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builder of America's first steamboats
John Fitch was born on a Windsor, Connecticut, farm on January 21, 1743. His mother died when he was four, and his father pulled him out of school at the age of eight so he could work on the farm. Although he was prevented from getting an education, young John had a keen interest in learning and took every opportunity he could to read whatever he could get his hands on. He left the farm at age 16, after which he tried his hand at silversmithing, clockmaking, land speculation, and map-making. He got married in 1766, but the marriage was never good and, in 1769, he deserted his family and ran off to Trenton, New Jersey, where, he operated a successful brass-making and silversmithing enterprise. It would be the last financial success he would ever enjoy.
The British invasion and occupation of Trenton destroyed Fitch's business, and he was forced to find another line of work. After serving briefly in the New Jersey militia, mostly as a gunsmith, he became a sutler, selling beer and tobacco to Continental Army troops. In 1780, he was hired by Virginia to survey territory along the Ohio River in what are now the states of Ohio and Kentucky. As he worked, he laid out 1,600 acres of land in Kentucky for himself, believing he could make a fortune selling parcels to settlers. Unfortunately for him, the Land Ordinance of 1785 decreed that the newly surveyed lands could only be sold by the federal government, leaving his 1,600 acres virtually worthless. In 1782, while still engaged in his survey work, he was captured by Indians, who then turned him over to the British. He was held in Canada until the following spring, when he was released as part of a prisoner exchange.
Fitch first began thinking about using steam to power a transport vehicle in 1785. Although he had seen sketches of the Newcomen steam engine in books, he had never seen a steam engine in person, nor was there a steam engine of any kind then available in America, so he had to start entirely from scratch. Despite the lack of practical knowledge, Fitch had sketches and a model of his proposed design completed within about six months, and then spent about a year trying to get financial, legal, political, and scientific support for his project. He was turned down everywhere he went, however, until New Jersey finally granted him an exclusive right to build and operate steamboats on the state's waters for 14 years. He promptly established a company, assembled investors, took on Henry Voight, a Philadelphia clockmaker, as a partner, and began building his first steamboat from the ground up.
On August 22, 1787, at Philadelphia, an audience that included several delegates to the Constitutional Convention watched as Fitch's 45-foot-long steam-powered boat made its way against the current of the Delaware River at a speed of up to three miles an hour. The delegates were somewhat impressed by Fitch's contraption, but not impresed enough to provide the funding Fitch needed. Fitch did, however, secure patents from Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and Virginia.
Despite gaining no new financing, Fitch made improvements to his design and, in July of 1788, launched a 60-foot-long steam-driven paddle wheel vessel into passenger service between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey. A third design, launched in April of 1790, was used to carry passengers between Philadelphia, Bordentown, Burlington, and Trenton, New Jersey, and Wilmington, Delaware. Although both steamships performed well, they never carried enough passengers to meet operating costs and both failed after one season.
Fitch was granted a patent for his steamship on August 26, 1791, but only after a battle with James Rumsey, who claimed to have designed a steam-powered ship before Fitch. Today, a patent automatically gives its holder exclusive manufacturing rights for a set number of years, but such was not the case in Fitch's time. On the same day it acknowledged Fitch as the first to develop a steamship, the Patent Commission also awarded steam-engine-related patents to Rumsey and two others. The lack of a potential monopoly led many of Fitch's investors to desert him.
In 1793, Fitch traveled to France and England in hopes of finding new investors, with no success. In 1794, he built a screw-propellor steamboat that was demonstrated on Collect Pond in New York City, but no one showed any interest. After a couple more years of trying to find new investors, he decided to move to his Kentucky land. Upon getting to Kentucky, however, he found that squatters had taken most of what he had laid out, so he took up residence in Bardstown, where he where he traded 150 acres to an innkeeper in exchange for a room and a pint of whiskey a day. He continued to tinker with machinery off and on until committing suicide on July 2, 1798.
Although John Fitch never enjoyed financial success with his steamship, his efforts laid the groundwork for Robert Fulton, who put the first commercially successful steamship into operation in 1807.
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This page was last updated on 10/19/2017.