In 1769, the Scotsman James
Watt patented an improved version of the steam engine that ushered
in the Industrial
Revolution. The idea of using steam power to propel boats occurred
to inventors soon after the potential of Watt's new engine became known.
The era of the steamboat began in
America in 1787 when John Fitch (1743-1798)
made the first successful trial of a forty-five-foot steamboat on the Delaware
River on August 22, 1787, in the presence of members of the Constitutional
Convention. Fitch later built a larger vessel that carried passengers and
freight between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey.
John Fitch was granted his first
United States patent for a steamboat on August 26, 1791. However, he was
granted his patent only after a battle with James Rumsey over claims to
the same invention. Both men had similar designs.
(It should be noted that on February
1, 1788 the very first United States patent for a steamboat patent was
issued to Briggs & Longstreet.)
John Fitch constructed four different
steamboats between 1785 and 1796 that successfully plied rivers and lakes
and demonstrated, in part, the feasibility of using steam for water locomotion.
His models utilized various combinations of propulsive force, including
ranked paddles (patterned after Indian war canoes), paddle wheels, and
screw propellers. While 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. Robert Fulton
(1765-1815) built his first boat after Fitch's death, and it was Fulton
who became known as the "father of steam navigation."
Then came American
inventor, Robert Fulton, who successfully built and operated a submarine
(in France) in 1801, before turning his talents to the steamboat. Robert
Fulton was accredited with turning the steamboat into a commercial success.
On August 7, 1807, Robert Fulton's Clermont went from New York City to
Albany making history with a 150-mile trip taking 32 hours at an average
speed of about 5 miles-per-hour.
Photo: Steamship at Landing - between 1852 and 1860
In 1811, the "New Orleans" was built
at Pittsburgh, designed by Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston. The New
Orleans had a passenger and freight route on the lower Mississippi River.
By 1814, Robert Fulton together with Edward Livingston (the brother of
Robert Livingston), were offering regular steamboat and freight service
between New Orleans, Louisiana and Natchez, Mississippi. Their boats traveled
at the rates of eight miles per hour downstream and three miles per hour
In 1816, Henry Miller Shreve launched
his steamboat Washington, which completed the voyage from New Orleans to
Louisville, Kentucky in twenty-five days. Vessel design continued to improve,
so that by 1853, the trip to Louisville took only four and one-half days.
Between 1814 and 1834, New Orleans
steamboat arrivals increased from 20 to 1200 a year. The boats transported
cargoes of cotton, sugar, and passengers. Throughout the east, steamboats
contributed greatly to the economy by transporting agricultural and industrial
Steam propulsion and railroads developed
separately, but it was not until railroads adopted the technology of steam
that they began to flourish. By the 1870s, railroads had begun to supplant
steamboats as the major transporter of both goods and passengers.
was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on November 14, 1765. His early
education was limited, but he displayed considerable artistic talent and
inventiveness. At the age of 17, he moved to Philadelphia, where he established
himself as a painter. Advised to go abroad because of ill health, he moved
to London in 1786. His lifelong interest in scientific and engineering
developments, especially in the application of steam engines, supplanted
art as a career. Fulton secured English patents for machines with a wide
variety of functions. He was also interested in canal systems. In 1797,
European conflicts led Fulton to begin work on weapons against piracy,
including submarines, mines, and torpedoes.
He soon moved
to France, where he worked on canal systems. In 1800, he built a successful
"diving boat," which he named the Nautilus.
Neither the French nor the English were sufficiently interested to induce
Fulton to continue his submarine design. His interest in building a steamboat
continued. In 1802, Robert Fulton contracted with Robert Livingston to
construct a steamboat for use on the Hudson River; over the next four years,
he built prototypes in Europe.
to New York in 1806. On August 17, 1807, the Clermont, Robert Fulton's
first American steamboat, left New York for Albany, inaugurating the first
commercial steamboat service in the world.
died on February 24, 1815, and lies buried in Old Trinity Churchyard, New
The first iron hulled, propeller
driven steamship, the SS Great Britain, is launched on July 19, 1843
pages > John
Fitch or The History of the First Steamboats
and Robert Fulton