy in appearance, with shabby clothes and shoulder-length hair. In a February 1786 letter, Washington informed Rumsey of Fitch's steamboat work in Philadelphia, and Rumsey went to Philadelphia at one point to investigate. Both sides issued pamphlets defending their claims on the steamboat, a common form of public relations at the time. Fitch even wrote a lengthier work, The Original Steamboat Supported, in 1788.
In July 1788 Fitch launched a sixty-foot vessel with a paddle wheel that carried passengers between Burlington, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. A third boat, christened in 1790, traversed another section of the Delaware River, but public acceptance of the new form of travel was slow. Because of this Fitch's business failed to earn much return money for its investors. He was, however, granted a patent (a legal document giving an inventor the exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention for a certain term of years) for his steamboat in August 1791, but Rumsey was awarded one that same day as well. This seemed to be a compromise decided on by future U.S. president Thomas Jefferson (1843-1826; served 1801-9), who was secretary of state at the time, but it meant that neither Fitch nor Rumsey earned money for their work.
Fitch began building a fourth boat, the Perseverance, but it was damaged in a bad storm while still under construction, and his weary investors finally pulled out of the project. He turned to Europe as a potential new source for funding and traveled to France, as Rumsey also had before he died in 1792. Fitch was granted a French patent for his steamboat in 1795, but he was also there during the unrest that followed the beheading of King Louis XVI (1754-1793; reigned 1774-92). The news of the king's death and the violence that followed had not yet reached America when Fitch sailed for France, and so he arrived in the Atlantic seaport of La Rochelle in April 1793 during a bloody civil war that brought business in the country to a standstill. He spent time in Nantes, then went on to London to look for investors there.
Settled in Kentucky
Out of money, Fitch returned to the United States by bargaining with a ship's captain for passage back to Boston, Massachusetts. In return, he had to spend several months as a dockworker in Boston. He then spent a year or so near his Windsor, Connecticut, hometown, probably at the home of his sister. Around 1796 he made one final attempt to find financial backers, stopping in New York City and demonstrating a small steam-powered vessel on a pond that then stood in Lower Manhattan, but his effort was unsuccessful. Fitch auctioned off his remaining business property, which included a boiler, cast-iron wheels, a lead pump, and his steam engine.
Fitch went to Kentucky to live on the land he had surveyed and claimed some fifteen years before. In the intervening years the area had been settled by many others, and he made a deal with a tavern keeper in the Bardstown area for room, board, and a pint of whiskey a day. In return he gave the bar owner the title to a tenth of his land. His biographers are in disagreement over whether he died by his own hand in July 1798, or from heart or liver failure, but he had written letters to friends stating his intention to drink himself to death.
Other inventors continued to work on the steamboat project, and a wealthy New York lawyer and politician, Robert Livingston (1746-1813), knew about Fitch's work from the time he had served in the Continental Congress. Livingston used his political connections to have Fitch's fourteen-year monopoly on steamboat travel in New York State taken away in March 1798. He then teamed with investors but their first boats were unsuccessful. In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson appointed Livingston to serve as minister to France, and there he met American engineer Robert Fulton, who was working on several projects for the French government, including one of the first working submarines.
Nine years after Fitch's death, in August 1807, Fulton and Livingston's boat, the North River, made its first trip from New York to Albany on the Hudson River. The vessel set a record time of thirty-two hours for a trip that usually took four days. Four years later a new boat from Fulton, the New Orleans, made its first trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, but the journey was slowed by one of the largest series of earthquakes ever to hit the continental United States. At one point just before the tremors began, the steamship passed just twenty miles from Fitch's grave in Bardstown, Kentucky. The era of steamboat travel had begun, and it helped a rapidly growing new nation expand with similar speed. Steam-engine locomotives followed, and even the steam-powered wagon that Fitch had once envisioned came to pass by the turn of the twentieth century.
For More Information
Prager, Frank D. The Autobiography of John Fitch. Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 1976.
Sutcliffe, Andrea. Steam: The Untold Story of America's First Great Invention. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
"John Fitch: First Steamboat." PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/fitch_hi.html. (accessed on July 7, 2005).
John Fitch (1743-1798), an American mechanic and inventor, was the first to build and operate a steam boat successfully.
John Fitch was born on a farm in Hartford County, Conn. By the age of 10 he had left school and begun farming. To escape farming he spent the next 6 years at clerking and various other jobs. He was apprenticed to two different clockmakers, and when he reached his twenty-first birthday he set up his own brass shop in East Windsor, Conn. He always had trouble maintaining stable social relationships; in 1769 he deserted his wife and left the state.
Settling in Trenton, N.J., Fitch set up as a brass and silver smith. During the American Revolution he earned a modest living repairing guns and provisioning the Continental troops. In 1780 he went west for the first time, as a surveyor for a land speculation company. While running lines along the Ohio River he laid claim to 1,600 acres in Kentucky. On another trip west, in 1782, he was captured by Indians and turned over to their British allies. After his imprisonment in Canada, he was released and continued his speculations in western lands. Following his last trip in 1785, he drew and engraved a map of the Northwest Territory which brought him some fame and a small income.
After 1785 Fitch devoted himself to developing the steamboat. The idea was not new, but Fitch later claimed to have gotten it independently after seeing a picture of a steam engine in a book. He first thought to apply steam power to driving wagons, but he soon turned to the problem of making a boat go by the force of steam. By 1786 he was granted an exclusive privilege to employ steam on the waters of New Jersey, and in 1787 he received similar grants from Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and Virginia.
Fitch worked with the clockmaker and master mechanic Henry Voight of Philadelphia to perfect his idea. He lacked the funds to purchase an engine ready-made from England; furthermore, export of steam engines was banned by the British government. So he tried to make an engine himself—a task which detracted significantly from his chances for success. Nevertheless in August 1787, before a distinguished group of Federal and Pennsylvania state officials, he demonstrated his first boat on the Delaware River. One handicap was the method of propulsion—a row of steam-powered oars on each side of the boat. His future boats used the paddle wheel. During this period he expended much energy in a controversy with James Rumsey of Virginia, who disputed his claim to have originated the steamboat.
In July 1788 Fitch successfully launched a new and larger boat, which made many trips between Philadelphia and Burlington, N.J., carrying as many as 30 passengers at a time. In 1790 he put another boat into service that made regularly scheduled runs across the Delaware River. Despite this success, however, steamboat travel was not accepted by the public. This, combined with constant mechanical troubles and uncertain financial backing, resulted in the failure of Fitch's enterprise.
Fitch received a patent in August 1791 but was not able to capitalize upon it. He sought the patronage of the Federal government as well as of several states, and he even corresponded with the Spanish government over the possibility of operating boats on the Mississippi River. He traveled to France looking for backing but failed there too. He returned to the United States and in 1796 moved to Kentucky. Here he died, presumably by his own hand, 2 years later.
Something of the difficulty of Fitch's life may be understood from the bitter humor of a declaration (with misspellings) he once made: "I know of nothing so perplexing and Vexatious to a man of feelings, as a turbulant Wife and Steam Boat building. I experienced the former and quit in season, and had I been in my right sences I should undoubtedly [have] treated the latter in this same manner, but for one man to be teised with Both, he must be looked upon as the most unfortunate man in this World."
Fitch's attempt to establish the steamboat was followed by at least a dozen other experimenters before Robert Fulton's success in 1807.
Fitch told his own story in The Original Steamboat Supported (1788). The standard biography is still Thompson Westcott, The Life of John Fitch, the Inventor of the Steam-boat (1857), but it may be supplemented by Thomas A. Boyd, Poor John Fitch, Inventor of the Steamboat (1935). A balanced account of the rivalry between Fitch and others is James Thomas Flexner, Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action (1944).
Fitch, John, The autobiography of John Fitch, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1976. □
American inventor who was one of the steam-boat's developers. Self-educated, Fitch experimented with a steam-propelled boat, constructing a model in 1785 and a steamboat two years later. Plagued by a lack of money and public disinterest, Fitch also struggled to defend his invention's originality when James Rumsey simultaneously developed a jet-propulsion steamboat. Fitch received several state patents and the Patent Act of 1790 was partly a result of the Fitch-Rumsey conflict. Both men were awarded a patent on August 26, 1791.