Page images




T was amid these conditions, in the year 1785, that a

man named John Fitch, born in Connecticut but then living in Philadelphia, came forward with a plan for revolutionizing the social and business affairs of mankind by applying steam to the purposes of travel and transportation. He proposed to run boats on the Delaware River by means of steam power, and proceeded to do it, while the baby-among-nations looked on.

The complete record of Fitch's life and work is available,' and it is therefore only necessary, in these pages, to preface the narrative of his invention of the steamboat in America by saying that he was a gunsmith during the Revolution, a worker in metal, a maker and repairer of clocks and watches, and an explorer, map maker, surveyor and captive of the Indians in the western wilderness. Because of unhappy domestic relations he had left his family some sixteen years before the date mentioned, after long consideration of the consequences of that step on himself and his reputation. And in later years, when putting into words the manuscript record of his undertakings that was entrusted to the Philadelphia Library, to be opened thirty years after its deposit in that institution, he said: “I know of nothing so perplexing and vexatious to a man of feelings as a turbulant Wife and Steamboat building. I experienced the former, and quit in season, and had I been in my right sences, I should undoubtedly have treated the latter in the same manner.”

1 Whittelsey's "Sketch of the Life of John Fitch”: Spark's “Amer. Biog.," Vol. VI. Westcott's “Life of John Fitch": Howe's "Historical Collections of Connecticut": "Ohio Archäological and Historical Publications," Vol. VIII. Lloyd's “Steamboat Directory": O'Callahan's “Documentary History of New York": Preble's "History of Steam Navigation": Thornton's "Short Account of the Origin of Steamboats": Watson's "Annals of Philadelphia": U. S. Patent Office Report for 1850, Part I. “New York Magazine," 1790; etc., etc., etc.

Fitch's scanty education, of which proof is seen in the passage quoted, will be understood when it is said that his father, a close-fisted man, compelled him to quit his intermittent schooling at the age of ten despite the boy's protest. After that calamity he worked for himself during the hours in which his parent did not demand his services, raised a crop of potatoes which he sold for ten shillings, and bought a geography. He would have realized more from his labor had not his father demanded of him a quantity of the produce equal to that originally given to him to plant. The incident is an illustration of the qualities which later impelled the man to persevere, in the face of obstacles and derision, until he had turned his vision of a steamboat into a reality.

The idea of a steamboat came to him in the spring of 1785, and by August his first rough model was completed. On the 20th of that month, Doctor Ewing, Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to William Houston, a former member of Congress, in which he said: “I have examined Mr. Fitch's machine for rowing a boat.

It is certain that the extensive force of water, when converted into steam, is equal to any obstruction that can be laid in its way.

and the application of this force to turn a wheel in the water, so as to answer the purpose of oars, seems easy and natural by the machine which he proposes, and of which he has shown me a rough model. With this as a basis Fitch started for New York City in an effort to interest Congress in his invention. He stopped on the way at Trenton, where Houston wrote a similar letter, and at Princeton, where Provost Smith of Princeton College gave him a third. Reaching the national capital, the inventor wrote a letter to Congress which read as follows:

"August 29, 1785. “Sir:

"The subscriber begs leave to lay at the feet of Congress, an attempt he has made to facilitate the internal Navigation of the United States, adapted especially to the Waters of the Mississippi. The machine he has invented for the purpose, has been examined by several Gentlemen of Learning and Ingenuity, who have given it their approbation. Being thus encouraged, he is desirous to solicit the attention of Congress, to a rough model of it now with him, that, after examination into the principles upon which it operates, they may be enabled to judge whether it deserves encouragement. And he, as in duty bound, shall ever pray.

"John Fitch. "His Excellency, The President of Congress.”

This letter was referred to a committee of three members, who made no report as far as the records show. The minutes of Congress, at that time, contained no reference to any but matters considered to be of importance. Fitch's invention did not fall within that category. He returned to Pennsylvania filled with anger at the treatment he had received, and thereafter referred to the committee of Congress as "ignorant boys.” But before departing from New York he had approached the Spanish Minister with his boat. The diplomat was much interested, and desired that the invention should be the exclusive property of his master, the King of Spain. To this Fitch would not consent.

Fitch's first model is described by Provost Ewing of the University of Pennsylvania as having a wheel that turned in the water. The best description of it is by


64.- John Fitch conceives the idea that steam might be applied to the purposes

of transportation, and invents a steamboat. His first steam-propelled craft, in 1785, was a skiff moved by little paddles (shown in black in the illustration) which were attached to an endless chain. The illustrations to No. 72, inclusive, also relate to Fitch's work.

Daniel Longstreth,' who says: “It was in this log shop [owned by Cobe Scout, a wheelwright of Bucks county, Pa.] that Fitch made his model steamboat, with paddlewheels as they are now used. The model was tried on a small stream on Joseph Longstreth's meadow, about half a mile from Davisville, in Southampton township, and it realized every expectation. The machinery was made of brass, with the exception of the paddle-wheels, which were made of wood by Nathaniel B. Boileau, whilst on a visit during vacation from Princeton College.”

1 The “D. L." of Watson's "Annals.” Daniel Longstreth's father was an associate of

Fitch while the inventor lived in Pennsylvania.
2 Afterward Secretary of State of Pennsylvania.

Other accounts relating to Fitch's preliminary ideas are given by Doctor William Thornton, a member of Fitch's company, by Henry Voigt, also a member of the company and the inventor's principal assistant, and by Oliver Evans, an early engineer of America who himself built and ran a steamboat at Philadelphia in 1804. Probably because the wheels were too heavy for such a small model and weak engine they were almost at once discarded. On this point Whittlesey says: “The buckets of the wheels were found to labor too much in the water, entering, as they did, at a considerable angle, and departing at the same. They lost power by striking at the surface and afterwards lifting themselves out of water. This led to the substitution of oars or paddles."

For these reasons, in all probability, Fitch made the first of three successive alterations in the method by which his boat was to be propelled. On September 27, 1785, he attended the meeting of the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia, and laid before that organization an amended drawing and model of his invention. The records of the Society on the subject read:

"Tuesday, September 27, 1785. "The model, with a Drawing and Description, of a Machine for working a Boat against the stream by means of a steam-engine, was laid before the Society by Mr. John Fitch."

"December 2nd, 1785. “A copy of the Drawing and Description of a machine for rowing a boat against the current, which sometime ago was laid before the Society by Mr. John Fitch, he this evening presented to them.”

The model was preserved by the Society. By 1857, when Westcott investigated the subject and wrote his life of the inventor, all the drawings and descriptions were missing. By reference to the illustration of Fitch's second

« PreviousContinue »