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The History of Steamboats
John Fitch and Robert Fulton

John Fitch - Design Sketch ca. 1787
 Related Resources
- More on John Fitch
- The History of the First Steamboats and Robert Fulton
The history of how Robert Fulton's name came to be associated with the first steamboat.
- History of Steam Engines
Pro Robert Fulton history of steamboats with diagrams of steam engines.
- Who Built the First Steamboat?
Samuel Morey among them... however, most people in the U.S. credit Robert Fulton
- Steamboat Museum
The museum provides online photos, articles, history and links.
- John Ericsson - Propelling Steam Vessels - Screw Propeller
- A Short History of Steam Engines (In Steamboats)
- The Plain Cylinder Boiler
- The Cornish Boiler
- The Lancashire Boiler
- The Upright "Fire Tube" Boilers
- The Scotch Boiler
- Maintaining Water Level
- Care And Feeding of a Steam Boiler
- The Steamboat Engine - What it is and how it works
 Related Innovations
- Steam Engines
- Nautical Inventions
- Major Inventions - Industrial Revolution
By Mary Bellis

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. 

Steamship at Landing - between 1852 and 1860Right 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 upstream. 

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 supplies.

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.

Robert FultonInventor Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton
Robert Fulton 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.

He returned 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. 

Robert Fulton died on February 24, 1815, and lies buried in Old Trinity Churchyard, New York City.

The first iron hulled, propeller driven steamship, the SS Great Britain, is launched on July 19, 1843

Next pages > John Fitch or The History of the First Steamboats and Robert Fulton

From Mary Bellis,
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