Saturday, November 14, 2009

The next time you hear about the first steamboat in America being made by Fulton, remember that is wrong and the right answer is Fitch

How often have we heard of the first steamboat called the Clermont. Made by Robert Fulton and sailed into history in 1807. But the true inventor of the first successful steamboat was indeed John Fitch (1743-1798).

Fitch was truly the first to this, yet we never hear that fact. In fact Fulton has captured the hearts of historians and the public alike, be it true or not as to what he did.

The first successful run of his steamboat took place on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787. The witnesses of this were some of the delegates from the Constitutional Convention. It was propelled by a bank of oars on either side of the boat. The following year Fitch launched a 60-foot boat powered by a steam engine driving several stern mounted oars. This was much like how a duck paddles themselves through water. He carried hundreds of passengers on several round-trip voyages between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey.

Fitch was granted a patent on August 26, 1791. Although his boats were mechanically successful, Fitch failed to pay sufficient attention to construction and operating costs and was unable to justify the economic benefits of steam navigation. His investors left him and he was left to paddle alone.

Fitch also invented a steam railroad locomotive during the 1780s and demonstrated his little working model before President George Washington and his cabinet in Philadelphia. It is not known what Washington may have thought of it, but I am sure they were all impressed but confused about what good such a machine would have.

The model that was shown to Washington still exists at the Historical Society Museum in Columbus, Ohio.

Fitch's idea would be made profitable and far more newsworthy by Robert Fulton, in the 19th century. Though Fulton was able to obtain a monopoly in the state of New York, because of the powerful influence of his business partner Robert Livingston.

Fitch also received patents from France, and is more widely known than Fulton in Europe for the invention and development of the steamboat, although not the train. This is because the powers that be have totally forgotten nor bothered to repair a wrong done many years ago. Today you can see a monument to Fulton in Trinity Cemetery in New York. But as for Fitch he wallows in obscurity in the files and ledgers of history.

Below is a drawing of the first type of steamboat made by Fitch in 1787 and viewed by members of the Constitutional Congress.