Patent History Materials Index - Patent Materials from Scientific American, vol 2 old series (Sept 1846 - Aug 1847)

Scientific America, v 2 (os), no 4, p 1, 17 October 1846

Fitch's Steamboat

[Includes illustration (woodcut?) of a steamboat with oars, with flag labelled "John Fitch 1786"]

To this individual belongs the honor of having constructed the first steamboat in this country. Although this honor has so generally been ascribed to Robert Fulton, yet it is a well known fact, that twenty years before the great experiment of Fulton and Livingston on the Hudson, a steamboat was constructed and put in operation in Philadelphia, under the sole direction of a then obscure and still almost unknown individual. This person was John Fitch. He was born in the south part of East Windsor, near the East Hartford line, on what is now called the old road. He was apprenticed as a watch and clock maker, to Mr. Cheney, who carried on the business in the eastern part of East Hartford, now Manchester. When New Jersey was overrun by the British troops, Mr. Fitch removed into the interior of Pennsylvania, where he employed himself in repairing arms for the Continental army.

In the year 1785, Mr. Fitch conceived the project of propelling a steam vessel by the force of condensed vapor. "When the idea occurred to him, as he himself tells us, he did not known that there was such a thing as a steam engine in existence." In 1778 [no, KWD], he obtained a patent for the application of steam to navigation. By the unwearied exertion he succeeded in interesting about twenty persons in his plan, and inducing them to take shares of $50 each. A boat was built in 1787. A mile was measured off in Front or Water street, and the boat was found to go at the rate of eight miles an hour. It afterwards went eighty miles a day. The Governor and Council of Pennsylvania were so much gratified with the experiment, that they presented them with a superb silk flag. About this time, the company sent Mr. Fitch to France, at the request of Mr. Vail, our consul at L'Orient, who was one of the company, and wished to introduce the invention into France. Being in the midst of revolutions in that country, and as no men could be obtained for the purpose of building boats, Mr. Fitch returned. "Mr. Fitch afterwards subjected to the examination of Mr. Fulton, when in France, the papers and designs of the steamboat appertaining to the company." In 1790 he made an alteration in his boat, and she performed tolerably well, but still it required further alteration. Mr. Fitch, however, was not able to obtain the necessary means, in order to perfect his invention.

The conviction of Fitch respecting the power of steam continued firm. In June 1792, he addressed a letter to Mr. Rittenhouse, one of the share-holders; speaking of steam power, he said -- "This, sir, will be the mode of crossing the Atlantic in time, whether I shall bring it to perfection or not." He complains of his poverty, and, to raise funds, he urges Mr. Rittenhouse to buy his lands in Kentucky, that he might have the honor of enabling him to complete the great undertaking.

Upon this occasion, he called upon a smith who had worked upon his boat, and after dwelling for some time upon his favorite topic, concluded with these words: "Well, gentlemen, although I shall not live to see the time, you will, when steamboats will be preferred to all other means of conveyance, and especially for passengers; and they will be particularly useful in the navigation of the river Mississippi." He retired, when a person present observed, "Poor fellow, what a pity it is he is crazy?"

"The distress of mind and mortification he suffered, from the failure of his protracted exertions, and his poverty, were too much for him; and to drown his reflection, he had recourse to the common but deceptive remedy, strong drink, in which he indulged to excess; and, retiring to Pittsburgh, he ended his days by plunging into the Allegheny." He had filled several small MS books with personal and general narrative, more or less connected with his great scheme, and which he bequeathed to the Philadelphia Library, with the proviso that they were to remain closed for thirty years. The books were opened in due time, and were found to obtain a minute account of his perplexities and disappointments.

"Of the boldness of his conception," (says a writer in the Mechanics' Magazine, January, 1836,) "and the perseverance with which he followed it up, there can be but one opinion; and had fortune attended his efforts, and his means been equal to the accomplishments of his designs, there can be no doubt that he would now hold, undisputed, the honor of having given to the country this most noble and useful invention." -- Connecticut Historical Collections.


Scientific American, v 2 (os), no 18, p 143, 23 January 1847

Includes several ads for patent agents:

Zenas C. Robbins, of Washington

Joseph M. Bailey, No. 23 Chambers St., New York
(American and Foreign Patent Agency)


Samuel C. Hills, 12 Platt St, New York


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