The Steamboat Inventors: The First Generation

Program Note: When last I posted, I said I was working on transforming The Backbone into a book. That work is still ongoing, but it’s taking longer than I expected to hammer the blog posts into a coherent manuscript. After so many months, I felt I needed to resume the story of the Age of Steam, so here is the next installment. I will produce another post to complete the story of the steamboat inventors before returning to the book. Thanks for your patience!


The idea that a fuel-burning engine could drive a vehicle over land, through the water, or even into the sky, was already old by the time of Watt’s triumphs. Leibiniz, Huygens, and Papin had all dreamed of vehicles powered by gunpowder or steam. The horseless carriage was the most popular concept; machinery to turn wheels was already commonplace, after all. John Robison had proposed a steam-driven carriage to Watt himself in 1759. But steam locomotion first became practical in the water, not on land. There were several reasons for this, but the most fundamental was size: early steam engines were large and heavy machines, built atop a large and heavy boiler which sat atop a large and heavy furnace (typically of brick). To float of all this mass on water was a far easier matter than to set it on wheels (though the crushing weight of its machinery sent many a steamboat to the bottom nonetheless).[1] Moreover, a ship of moderate size, unlike a road-bound vehicle of any reasonable dimensions, could hold all the workings and still have plenty of leftover room for paying cargo – human or otherwise. To make a much more compact engine would require high-pressure steam, but that raised many technical problems that would take decades to work out.

But to simply put an engine on a boat did not a functioning steamboat make. To make an effective vehicle hull, engine, transmission, and propulsion all had to be considered together, so that each part worked smoothly with the others. For example, an engine too heavy for the structure of the boat would sink it, but an engine too feeble for the size and shape of the boat would fail to make it go. It took many years of trying for steamboat inventors to grasp the necessity of designing the whole system, not just individual components, and they would waste a great deal of effort on hapless trial-and-error. The means of locomotion offered the widest variety of design choices, and thus the most opportunity to go horribly wrong. Alas for the steamboat inventor, knowledge about the physics of propulsion in water scarcely existed in the eighteenth century. The array of contrivances proposed for steamboat locomotion included banks of crank-driven oars, duck feet, a spring-driven fish tail, a chain of paddles, a paddle wheel in the front of the boat, at the stern, on the side, in the middle of a double hull. Perhaps surprisingly, no one attempted to push a sailing ship with an artificial wind from steam-driven bellows.

Most of the early milestones in steam navigation occurred in the United States, not Europe. Britain, with its rich scientific culture and direct knowledge of how to build and operate steam engines, had by far the strongest technical means for developing a steam-powered boat. But it lacked the economic motive. No one would construct a steamship large and powerful enough to brave the open ocean until well into the nineteenth century. Nor were the early steamboats especially fast: they could chug along at four to eight miles per hour, a similar speed to a stagecoach or a sailboat. So, the only value they could offer was the ability to navigate up rivers against the current. However, no place in Great Britain is more than seventy or eighty miles from the sea, and a frenzy of canal-building in the latter decades of the eighteenth century allowed cargo to be easily towed through the interior of Britain by horse.

The young United States, however, had motive in abundance. While the British government controlled the thirteen colonies, it had made some effort to block their westward expansion, to reduce friction with the French and the natives and keep the colonists under the eyes of the British governors on the coast. After the Revolutionary War those energies were entirely unchecked, and settlers poured across the Appalachians into the Ohio River valley and other parts of the northern Mississippi River basin. In 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordnance to organize the settlement of this vast territory. Developing better means of communication between the coast and the inland regions, whether by road or water, became a national priority. George Washington himself spent much of his energy between the end of the war and his election as President in in 1788 on schemes for inland navigation.

The inland parts of the U.S. had few if any roads and sending bulky goods by wagon was in any case very expensive, so the settlers generally needed to bring their farm produce to market or to acquire manufactured or imported goods for their homes by water. Several major rivers, most notably the Hudson and Potomac, stretched inland from the east coast, and the Mississippi and its tributaries reached into all the new colonial settlements west of the Appalachians. Two main types of cargo boats operated beyond the stretches of these rivers that were suitable for sailing: flatboats and keelboats. Flatboats were simple wooden boxes used to float goods downriver. These blocky, flimsy vessels could not be brought upstream, so their crew broke them up for lumber and then hiked or rode back.

Keelboats, more sophisticated craft, were built long and slender with a curved bow and stern and a covered cargo area in the center. After bringing cargo downriver, the crew brought the keelboat back up through a combination of several means: oars, poles (the crew would set the poles at the bow and then push them back until they stood at the stern, then repeat), “bushwacking” (pulling the boat along the brush lining the banks), and “cordelling” (attaching a rope to an upstream tree trunk, then reeling it in by hand or capstan).[2] This could take weeks or months. A round trip from St. Louis to New Orleans, for example, about 1,250 miles round-trip, would take four to six months. This grueling work attracted “a hard-muscled, profane, hard-drinking lot.” The most celebrated of the Mississippi and Ohio keelboatmen was Mike Fink, who called himself “half-horse, half-alligator.”[3]

A flatboat floating downriver in the foreground while a keelboat is poled upriver in the background. The flatboat will be making a one-way trip.

A steamboat could, in theory, make a round-trip on the Mississippi in weeks rather than months, with a small crew—and no need to pay extra for equine levels of exertion. So, inventors in the United States had a strong motive indeed for pursuing the steamboat, but they were sorely lacking in means. The pool of scientific and technical knowledge in the U.S. in the 1780s was both narrower and shallower than the one in which Watt swam. In the realm of science, Benjamin Franklin was the only man who counted in the former colonies as far as Europeans were concerned. Even by the most generous reckoning, scarcely anyone in the U.S. could be called a natural philosopher beyond Franklin and a few like-minded individuals in Philadelphia, such as David Rittenhouse. Even more serious than the lack of theory-minded philosophers were the gaps in craft know-how on the western side of the Atlantic. Experience with steam engines in America was so scarce that inventors who did not import an engine from Europe had to reinvent one based on written accounts and hearsay. Lacking access to anyone with the skills of a John Wilkinson for boring iron, they resorted to having copper sheets hammered together around a wooden mold to make the cylinders and condensers for their engines.[4]

The First Steamboat

In large part because of this technological lag, the first corroborated account we have of a working steamboat (the first toe in the water, as it were), comes not from the United States but from France. In 1775, the Marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans, imprisoned for dueling, dreamed from his cell of a ship driven by steam. After his release, he learned from French craftsmen about the Newcomen engine and the failed steamboat of another minor nobleman, Le Comte d’Auxiron. Auxiron’s boat sank to the bottom of the Seine in 1773 while at anchor, under the weight of its own engine. Jouffroy persevered nonetheless, and recruited d’Auxiron and others to make a second try. They secured a promise from the government of an exclusive license for the operation of steamboats in France, should they succeed.

After several setbacks, Jouffroy, with the backing of several investors, got a 130-foot boat onto the Saône river in Lyons in June, 1783. A Newcomen-style engine, built by a Lyons mechanic, powered the boat, despite the fact that Watt had been selling his far more efficient engine for years, including one installed in a Paris pumping station by the Périer brothers.[5] If technical developments took so long to spread across the English Channel, one can imagine how long they took to reach America. Driven by a pair of paddle wheels, the boat strained gradually up river for a quarter of an hour before both the hull and the boiler split at the seams.

Jouffroy thought he had proved his idea and earned the government monopoly that would attract more investment, but the Academy of Science in Paris disagreed, demanding a demonstration before their eyes on the Seine in Paris. Jouffroy now found himself caught in a vise that would trap many an inventor: he needed more funding to get to the next step of development that would secure him more funding. Rather than struggle to scrape together more cash for a new boat, he surrendered to fate, and retreated to the conventional aristocratic life in his native Franche-Comté. During the two decades that followed, the critical decades for the invention of the steamboat, France was wracked by civil and foreign war – notably, war with Britain, the best possible source for a steam powerplant. France would produce no more steamboat inventors, but will nonetheless have a further part to play in our story.

Rumsey

Meanwhile, American steamboat inventors had gotten underway, and despite a relative paucity of resources, they would show far more determination than Jouffroy when faced with setbacks. They were backcountry “mechanics,” with no life as a landed squire to fall back on. Mechanics were not engineers like Smeaton or Watt with a close connection to the scientific elite, but artisans who used experience and rule of thumb to make watermills, clocks, or fine metalwork.

James Rumsey was first. Little is recorded about his early life. We know that he was born in 1743 in Maryland, in an area known as Middle Neck. His family, which had emigrated from Wales in the seventeenth century, operated a tavern and mill in the area. After his birth, nearly all trace of him is lost for four decades. He may have married and lost or divorced this first wife, he may have served in the Revolutionary War, but nothing certain is known until 1782, when he bought a plot of land on Sleepy Creek, a small tributary of the Potomac in western Virginia. Within a couple of years, he constructed saw- and grist-mills in the area, and set himself up as an innkeeper in nearby Bath.[6] There he had a fateful run in with George Washington in 1784.

As we have said, Washington was focused at this time on the problem of inland communications, and that mission had brought him to Bath, as he traveled along the nearby Potomac. Washington had both a financial and a patriotic interest in the problem. As a bounty for his service in the French and Indian War, Washington had secured a grant of over 20,000 acres in the Kanawha Valley, part of the far western portion of Virginia that lay in the Ohio river system. Making travel into this part of the interior easier would increase the value of his lands. But he also feared that inland settlements not in good communication with the coasts might drift away from the original colonies, or even associate themselves with a European power. Spanish control of the mouth of the Mississippi, presently the only outlet for the produce of the farmers of Ohio and Kentucky, made that country a particular menace.

When Washington arrived at Rumsey’s inn in September 1784, the inventor seized the opportunity to corner the great man and pitch his idea for a streamboat (not a steamboat) for traveling upriver. At the Rumsey had spent the last year developing a mechanical Mike Fink, a boat that would pole itself upriver. It had a paddlewheel protruding from its bow, and the force of the downstream current turned the wheel and worked the machinery to raise and lower the poles, walking up river, in effect. Rumsey demonstrated a small working model. Washington was sufficiently impressed to provide him with a certificate, a brief document indicating that he had seen Rumsey’s invention and had faith in its value:

I have seen the model of Mr. Rumsey’s Boats… and do give it as my opinion… that he has discovered the Art of propelling Boats, by mechanism and small manual assistance, against rapid currents: that the discovery is of vast importance, may be of the greatest usefulness in our inland navigation—&, if it succeeds, of which I have no doubt, that the value of it is greatly enhanced by the simplicity of the works, which when seen & explained to, might be executed by the most common Mechanics.[7]

As of yet no federal patent law existed in the United States, but this endorsement was enough for Rumsey to secure a ten-year monopoly on boats “that will greatly facilitate navigation against the current of rapid Rivers” from the Virginia General Assembly, and a similar bill from Maryland.[8]

The general nature of the language in the Virginia bill, which would penalize anyone employing “any Boat or Boats upon the model of that invented by the said James Rumsey or upon the model of any future improvement which the said Rumsey may make thereon,” was quite convenient for Rumsey. His experiments with a full-scale pole boat failed to pan out: the vessel could scarcely move when laden with people or cargo. But the vagueness of Washington’s endorsement and the Virginia bill gave him the leeway to claim he had really been thinking of a different design all along, based on steam power.

Rumsey probably learned about steam engines from John Desaguliers’s account of the Newcomen engine in his popular 1744 work, A Course of Experimental Philosophy. It’s very unlikely that he had ever seen one: only three steam engines had existed anywhere in America, and only two men in the country had experience with building or operating them.[9] Rumsey came up with a surprising design for his propulsion system: rather than try to push the boat through the water with an oar or paddle, he proposed to suck water into a container on the boat and then pump it back out through a pipe in the stern, driving the hull forward. Though ultimately doomed by its inefficiency, the design had an attractive elegance – the piston of the steam engine was attached directly to the rod of the pump, so that the engine worked steam on one side and liquid water on the other.[10]

Cutaway view of Rumsey’s design. The rod of the steam cylinder (H) was directly connected to that of the working pump (G) below. When steam filled the cylinder and the upper piston (F) rose, the lower piston drew water into the lower cylinder. Then when the steam condensed and the atmosphere drove the piston down, the lower piston drove the water out the stern of the boat and pushed it forward.

Rumsey’s charisma carried him through, and he had little difficulty convincing Washington and his other backers of the superior merit of his new scheme. He was able to get enough funding to work on perfecting his machine for several years. Most of that time went to struggles with his boiler and cylinder. In the 1780s, American artisans simply lacked the tools, skills, and metallurgical knowledge required to make a reliable steam engine. Leaks and burst seams plagued Rumsey and all his contemporary rivals.

In December 1787, Rumsey was finally ready to make his first public demonstrations on the Potomac at Shepherdstown (about a dozen miles upstream from Harper’s Ferry). The attendees included Revolutionary War hero General Horatio Gates. The boat puttered up the river at two or three miles per hour, but suffered from a leaky boiler. It was enough, though, to secure more backing. Rumsey went to Philadelphia in 1788 to seek financial and intellectual support from American Philosophical Society. He earned the approbation of Franklin and the Society, to whom the simplicity and symmetry of the jet boat design appealed. Franklin found Rumsey’s approach especially congenial, because he himself had offhandedly proposed the idea of a jet-propelled boat in 1785. (Franklin had based his idea on an even earlier proposal by Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli, who had shown in 1753 that an L-shaped pipe would propel itself forward when water was poured into its open top.)

The Rivalry

In May 1788, Rumsey secured investments from Franklin and eighteen others in a new venture called the Rumseian Society, at $20 a share. The investors used their money to send Rumsey to Europe, to secure patents there against his primary rival – John Fitch. Fitch and Rumsey had already been engaged for several months in that classic eighteenth century martial art, the pamphlet war, beginning with Rumsey’s sally, A Plan Wherein the Power of Steam Is Fully Shown. As steamboat historian James Flexner wrote, the rivals were bound by personality to despise one another:

Fitch found life a terrible indenture which had been signed for him without his permission by his Creator, and which… contained many unfair clauses to begin with, and even then was not lived up to by his masters. To Rumsey life was a session at the gaming tables, where you took risks for the exhilaration of it; when you won, you spent your money like a gentleman… The two men would have hated each other at sight even if they had not met, with bayonets fixed, between the trenches of the first great steamboat war.[11]

Fitch was born on a farm in Windsor, Connecticut in the same year as his rival: 1743. He endured a failed apprenticeship as a clockmaker (another unfair indenture) before setting out on his own as brassworker and silversmith. He spent his prime years bouncing from one enterprise to another, a mix of successes and utter failures. Some notion of how much more poorly he got on with his fellow man than Rumsey can be gathered from the fact that he was appointed to a lieutenancy in the New Jersey militia at the start of the war, but then voted out of the position by his own men. So he made guns, supplied the troops with tobacco and alcohol, and then headed west to speculate on lands in Kentucky, where he was captured by a group of Delaware warriors allied to the British.

One of the Delaware, known as Captain Buffalo, nearly killed Fitch during this ordeal, but the was eventually returned to the United States in a prisoner exchange. Some insight into the mental agonies which Fitch suffered is shed by the fact that he often wished that he had not survived. He reflected in morbid detail on this fact at one point in his autobiography, after describing one of the many setbacks in his career as a steamboat inventor, the withdrawal of a bill seeking funding from Congress for his invention:

When I received information of that [the withdrawal], and reflecting how I had ruined myself to serve my country, and how many sleepless, restless nights I had suffered to bring about one of the greatest events, and such exquisite tortures of the mind… At that time I did religiously curse my savage captor, Captain Buffalo, for withholding his bloody hand, and slacking his nerves from not forcing his tomahawk into my head, when the blow was fairly drawn, and left my body on the banks of the Ohio, in a savage wild, to be devoured by wolves, rather than permit me to return to so unkind, ungenerous, and unmanly a people as my own nation.[12]

In the spring of 1785, Fitch was kicking around eastern Pennsylvania when a passing carriage gave him the idea to power such a vehicle with steam. Fitch claims to have been unaware at the time that such a thing as a steam engine had already been invented. He in any case soon corrected this ignorance with a glimpse at the atmospheric engines described in Philosophia Britannica, a 1759 collection of British science lectures. He also quickly realized that it would be far easier to float such a cumbersome engine on a boat. So began an obsession with the steamboat idea that would only end with his tragic death.

In the first year of working on the steamboat problem, Fitch’s accomplishments amounted to plans and drawings and the construction of a two-foot long (non-functioning) model steamboat. Such was the desire among the states for improvements to inland navigation, however, that this sufficed to secure the promise of a monopoly on steamboat operation from New Jersey in March 1786. The monopoly, in turn, gave him the credibility to form a steamboat company and raise $300 from investors. His stockholders were, of course, much less well-heeled than those of the Rumseian Society, consisting mostly of local artisans and shopkeepers.

Fitch, now headquartered in Philadelphia, used his new funds to test out his steamboat ideas on the on the Delaware River. He relied on German-born mechanic named Henry Voight for most of the hands-on design and construction. They built a successful model steam engine with a 3-inch diameter cylinder, and tested a new means of propulsion that Fitch had concocted. This consisted of banks of paddles on both sides of the boat driven by a crank in the center, so that the boat was driven forward as if rowed by a set of oarsmen. In their trials, Fitch and Voight served as the engine, cranking the paddles by hand.

Fitch and Voight’s crank-paddle steamboat

In the summer of 1786, with a working engine and propulsion system, Fitch and Voight believed the end was in sight – simply scale up the engine, connect it to crank, et voilà, a steamboat. They sorely underestimated, as so many did, the interconnected nature of steamboat design. It would take several more bouts of severe heartache, several more rollercoaster cycles of elation and despair, to finally arrive at a working system in the spring of 1790. Among other obstacles, Fitch had to reinvent the details of Watt’s condenser.[13] By that time, he and his partners had abandoned the original paddle system, replacing it with stern paddles that pushed down and back into the water like duck’s feet. Power came from a full-sized engine with an 18-inch cylinder. This configuration ran at a brisk seven miles-per-hour up and down the Delaware. The success Fitch had chased for so long had finally arrived, his long years of despair in wildernesses both real and metaphorical were finally at an end. Or so it seemed.

Fitch and Voight’s successful Delaware boat.

The Passing of a Generation

How, in the meantime, had things been going for Rumsey in Europe? After being launched upon his nautical career with a certificate from Washington, then acquiring the imprimatur of Franklin in Philadelphia, he now could count Thomas Jefferson among his patrons. Jefferson served as minister to France from 1784 to 1789, and Rumsey met him on his travels to Paris. Jefferson, suitably impressed, called Rumsey “upon the whole the most original and the greatest mechanical genius I have ever seen,” in a letter to the president of Harvard.[14]  In London and Paris Rumsey also secured patents for his novel “tube boiler.” Instead of heating a water reservoir on top of the furnace, he passed water-filled pipes directly through the furnace, saving on weight and bringing the water to boil more quickly and efficiently. Fitch and Voight had developed a similar device, but Rumsey got to Europe first.

But Rumsey, overestimating the quality and completeness of his design and therefore the value of what he brought to the table, refused the terms of a potential deal with Boulton & Watt to develop a working steamboat. So slipped away the perfect opportunity to secure exactly the technical skills the American steamboat inventor. He remained in Europe and ordered a 100-ton boat he called Columbian Maid, but in 1792, two years after its construction, it had yet to steam successfully. Rumsey, still hopeful of a public trial of his boat in the near future, gave a speech at the Society of Mechanic Arts in London in December of that year. Shortly after speaking, he collapsed at his seat, struck down by a brain hemorrhage at the age of 49.

Meanwhile, Fitch’s boat began regular passenger service between Philadelphia and Trenton in the summer of 1790, but his company lost money on the venture. Stagecoach service already offered quick and easy passage along the flat, settled banks of the lower Delaware, and the boat, filled with machinery, could carry only a few passengers at a time. The steamboat seemed a commercial failure, and Fitch’s partners began to lose interest. Why they did not up stakes for the much more rugged Hudson is unclear.

One of Fitch’s last hopes for renewing prospects in the U.S. was the passage of a federal patent law in 1790. With it, the government received not one, not two, but five applications for patents relating to steam propulsion: from Rumsey and Fitch, as well as Nathan Read, John Stevens, and Isaac Briggs.[15] After puzzling over the various claims, turning them this way and that, the harried commissioners—among them Thomas Jefferson himself—threw up their hands and simply gave patents to all but one of the applicants (Briggs was left out), leaving it for the courts to sort out. The overlapping nature of the varied claims granted to each inventor made all of their patents effectively worthless. Fitch then followed Rumsey to Europe and made one last abortive attempt to build a steamboat in revolutionary France. But he could not import the machinery he needed from England, since the two countries were at war. He returned to the U.S. downhearted and penniless in 1794.

Having lost his life’s purpose, Fitch moved to the frontier lands of Kentucky and made some desultory efforts to pursue his decade-old land claims there. But his main purpose became to drink himself to death. He assiduously sought the oblivion that had come to Rumsey unbidden. When his body proved too hardy to succumb to first one and then two pints of liquor a day, he accumulated a stash of opium pills, and then downed them all at once with a chaser of whiskey. This brought him at last to the end of his suffering in July of 1798 at the age of 55.

And so the first generation of steamboat inventors had passed from the world, but the steamboat had yet to enter it—or rather it had entered it in only the most fleeting manner. It strode on from stage left and directly off again at stage right with scarcely a moment in between for a flutter of applause. The steamboat had come and gone as a novelty. It would take another generation to turn it into a permanent and transformative fixture of the industrial world.


[1] The machinery in one early steamboat, for example, was estimated to weigh 800 pounds. H. Philip Spratt, The Birth of the Steamboat (London: Charles Griffin & Company, 1958), 46.

[2] Edith McCall, Conquering the Rivers: Henry Miller Shreve and the Navigation of America’s Inland Waterways (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), 20-22.

[3] McCall, 22.

[4] Jack L. Shagena, Who Really Invented the Steamboat?: Fulton’s Clermont Coup (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2004) 140 and 198.

[5] James Thomas Flexner, Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978 [1944]), 44-45.

[6] Bath’s founders named it after the English resort by founders in hopes of attracting a similar clientele to the local hot springs. Today it is Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

[7] Quoted in Shagena, 134.

[8] Shagena, 135. Quoted from “Bill for Granting James Rumsey a Patent for Ship Construction”, National Archives, November 11, 1784 (https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-08-02-0069).

[9] Carroll W. Pursell, Jr., Early Stationary Steam Engines in America: A Study in the Migration of a Technology (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969), 5-10.

[10] In the 1980s, a group of volunteers recreated Rumsey’s boat for the bicentennial of his 1787 steamboat trial. They found that it would go at about 4.5 miles per hour, but only with furious manual effort by the crew to man the pumps and keep the condenser fed with water. Nick Blanton, “The Rumseian Experiment.” https://jamesrumsey.org/the-rumseian-experiment.

[11] Flexner, 72.

[12] Quoted in Flexner, 144. The published version of Fitch’s Steamboat History does not contain this passage (Frank D. Prager, ed. The Autobiography of John Fitch (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1976)). However, Flexner had access to the original manuscript, and the published edition is heavily edited, so there is no reason to believe the quote is inauthentic. The Prager volume does contain a similar sentiment, after listing a series of complaints, Fitch wrote: “Which made me heartily curse my Barbarous captors, for staying the savage Blow…” (185).

[13] Flexner, 184.

[14] Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Willard, March 24, 1789 (https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-14-02-0437).

[15] Read had built a model steamboat, Briggs had designed an engine, and Stevens had ideas on paper based on modifications to Rumsey’s design.

4 thoughts on “The Steamboat Inventors: The First Generation”

  1. What I find amazing is how not one of these early “inventors” thought to use a… waterwheel. You know, like mills had been using for thousands of years at that point. Please don’t tell me it’s only obvious in retrospect. We’re talking the water mill, a literally ancient invention.

    As for those investors who didn’t think to simply try on a more suitable river, what, you expect businessmen to have vision?

    Great write-up as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent article! I love the details about the uselessness of the overlapping patents. Nine million applications later, our modern USPTO hasn’t changed much.

    Typo: eingines

    Like

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