The steamboat has been one of the most revolutionary inventions for inland navigation in human history, and its origins are steeped in good old fashioned American competition, ingenuity, and dedication.
John Fitch is credited as the inventor as the first successful steamboat when his boat successfully sailed the Delaware River in the presence of some members of the Constitutional Convention.
The invention of the steamboat is a long history of creativity and hard work, and inventor John Fitch overcame many hardships to create the world’s first steamboat. The rest of this article will discuss his life, vision, and his impact on naval history.
The Life of John Fitch
John Fitch would become an influential figure in the history of inland navigation and be the man who invented the steamboat, providing a way to transport goods quickly and efficiently through rivers, but the road to his success was halted by many obstacles in his life.
John Fitch was dealt a hard hand in his early life, with his mother dying when he was four and his standoffish father who was constantly hard and bitter. At the age of eight, he was pulled from school to work on the family farm, an act he resented profoundly.
Eventually, John would leave the farm to pick up silversmithing. Later, in 1776, he would be married but would soon discover that married life was not for him.
Fleeing to the Ohio River basin, John himself entrenched in the upcoming American Revolutionary War, where was taken prisoner by the British and Indians. Over time, he would be returned to Pennsylvania in 1782, where he saw a need for a unique kind of boat that could navigate in the western rivers.
Nigh-upon obsessed with bringing his idea of a steam-powered watercraft to life, Fitch sought financial support from the U.S. government; however, they proved to be uninterested in his ideas.
After securing a 14-year monopoly for steamboat traffic, investors among the wealthy businessmen and individuals of Philadelphia were extremely interested in Fitch’s prospective inland navigation watercraft.
He had heard rumors of the steam powered engine produced by Watt. The only problem? Scottish inventor James Watt’s steam engine was off-limits to the U.S.
For some reason, the Brits didn’t want to share their technological innovations with the newly formed United States, so Fitch enlisted the help of Henry Voight, a Philadelphia clock maker and master mechanic, to help him build a steam engine like the one designed by Watt.
After successfully designing a steam engine for the boat and with the backing of his Philadelphia financiers, he constructed a 45-foot watercraft to be shown before a group of delegates to the Constitutional Convention.
On August 22, 1787, The Perseverance made its maiden voyage on the Delaware River. Clunky as it might have appeared with its six steam-powered oars on either side of the boat, the trial run was successful, cementing Fitch as the first person to design a functional steamboat engine.
In later designs, Fitch would use a paddle wheel on the rear of the boat that sat in the water. The engine turned the wheel, propelling the boat forward.
Fitch’s efforts to monopolize his new steamboat were complicated by the elegant Virginian James Rumsey, who was also working on a steamboat project.
Rumsey had managed to pocket the support of the U.S. government, including George Washington himself, who was extremely enthusiastic about the idea and endorsed it publicly.
Understandably frustrated by the intrusion, Fitch visited Washington at his Virginia home in November of 1785, inquiring about Rumsey’s work and asking for a letter of introduction to the Virginia Assembly. Washington refused.
The very next year in 1786, Washington told Rumsey of Fitch’s intentions, and Rumsey traveled to investigate in Philadelphia.
A legal battle ensued, and Fitch secured the rights to his patent. The only problem was that Rumsey got one as well. This compromise meant neither Fitch nor Rumsey could profit from their work
From 1785-1796, Fitch would build four successful steamboats that were adept at navigating the Pennsylvania waters and demonstrated that steam locomotion for water was applicable and a plausible solution for transporting goods.
The models relied on several different methods of propulsion, including paddle wheels, screw propellers, and ranked paddles.
Despite proving his point that these newfangled machines were feasible for transporting goods on inland waterways, Fitch wasn’t much of a businessman when it came to reining in his operating costs.
In the end, by not keeping track of his building and operating costs, Fitch failed to demonstrate the feasibility of steam-powered boats on the water.
Fitch also fell out of favor with his investors after the patent war with Rumsey. While Fitch ‘won’ the legal battle for ownership, he did not secure the broad monopoly patent he sought, which would give competitors a foothold in the burgeoning steamboat industry.
Fitch’s competitor, Rumsey, would also be granted some patents for steamboat-related inventions, further disincentivizing Fitch’s investors from staying with the company. After the loss of another steamboat to a storm, his investors’ patience was wearing thin.
Traveling to France in 1793, Fitch attempted to get the government interested in his invention, but when he arrived, he found a land rife with intense civil unrest following the execution of King Louis XVI.
He did secure a patent for steamboats in France, but the bloody civil war wasn’t good for business, so Fitch left back for the states.
Without the financial resources to carry on developing his steamboat, Fitch floundered, and his life of continual failure, legal battles, and endless vexation from his rivals wore him down. Returning to Bardstown, Kentucky in 1797, Fitch began drinking heavily.
At age 55, he died of an opium pill overdose in a case that may have been a suicide.
Following his death, Robert Livingston, a New York lawyer and politician, would successfully lobby to have Fitch’s monopoly removed. After some unsuccessful attempts to design a steamboat of his own, Livingston bumped into American engineer Robert Fulton in France.
Just nine years after Fitch died, in 1807, the joint project of Fulton and Livingston, the North River would successful complete a trip from New York to Albany.
The trip was completed in just 32 hours for a journey that typically took 4 days. With the success of this trial run, the era of steamboat travel had begun, with steam-powered locomotives soon to follow.
Although Fitch’s name might be obscure among the greats of American inventors, he still progressed the hand of innovation with his steamboat designs. He found a way to convert the brilliance of Watt and Newcomen’s engines into workable propulsion energy, sparking a thread of interest that would lead to the era of the steamboat.
Fitch also left his mark in some unintended ways as well. The ongoing legal dispute with competitor James Rumsey helped to bring about the Patent Act of 1790, which would help to establish sole and exclusive rights, liberty of making, construction, use, and sale of invention to the owner.
It would also define the subject matter of patents, helping prospective inventors obtain patents more easily and resolving cases of infringement with a jury.
So while Fitch may never have gotten the rights to his invention that he sought so fervently, he contributed to helping other inventors get their due credit for their work. Better late than never, I suppose.
Despite how obscure Fitch was in a time of such political and international turmoil where a newfound country was still establishing rules and regulations for inventors, he is still memorialized in several places in the U.S.
A memorial in Bardstown’s Courthouse Square depicts a replica of his first steamboat, for example. A small stone monument built in 1914 marks the birthplace of John Fitch in South Windsor, Connecticut.
Fitch was a truly incredible inventor, but numerous setbacks during his life left him feeling empty and frustrated. The life of an inventor is often fraught with numerous trials and tribulations, but there are perhaps few so troubled as John Fitch's.
From the death of his mother at age four to the ill-timed storm that quite literally dashed his hopes and dreams to pieces, Fitch was constantly betrayed and confounded by an unforgiving world.
Despite all of the hardships in his early life, Fitch’s contributions to the legacy of the steamboat are undeniable.
Not only did he construct his own steam engine with the help of master engineer Henry Voight, but he was able to incorporate it into an awkward, yet functional steamboat that sailed successfully right before the eyes of delegates from the Constitutional Convention.
Legal battles with rival James Rumsey would prove to be the downfall of both of them, with neither being able to profit from their work and quickly losing the interest of their investors.
After making several more futile attempts to secure funding, Fitch returned to Bardstown, where the frustrations of an unfruitful life caught up with him.
Fitch may not have been able to see the contribution he made to society, but as the man who invented the steamboat, his innovations in inland navigation is undeniable.