Page images

model it will be seen that he had substituted, in place of paddle-wheels, a series of upright paddles attached to endless chains, which passed over a roller toward the bow of the boat, entered the water, propelled the craft, and emerged to repeat the circuit. A section of the endless chain of paddles is also reproduced.

Fitch had worked himself into a mental frenzy. He believed he was on the right track, and was certain he could propel a boat by steam. No other thought possessed him. His days were given to alternate pleadings and arguments, or else to fits of rage, melancholy or exasperation because he was penniless and could not go ahead without help from others. But since aid was plainly necessary he set out to get it, armed with a determination to compel attention and secure the necessary money from some source either public or private. He began, therefore, a methodic visitation of legislatures and persons in high place that was as apparently endless as his system of paddles. His first effort was an attempt to enlist the interest of Benjamin Franklin, to whom he wrote a letter on October 12th. In urging the necessity of steamboats to Franklin he said: “It is a matter in his [Fitch's] opinion of the first Magnitude not only to the United States, but to every Maratime power in the World, as he is full in the belief that it will answer for sea Voiages, as well as for inland Navigation, in particular for Packets where there should be a great number of Pasengers." This letter Westcott found in possession of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia.

The next victim of the inventor's importunities was ex-Governor Thomas Johnson, of Maryland, who got rid of him by suggesting that he go to see General Washington. So Fitch posted forthwith to Mount Vernon, where

[graphic][ocr errors][subsumed]

65.—Detail of the propulsion method of Fitch's first boat. The paddles were

out of water as they moved forward, and after passing the front roller they entered the water and proceeded toward the stern, thus forcing the boat ahead.

the General, he says, received him with courtesy and listened to his plans. That was the usual thing. Everybody always received him, and everybody listened, or appeared to. His next stopping place was Richmond, in Virginia, where the legislature was in session. Legislatures at that time were Fitch's especial prey, and his memorial to the Virginia Assembly was presented by no less a person than James Madison. A committee was duly appointed familiar procedure to the poverty-stricken man who was begging for the opportunity of enriching the world beyond computation — and its members spoke very favorably to the petitioner. But they made no report. He also saw Patrick Henry, then governor of the state, who said the plan was novel and interesting.

Returning to Fredericktown he again went to exGovernor Johnson, who hastily subscribed to Fitch's map of the Northwest Territory as a means of being rid of him, and suggested that the legislature of Maryland was in session at Annapolis. So indeed it was, but Fitch was also aware that the Pennsylvania Assembly had gathered again in Philadelphia, and he went there first, presenting his usual petition. It was referred to a committee who made

a flattering oral report, but no action was taken. Finally, at Annapolis, and for the first time, Fitch's plan received formal notice. The Maryland legislature considered it for three days and then refused to endorse the invention. The committee said that although it was desirable “for liberal and enlightened Legislators to encourage useful arts,” yet the state and condition of the state's finances did not permit such action in that instance. His next stopping place on the trip was at Dover, in Delaware. Fitch talked with the members of the legislature and doubtless finding the effort useless did not present his plan, but departed for Philadelphia. In February of 1786 he went to Trenton. On the defeat of his bill by the New Jersey legislature he returned to his home.

Fitch had then appealed to all the powerful men within his reach, to five states, and to the General Congress, without effect. Not one mind grasped the value of the idea. So he decided to begin all over again, and went once more to Doctor Franklin. That eminent man spoke in a calm and complimentary vein, declined to endorse the steamboat, and then, taking Fitch into another room, privately offered to give him several dollars in cash. The incensed inventor refused the money except as a subscription toward the building of the boat and withdrew in anger from the abode of philosophy.

Doubtless Benjamin Franklin had never before made such a mistake in his diagnosis of a fellow man, but doubtless, also, the same error would have been made by others as profound as he, if such there were. The tall, gaunt, shabby, excitable, almost incoherent enthusiast, pouring out words in a frantic effort to make others see the future as he saw it, already presented to many minds the spectacle of a madman babbling over a phantasy.

But the turning-point was almost at hand. After still another appeal to the Assembly of Pennsylvania which he left to its usual fate, he rushed away again to Trenton where he petitioned the New Jersey legislature for a special law giving to him the exclusive right to navigate the waters of that state by steam power. He had altered his tactics, and instead of trying to get money first he begged for legal privileges, hoping the necessary cash would be easier to secure if his claim as an inventor was recognized. This application was successful. On March 18, 1786, New Jersey granted to Fitch “The sole and exclusive right of constructing, making, using and employing, or navigating, all and every species or kinds of boats, or water craft, which might be urged or impelled by the force of fire or steam, in all the creeks, rivers, etc., within the territory or jurisdiction of this state.” The right so given was to exist for fourteen years.

Whatever historical interest New Jersey's action of 1786 may have as a landmark in the evolution of travel facilities is overshadowed by its greater importance in another respect. The passage of Fitch's bill was the first step on a pathway of error along which the country stumbled for more than half a century, and some effects of the mistake are still visible throughout the whole modern system of American transportation. New Jersey's grant was a declaration of the principle that individuals or individual companies might hold exclusive privileges for the transporting of passengers and freight by certain methods within the limits of any state. Imitated, as it was, by other commonwealths, the idea thus established split the country into small fragments on the one feature of national development which, above all others, called for a policy continental in its scope.

The effect of the monopolistic privilege on Fitch's plans was highly favorable. Within five weeks he had organized a little company of nearly twenty men, and of the forty equal shares he was to have one-half for his invention and services. The others paid about twenty dollars each, and something over three hundred dollars was on hand with which to build the first American steamboat. At this time — April of 1786 — there were but three steam-engines in America. All were built on the old atmospheric plan, and the newest of them, that at the Schuyler mine, near Passaic, New Jersey, had been brought from England thirty years before. The other two were in New England, and still older. No one in the country had ever made anything like the engine that Fitch called for, nor was any man known to possess the skill necessary to do it. In the face of such conditions he started to create, out of nothing more tangible than the ideas of his brain, a vehicle that should navigate the water by means of power contained within its own fabric. The element of human invention had at last been applied to the problem of transportation.

While concerned over the proper construction of his engine Fitch fell in with an ingenious Philadelphia watchmaker named Henry Voight, and enlisted his services in the work. Together they built a small skiff and an engine with a three-inch cylinder, and about July 20, 1786, for the first time operated a steamboat on American waters. The miniature machinery and chain of paddles worked but poorly, and a little group who watched the boat from the shore jeered the two men and the wonder they had performed. Some local notoriety had attended the formation of the company and plan of the inventor, but all public comment was by word of mouth, accom

« PreviousContinue »