The Steamboat Inventors: The Second Generation

Robert Livingston’s First Partnership

It would take a further twenty years after the deaths of Fitch and Rumsey before steamboat travel was established on a permanent basis in the U.S. Several more would-be steamboat inventors came and went before a partnership between two men drove the development of the steamboat to its successful conclusion. The first of them to get involved with steam was scarcely an inventor at all. Robert Livingston, also known as “the Chancellor,” because he presided over the New York Court of Chancery from 1777 to 1801, was among the most powerful and influential men in the young United States. He inherited large tracts of land around the Hudson, at a time when landed wealth still counted for a great deal (the land had come from a royal land grant to the family in the 1680s). At the age twenty-eight, he won election to the New York Provincial Congress, which then dispatched him to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. There he sat with Jefferson and Adams on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, but he had greater influence on the new state constitution of New York, which he helped to write two years later.

Robert R. Livingston, “The Chancellor,” circa 1796.

Busy as he was with law, politics, and the management of an estate, Livingston was an inventor only in the most dilettantish sense. He had a strong interest in natural philosophy and scientific agriculture, but had little sense of mechanical principles or practical construction techniques. In the 1790s, he conceived an improbable scheme to turn the pulp of a local river weed into a writing medium, at a far lower price than the rags then used as the main raw material for paper. The resulting product, however, was brittle and useless.[1] This level of success was par for the course for his would-be inventions. But Livingston was the first wealthy and politically influential person to become passionate about steam navigation. Washington and Jefferson had all shown an interest in the idea, Franklin had invested a bit of cash in it, but Livingston threw himself into the development of steamboats as an active participant.

An inventor named Samuel Morey first attracted Livingston’s interest to the steamboat. Morey was born in Connecticut in 1762, but grew up in Orford, New Hampshire, a village on the Connecticut River that his parents had helped to found. Other than that, little is known of his early life, other than the fact that he showed an interest in, and an aptitude for, mechanical matters. In fact, very little corroborated or verifiable evidence exists even for Morey’s later career – much of the biographical material that we have consists of hearsay and legends, some of which clearly contradict both one another and established facts.[2]

The shores of the Connecticut River grow rugged as one moves inland past Springfield into the Berkshires. Orford lay another 150 miles further north from there. With scarce and unsurfaced roads, the movement of people and goods to and from the interior of New Hampshire was difficult. So, like so many inventive American minds before him, Morey turned his thoughts to steamboats. His first recorded invention had already demonstrated an interest in the expansive power of steam. This device turned a spit over a fire without the need of any human intervention, by drawing on the motive force of vapor from a tea kettle.[3]

In 1793 he deployed a small steamboat on the Connecticut, which evidently steamed successfully along the river at four miles per hour. Over the next few years, he made multiple trips to New York to drum up support for further development of his invention, and in 1796 he got the chance to demonstrate his boat to Livingston. The intrigued Chancellor offered $7,000 on the spot (a substantial sum) for rights to use Morey’s technology on the North River (what we now call the Hudson). But Morey, like so many inventors before and after him, overestimated the value of his undeveloped prototype, and refused. Nothing daunted, Livingston offered a large investment if Morey could demonstrate a vehicle that reached eight miles per hour. Morey tried, and in 1797, he adopted a pair of side paddle wheels to propel his boat, a first for American steamboats. Shortly thereafter, however, he seems to have given up on his steamboat dream and retreated to Orford.[4]

Having seen with his own eyes that a steamboat was possible, Livingston decided to take his own stab at making it practical. To do so, he formed a partnership with two other, more practical men: Nicholas Roosevelt (an engineer and member of the same family that would later produce two presidents), and John Stevens.

We have met Stevens before, as one of the four men granted a steamboat patent in 1791. Though not so politically prominent a man as Livingston, he had wealth enough to count as an American aristocrat. Stevens’ grandfather left considerable lands in New Jersey to his children, and his father further enlarged his means as a trader of wine, rum and other goods out of Amboy, a town at the mouth of the kill that separates Staten Island from the mainland. The younger Stevens then found his own new sources of income, including developing Hoboken into a retreat for wealthy New Yorkers in want of space and fresh air. Just as one might expect of aristocratic families, the Livingstons and Stevens intermarried. In 1770, Livingston wed Stevens’ younger sister Mary, and Stevens and his own wife named their second son Robert Livingston Stevens, after his uncle.

A portrait of Stevens as an elder statesman, in 1830.

Stevens’ interest in steamboats dated back to the late 1780s, when Rumsey and Fitch’s pamphlet war made him aware of their efforts. He concocted improvements to Rumsey’s designs, and petitioned Congress for a patent law that would help to secure his rights over those ideas, arguing that neither Rumsey nor Fitch had developed a sufficiently effective machine to deserve monopoly protection. In his petition he expounded in rapturous terms on the advantages to be gained from steam-powered vessels:

[From] a reciprocal exchange of the production and manufactures of one country for those of another a general advantage would result to the whole. The earth would then be everywhere stimulated to bring forth with its utmost vigor; civilization and the arts would spread rapidly over the face of the globe; then, and not till then, might it be said that man was really master of the world, with everything in it subservient to his will.[5]

Stevens’ lobbying led directly to the passage of 1790 patent law, from which ensued the conflicting claims of the various steamboat inventors, and the less than Solomonic solution at which the patent commissioners arrived, viz. to simply grant all of their claims.

In the new partnership, Stevens provided some ideas and oversight, while Roosevelt superintended the actual building work at a workshop on the Passaic River called Soho, in honor of Boulton & Watt’s works of the same name near Birmingham. Construction on a boat began in early 1798. Livingston attempted technical interventions that were entirely unhelpful. He insisted on nonsensical ideas, such as driving the boat with a horizontal waterwheel under the keel, and wrote a non-plussed James Watt to tender ill-conceived suggestions for the improvement of his steam engine.[6]

But Livingston provided invaluable political services. In that same winter of 1797-1798, he convinced the New York legislature to void Fitch’s monopoly on steamboat travel on the North River and transfer it to himself. Fitch had done nothing to pursue his rights in years, and, in any case, everyone believed him dead—though he wasn’t quite dead, yet.[7] The new legislation required Livingston to produce a successful boat within a year to cement his monopoly, but he would secure repeated extensions to that deadline.

The first trials in the summer of 1798 bore little fruit. The boat, using elliptical paddles designed by Stevens and driven by an imitation Watt engine, ran down the Passaic to New York at less than four miles per hour, it vibrated excessively, and both the pipes and the hull leaked.[8] The next couple years brought no more success. Roosevelt struggled to get a proper cylinder bored for a new engine – no one anywhere in the Americas could match the technique of the ironworks that Boulton & Watt had access to in England. Stevens considered ordering equipment directly from Boulton & Watt, but balked at the cost. A second boat, launched in 1800, proved as unsatisfactory as the first, and the partners continued to squabble over design, expenditures, and other issues.

Then, in 1801, Thomas Jefferson appointed Livingston—who had proved an effective ally against President Adams and prospective president Burr—as minister to France. He took ship for Paris in October. Though Livingston, Roosevelt, and Stevens had signed an agreement in 1800 to combine their steamboat endeavors for twenty years, Livingston’s departure marked the effective end of the partnership.[9]

Livingston and Fulton

Livingston arrived in Paris with orders to secure the purchase of New Orleans, whose possession had recently reverted from Spain to France. If the control over the mouth of the Mississippi by a decaying foreign empire had always concerned America’s leaders, the prospect of a vigorous French imperial policy in North America under Napoleon outright alarmed them. When not performing his official duties, however, Livingston had time to socialize with the other Americans in Paris, and sometime in early 1802 he crossed paths with an ambitious young man named Robert Fulton.

Fulton was born in 1765 in the gunsmithing center of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Little is known of his childhood, but in his youth, he apprenticed to a jeweler from London who had set up shop in Philadelphia. He developed in expertise in delicate “hair” designs—it was fashionable at the time to weave a strand of a deceased loved one’s locks into a piece of jewelry as a memento—and in painting miniature portraits for lockets.[10] He set up his own business in Philadelphia in 1785, and would have had the opportunity to see Fitch operating his steamboat on the Delaware. .” Fulton developed enough skill in his art to attract the mentorship of Benjamin West, a painter who had grown up Lancaster in the generation before Fitch. West became an artistic prodigy, and flared across Europe in the 1760s and 70s like a shooting star. Works such as The Death of General Wolfe earned him the sobriquet “the American Raphael. He urged Fulton on to greater things. It was not possible to achieve a full artistic educationin the backwater of the United States, so West wrote Fulton a letter of introduction to smooth his way into European society, and the hopeful young man departed for London in the summer of 1787.[11]

But Fulton’s subsequent art career had more in it of mediocrity than meteor. He did not care that much, as it turns out, about becoming a great painter, per se. He just wanted to make his mark on the world, and achieve fame and fortune along the way. Painting was proving a difficult path to that end, so instead he began to style himself a civil engineer. He published a treatise on canal navigation in 1796 despite a complete lack of practical experience in the field.[12] His most novel proposals consisted in cutting narrower channels in order to get more canal milage for the same amount of labor, and replacing locks with ramps up which canal boats could be dragged, for the same reason. These ideas, however, were severely flawed and never adopted.

When his canal proposals failed to convince English audiences, Fulton moved to France the following year in search of investors. But once there he found yet another path of glory to pursue, as the champion of submarine warfare. Fulton almost certainly learned about the submarine from a fellow American expatriate, Joel Barlow, who was about ten years his senior. A famous poet and bohemian, Barlow had moved to France with his wife Ruth in 1788 to seek investors for a land speculation company that later proved to be fraudulent. Barlow disclaimed any wrongdoing, and stayed on in France.

Fulton roomed with the Barlows and developed an unusual relationship with the couple, which is recorded in Barlow’s letters. When Fulton and Ruth traveled together with Joel, he used bizarre baby talk to urge his beloved “toot” (Fulton) to “tate dood tare of nitten wifey—sant tweeze too ard—jus ove properly.” (take good care of little wife—musn’t squeeze too hard, just love properly.) To Ruth, Barlow expressed his belief that the “machine of his [Fulton’s] body is better & more worthy his attention than any other machine he can make…” The letters strongly imply that Fulton was intimate with Ruth Barlow at her husband’s encouragement; whether Fulton also reciprocated Joel’s apparent affectionate interest is unknown.[13]

Barlow knew about submarines because he had attended Yale in 1775, at which time that fellow Yalie David Bushnell was designing and building his Turtle to attack the British. Fulton never credited Bushnell, but the submarine design he proposed to the French government copied his predecessor’s in all its essentials, although he extended the hull to hold a larger crew and in the hopes of making a more sea-worthy vessel. He pitched his submarine to the French as a means of destroying the British fleet and making an invasion across the channel possible; but he advertised it to world (and especially American) public opinion as a means to make the seas safe for free trade, by wiping them clean of the warships that enforced embargos. This theory failed to contend with the consequences of submarines so effective against men-of-war as to render them obsolete. Such a weapon could surely destroy foreign merchant shipping just as easily.

The design of Fulton’s Nautilus submarine.

In the event, Fulton’s submarine did not sink not so much as a single vessel, much less sweep the British from the seas. Despite borrowing heavily from Bushnell’s design, he did not learn from Bushnell’s conclusion that the submarine was a failure as a weapon of war. A human-driven screw propeller provided too little power to attack anything but a ship at anchor, and even then, a successful attack required a difficult procedure of attaching a mine to the hull and then scurrying away. After several failed trials, Fulton disassembled his prototype Nautilus in 1801, before the French government could inspect it and see its deficiencies clearly. Napoleon, who by that time led France as First Consul, was not deceived, and called Fulton a “charlatan and a swindler.”[14]

Then came the fateful meeting with Livingston. Stymied once more in his quest for fame and fortune, Fulton was in need of another outlet for his ambitions. For his part, the Chancellor, charmed by the charismatic Fulton, believed he may have found the partner who could realize his dream of a steamboat on the North River. Fulton had already been thinking about steamboats for nearly a decade: he had befriended Rumsey in London, and began making his own experiments with model boats and different propulsion methods in 1793, after he realized that he had a dim future as a painter.[15] In October 1802, Livingston and Fulton signed an agreement to build a steamboat that would run from New York City up to Albany. Livingston would cover all of the expenses, but Fulton would be required to remit 250 pounds if the effort failed.

They borrowed a steam engine and built a boat with two side paddles (an idea that likely came from Morey by way of Livingston) that successfully steamed on the Seine in August 1803. Unlike Rumsey and Fitch, no driving obsession drove Fulton into steamboating. He did not believe in it deeply; it was simply a means that served the end of his ambition. Despite his agreement with Livingston, he continued to be distracted by his submarine and “torpedos” (mines anchored undersea or launched at enemy ships by various means). His efforts on these projects kept him in Europe for three more years, until late 1806. His only successful trials consisted of blowing up stationary targets in friendly harbors in broad daylight, but he nonetheless extracted 15,000 pounds from the British government for his troubles.[16]

1806 portrait of Fulton by Benjamin West. Note that the background does not depict a steamboat, but an explosion set off by Fulton’s greater love, a naval torpedo.

How did this man, so lackadaisical in pursuing the destiny that awaited him, so enamored of other, entirely doomed schemes for advancement, how did this man succeed where so many others had failed? Despite the delays it engendered, Fulton’s cool, detached attitude toward the steamboat had some advantages. He had no preconceived design to which he felt partial, and he was unafraid to borrow liberally from his predecessors. In a passage from his Treatise on Canal Navigation, he described his philosophy of invention:

As the component parts of all new machines may be said to be old; but it is that nice discriminating judgment, which discovers that a particular arrangement will produce a new and desired effect, that stamps the merit …The mechanic should sit down among levers, screws, wedges, wheels, etc. like a poet among the letters of the alphabet, considering them as the exhibition of his thoughts; in which a new arrangement transmits a new idea to the world.[17]

This approach was well adapted to Fulton’s circumstances: all of the prior attempts at steamboat invention provided “component parts” aplenty to choose from and arrange.

Fulton also brought a modern engineering approach to the steamboat, based on mathematics and empiricism. He drew on new findings in physics, applying Mark Beaufroy’s experiments with the resistance of variously shaped solids dragged through water to hull design. In the summer of 1802, he tested a four-foot-long spring-powered model boat on a small pond, measuring its speed with a variety of propulsion devices. In this he resembled John Smeaton, rigorously testing the effectiveness of a variety of waterwheel designs fifty years earlier.[18]

Fulton’s final advantage over his American predecessors—excluding the advantages he derived from his association with the powerful Livingston, of course—was that he was the first to employ a genuine Boulton & Watt engine. Rumsey had considered it, but refused the requirements of the contract proposed by the engine-makers; wartime export restrictions had vexed Fitch’s attempt to buy a British engine; and Stevens had been scared off by the price tag and export difficulties. But Livingston had no qualms about ordering a twenty-four-horsepower engine to be delivered to New York.

Fulton finally returned to New York City in December 1806, and retrieved his engine from customs in March 1807. He continued to be more enthused about the prospects for his torpedoes than about the steamboat, and after failing to make a sale in France of Britain, he offered his weapon to his native land. He demonstrated this his weapon could blow up the anchored brig Dorothea …on the third attempt. An American journalist wrote sarcastically: “all that’s necessary is that the ships must come to anchor in a convenient place; watch must be asleep, or so complacent as to not disturb any boats paddling about them—fair wind and tide—no moonlight… bang’s the word and the vessel’s blown up in a moment.”[19] No purchase would be forthcoming from the American government, either. The steamboat would have to be it, then.

Livingston’s political influence had kept the crucial North River monopoly waiting for Fulton, and his stature in New York would also help the duo brave the headwinds of public prejudice, convincing people that the steamboat could, perhaps, be an idea worthy of consideration. General intelligent opinion on steam propulsion held that it was a folly. Benjamin Latrobe, among the most respected engineers in America, read a report to the American Philosophical Society in May 1803—some fifteen years after the steamboats of Jouffroy, Rumsey, and Fitch—that listed six objections to steam navigation:

[after the revolution, a] sort of mania began to prevail, which indeed has not yet entirely subsided, for impelling boats by steam-engines. …There are indeed general objections to the use of the steam-engine for impelling boats, from- which no particular mode of application can be free. These are: 1st, the weight of the engine and of the fuel. 2d, The large space it occupies. 3d, The tendency of its action to rack the vessel and render it leaky. 4th, The expense of maintenance. 5th, The irregularity of its motion, and the motion of boiler and cistern, and of the fuel-vessel in rough water. 6th, The difficulty arising from the liability of the paddles or oars to break, if light; and from the weight, if made strong.[20]

Fulton himself reported that when he overheard people discussing his steamboat while it was under construction in New York, “[t]he language was uniformly that of scorn, or sneer, or ridicule. The loud laugh often rose at my expense; they dry jest; he wise calculation of losses and expenditures; the dull but endless repetition of the Fulton Folly. Never did a single encouraging remark, a bright hope, or a warm wish cross my path.[21]  A strong culture of technical conservatism prevailed everywhere. Before the explosion of constant novelty created by the industrial revolution, most people assumed the world would go on tomorrow much as it always had before today, and with good reason.

On August 17, 1807, Fulton would try to put all the doubts to rest, when he at last ran a trial of his North River Steam Boat. It made the journey upstream from New York City up to Livingston’s Clermont estate in twenty-four hours, then proceeded to Albany the next morning and arrived by five p.m., thus covering 150 miles in thirty-two hours, a speed of just under five miles-per-hour. This was good enough to secure the New York monopoly.[22]

Fulton ran passenger service until ice made further operations dangerous, by which time the venture had already made a profit of 5% on the $20,000 invested. This first profit from steamboating was a major landmark. Fitch had operated his vessel for a season, but it could carry few passengers (being almost all engine), and he unwisely ran on the lower Delaware, a flat country with good stagecoach service. The North River ran through rugged country with poor roads, from the Palisades on the New Jersey shore up through the Hudson Highlands and beyond.

The winter after that first successful season, the forty-three-year-old Fulton married Livingston’s daughter, a woman nearly twenty years his junior. Fulton may have been indifferent towards her physical attractions, but the marriage cemented his alliance with the man who had secured his success and who still held the New York steamboating monopoly rights.[23] For the 1808 running season, Fulton achieved another landmark – he and his mechanics and workmen rebuilt the North River into a more capacious and efficient vessel, which they rechristened the North River of Clermont. It measured 149 feet long, and was widened from thirteen feet to seventeen in order to improve stability and create more room for passengers. Three cabins provided passengers with berths as well as food and drink.[24]

A 1909 replica of Fulton’s North River Steam Boat.

Unlike his predecessors, Fulton had now shown the capacity for repeatable success. 1807 could not be written off as a freak like the trials of earlier steamboat inventors; it marked the beginning of continuous, commercial steamboat service in the United States. Over the seven years until his death, Fulton oversaw the construction of a dozen more steamboats, which ran on the Raritan, Potomac and Mississippi as well as the North River.[25] But Livingston and Fulton would not be allowed to enjoy their monopoly in peace.

The Second Steamboat War

If the battle for priority between Fitch and Rumsey constituted the first steamboat war, the second revolved around the conflict between Fulton and Livingston and the one hand, and Livingston’s erstwhile partner, John Stevens, on the other. Just as with the First World War, the legacy of the earlier conflict sowed seeds for its sequel. In this case, that legacy was the monopoly granted by the state of New York to John Fitch, which Livingston had secured in 1798, at first with the intent of sharing it with Roosevelt and Stevens, but then later transferring it to Fulton and himself.

While Fulton and Livingston were making plans in Europe, Stevens had not forgotten about the steam boat. Competition for his Hoboken-New York ferry from a new company organized out of Paulus Hook spurred him on: a faster, steam-powered ferry could drive his competition out of business.[26] But he pursued a different technical path from all of his predecessors, based on screw propeller propulsion driven by high-pressure steam engines. He borrowed some of his ideas from Oliver Evans of Philadelphia, who also favored high pressure.

Stevens had hit on what would become a successful combination in the long run, but the metallurgy and metal working of the early nineteenth century were not yet up to supporting high-pressure boilers safely, and propellers would not drive a boat forward effectively with the feeble torque provided by low-pressure steam. Stevens sent his son to Britain to appeal directly to Watt for help in constructing a high-pressure boiler and engine, but the great old man rejected the offer flatly: he had decided long ago that an engine ought to go no more than three pounds per square inch beyond atmospheric pressure. Anything higher was too dangerous to meddle with.[27]

A later photo of Steven’s 1804 steam ferry, Little Juliana, named for his seven-year-old daughter.

In 1806, with Livingston and Fulton’s steamboat under construction in New York, Livingston extended an olive branch to this potential rival. Knee-deep in expenses, he offered Stevens a one-third share in his and Fulton’s partnership, in exchange for one-third of the costs of the project to date: $1666. As Stevens biographer Archibald Turnbull put it, “he would have saved much worry and a great sum of money if he had then and there put his pride into his pocket and taken his wallet out of it.” But believing he had the better design and patent rights to protect him, he refused.[28]  

Stevens’ tune changed, of course, once the North River Steam Boat proved a success. Chagrined, he wrote a letter requesting a full, equal partnership that “might set all competitors at defiance” rather than “throw[ing] open the door to contending interlopers.”[29] He combined enticements with threats – that his boat would be faster, outcompeting the Livingston-Fulton design, and that he would anyway break the Hudson monopoly by legal action in New Jersey. After an extensive epistolary argument about the constitutionality of Livingston’s New York monopoly, peppered with strained analogies to cart wheels and musical instruments, the Chancellor made a final offer: a one-fifth share in exchange for publicly acknowledging Fulton as the inventor of the steamboats operated by Stevens, until and unless Stevens developed a completely new design.

Stevens refused again. He launched his own Phoenix, on a similar pattern to the North River of Clermont, in the summer of 1808, and ran it all that season on the lower Hudson between New York and Perth Amboy. But then the second Livingston-Fulton boat, the Raritan, came into operation on the same route at lower rates. A vexed Stevens, at risk of seizure of his boat due to his violation of the New York monopoly, decided to move his operations to the Delaware. This coastal transfer of 150 miles took thirteen days. The Phoenix scurried into harbor multiple times along the way, to hide from real or apprehended bad weather, or to deal with breakdowns. The sailing ships of the open ocean had little to fear from steam power just yet.[30]

Stevens’ steamboat Phoenix.

Stevens and the Livingston-Fulton combine battled again in subsequent years over New York ferry service, and over monopoly rights in North Carolina. All attempts at negotiation stumbled over the issue of credit: Fulton always insisted that he deserved full credit as inventor of the steam boat for bringing the idea to successful fruition; Stevens always saw the younger man as an imitative Johnny-come-lately. The New York monopoly that fueled the dispute outlived most of the principals.The Supreme Court finally nullified it in 1824. Gibbons v. Ogden ruled that navigation on interstate waters fell within the remit of the federal government, making the New York state monopoly unconstitutional, as Stevens had always said it was. At 75, he was still around to see himself vindicated, but he had no one left to gloat to: Fulton and Livingston had both died nearly a decade before.

The most important outcome of the second steamboat war, however, lay on the periphery of the conflict between Stevens and Fulton. The success of the North River Steam Boat brought many “contending interlopers” out of the woodwork. A group of Albany investors, for example, built two new boats in 1811, the Hope and the Perserverance, that borrowed both design ideas and trained mechanics from Fulton and Stevens. These boats worked well from the start, and ran throughout the 1811 summer season, until the monopoly succeeded in having them seized by court order and broken up for scrap. The construction of a steamboat had become a feat that not only Fulton, but anyone with suitable skills and resources, could repeat.

The next act of the steamboat lay in the west, on the waters of the Mississippi basin. Livingston scored another political coup in 1811, by securing monopoly rights from the New Orleans Territory. The partners built a workshop in Pittsburgh, from whence boats could ride downstream to New Orleans without touching the ocean. But their eastern designs struggled with the shallow, turbulent waters of the Mississippi. The conquest of that river by steam power would fall to other men.

Nonetheless, Fulton had found the eternal fame he sought. In addition to his river steamers, he established steam ferry service across the Hudson and East River, and the street that joined the two ferries acquired the name “Fulton Street,” as did the street in Brooklyn where his East River ferry terminated. Chicago has its Fulton Market, San Francisco its own Fulton Street, and even Vienna a Fultonstraße. So often in the history of invention, we best remember not those who make an idea work, but those who make it pay.

What of the other steamboat inventors, how are they remembered? Jouffroy has a statue at the center of a bridge in the fine French town of Besançon. In 1916, the state of West Virginia erected a seventy-five-foot column that looms over the banks of the Potomac, in honor of James Rumsey. New Hampshire built the Samuel Morey Memorial Bridge over the Connecticut River at Orford in the late 1930s. One of Stevens’ sons founded the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, which carries on the family name. The Chancellor Robert R Livingston Masonic Library stands in Midtown Manhattan, and his statue stands in the U.S. Capitol. John Fitch, the long-suffering Job of the steamboat, is remembered with a small bronze plaque in Bardstown, Kentucky, wedged between a parking lot and a psychic’s office.

[1] George Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746-1813 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960), 284-86.

[2] Leon Maurer, “The Unsolved Mystery of Samuel Morey,” To take one example, this passage from Frederick H. Getman, “Samuel Morey, A Pioneer of Science in America,” Osiris 1 (January 1936), 285, is full of impossibilities: “The success of his experiment encouraged him to take a model of his steamboat to New Haven where he submitted it to Professor SILLIMAN of Yale College for inspection. The importance of his invention was quickly recognized by SILLIMAN, Fig. 2, who urged him to take the model to New York and show it to ROBERT LIVINGSTON, who was known to be a liberal patron of science and interested in ROBERT FULTON’S projects for steam navigation.” Silliman was still a student at Yale, not a professor, in the mid-to-late 1790s, nor had Livingston yet met Fulton, who resided in Europe throughout this time.

[3] Getman, “Samuel Morey, A Pioneer of Science in America,” 284-85.

[4] Shagena, 269-270.

[5] Qouted in Archibald Douglas Turnbull, John Stevens: An American Record (New York: American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1928), 107.

[6] Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, 294; Turnbull, 130-31.

[7] Turnbull, John Stevens, 132.

[8] Turnbull, John Stevens, 135-136.

[9] Turnbull, John Stevens, 160.

[10] Flexner, 116.

[11] Shagena, 286.

[12] Fulton was the first famous American inventor who began their career as an aspiring artist; the second was Samuel Morse.

[13] Letters quoted in Kirkpatrick Sale, The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream (New York: The Free Press, 2001) 78-79.

[14] Quoted in Shagena, 316.

[15] Flexner, 219-220.

[16] Shagena, 326.

[17] Quoted in Flexner, 223.

[18] Flexner, 282.

[19] Quoted in Shagena, 328.

[20] Benjamin Henry Latrobe, “First Report of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, to the American Philosophical Society…,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 6 (1809), 90-91.

[21] Quoted in Henry Adams, History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Library of America, 1986), 52.

[22] Shagena, 330.

[23] Shagena, 334.

[24] Shagena 335; Flexner, 328-329.

[25] Shagena, 335.

[26] Shagena, 359.

[27] Turnbull, 191-192 and 210.

[28] Turnbull, 236.

[29] Turnbull, 231.

[30] Flexner, 335.

1 thought on “The Steamboat Inventors: The Second Generation”

  1. So interesting as always . Thanks, Chris.

    On Tue, Apr 19, 2022 at 12:03 AM Creatures of Thought wrote:

    > technicshistory posted: ” Robert Livingston’s First Partnership It would > take a further twenty years after the deaths of Fitch and Rumsey before > steamboat travel was established on a permanent basis in the U.S. Several > more would-be steamboat inventors came and went before a p” >


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