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"father of the American steam engine"
John Stevens was born in New York City in 1749, the son of a very wealthy merchant and ship owner. His father moved the family to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, when John was still a boy. After graduating from King's College in 1768, he studied law; although he was admitted to the bar in 1771, he never practiced. Appointed Captain in the Continental Army in 1776, Stevens served as Treasurer of New Jersey (1776-1779) and Surveyor of eastern New Jersey during the Revolutionary War (1776-1779 and 1782-1783, respectively), achieving the rank of Colonel for his services. On October 17, 1782, he married Rachel Cox, with whom he had eleven children. In 1784 he bought a huge estate on the west side of the Hudson River, 55 acres of which now comprise the campus of the Stevens Institute of Technology (the rest of the estate is now part of the city of Hoboken, New Jersey).
left: Stevens' mansion, now home to the Stevens Institute of Technology
Soon after purchasing his estate, Stevens bought the ferry service between Hoboken and New York City. After reading about steam engine designs developed by John Fitch and James Rumsey, he became convinced that steamships would allow him to greatly improve his ferry service. After enlisting assistance from Robert Livingston, a college friend now married to one of his sisters, and mechanic Nicholas Roosevelt, he began working on his own design for a steam engine. To protect his (and others') work, Stevens used his political connections to help the new U.S. Congress draft and pass the first U.S. Patent Act in 1790. He patented a steam engine with a vertical multitubular boiler the following year, a screw propellor in 1802, and his first steamboat (which incorporated both his multitubular boiler and his screw propellor) on April 11, 1803. The Little Juliana, named for his first daughter, made a successful crossing of the Hudson River in 1804, but by then Livingston had grown tired of waiting for Stevens to complete his work and had decided to invest his money in Robert Fulton's work on steamships.
Although Stevens was deeply offended by Livingston's "defection," he carried on with his work. Improvements to Little Juliana eventually led to construction of the Phoenix, a larger steamship that could easily navigate smaller tributaries, in 1808. Since Livingston had also managed to get a monopoly on all commercial traffic on the Hudson River, Stevens decided to put the Phoenix into service on the Delaware River. In 1809, Stevens sailed the Phoenix to Philadelphia, making it the first steamship in the world to prove itself capable of ocean travel. After establishing a ferry service on the Delaware River, Stevens built the Juliana, a paddle-wheel steamship, which he put to work as a ferry on Long Island Sound in 1811. Although he was never able to break the Livingston-Fulton monopoly on the Hudson River and neither of his ferry services proved commercially successful in the long run, he did enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that his ferries used steam engines built in America, as opposed to those used by Fulton, which were built in England.
Having proven the viability of using steam engines to power ships, Stevens next set his mind to developing them for railway use. In February of 1812, he addressed the commissioners appointed by the State of New York to explore a route for the Erie Canal, hoping to prove that railways would be much more in the public interest than the proposed canal. Many of the commissioners stood to profit personally from the canal and did not want competition from railways, however, and Stevens was unable to convince them to add a rail route to the canal route.
Once again unwilling to give up on his idea, Stevens used his equally strong political connections to secure passage of the first American railway act, which in 1815 allowed him to establish a rail line between the Delaware and Raritan rivers (from near Trenton to New Brunswick, New Jersey). In 1823, he received a charter from the Pennsylvania State Legislature, which (with Horace Binney and Stephen Girard) he used to establish the Pennsylvania Railroad between Philadelphia and Columbia. Both of these railroads failed financially within a short time, but in true Stevens fashion he refused to give up on his ambition. In 1825, he constructed the first steam locomotive in the United States, which he regularly demonstrated on a circular track on his estate grounds. Although Stevens's locomotive never entered commercial service, the fact that it predated Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb by five years makes Stevens the true "father of the railroad in America." In 1830, Stevens formed the Camden & Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company, which subsequently became his first successful rail company.
right: replica of a John Stevens locomotive
Before his death on March 6, 1838, Stevens also designed a bridge and underwater tunnel from Hoboken to New York, as well as an elevated railroad system for New York City.
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This page was last updated on April 11, 2017.