Patent History Materials Index - Short Account of the Origin of Steamboats, by William Thornton


Finding that Mr. Robert Fulton, whose genius and talents I highly respect, has been by some considered as the inventor of the steamboat, I think it a duty to the memory of the late John Fitch, to set forth, with as much brevity as possible, the fallacy of this opinion; and to show, moreover, that if Mr. Fulton had any claim whatever to originality in his steamboat, it must be exceedingly limited.

In or about the year 1788, the late John Fitch applied for, and obtained, a patent for the application of steam to navigation, in the states of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, &c., which he had invented in the year 1785, and soon after the late Mr. James Rumsey, conceiving that he had made some discoveries in perfecting the same, applied to the state of Pennsylvania for a patent; but a company formed by John Fitch, under his state patents, of which the author of this was one of the principal shareholders, conceiving that the patent of Fitch was not for any peculiar mode of applying the steam to navigation, but that it extended to all known modes of propelling boats or vessels, contested before the assembly of Pennsylvania, and also before the assembly of Delaware, the modes proposed by Mr. Rumsey, and contended that the mode he proposed, viz. by drawing up the water into a tube, and forcing the same water out of the stern of the vessel or boat, which was derived from Dr. Franklin's works, (the Doctor being one of his company) was a mode they (Fitch's company had a right to, for the plan was originally published in Latin, about fifty years before, in the works of Bernoulli the younger; and two of Fitch's company and I appeared without counsel, and pleaded our own cause in the assembly of Pennsylvania, (the Hon. Messrs. Findley and Smiley of Congress were then sitting members of the assembly) and after a week's patient hearing against the most learned counsel of Pennsylvania, we obtained a decision in our favor, and afterwards also in Delaware.

We believed, and contended that our claim of propelling boats by steam, included all the modes of propelling vessels and boats then known which we thought proper to adopt, and that the patent was for the application of steam as an agent to the propelling powers; and the decisions of the legislatures were in favor this construction, as Mr. Rumsey's company (of which the late Mess. Bingham, Myers Fisher, and many other worthy gentlemen were members) were excluded from the right of using steamboats on any principle. We worked incessantly at the boat to bring it to perfection, and some account of our labors may be seen in the travels of Brissot de Warville, in this country; and under the disadvantages of never having seen a steam engine on the principles contemplated, of not having a single engineer in our company or pay, we made engineers of common blacksmiths; and after exceeding many thousand dollars the boat did not exceed three miles an hour. Finding great unwillingness, in many to proceed, I proposed to the company, to give up to any one the half of my shares, who would, at his own expense, make a boat go at the rate of eight miles an hour, in dead water, in eighteen months, or forfeit all the expenditures on failing; or I would engage with any others to accept these terms. Each relinquished one half his shares, by making the forty shares eighty, and holding only as many of the new shares as he held of the old ones, and then subscribed as far as he thought proper to enter on the terms: by which many relinquished one half. I was among the number who proceeded, and in less than twelve months we were ready for the experiment. The day was appointed, and the experiment made in the following manner --

A mile was measured in Front street (or Water street) Philadelphia, and the bounds projected at right angles, as exactly as could be to the wharves, where a flag was placed at each end, and also a stop watch. The Boat was ordered under way at dead water, or when the tide was found to be without movement; as the boat passed one flag it was struck, and at the same instant the watches were set off; as the boat reached the other flag it was also struck, and the watches instantly stopped. Every precaution was taken, before witnesses, the time was shewn to all; the experiment declared to be fairly made, and the boat was found to go at the rate of eight miles an hour, or one mile within the eighth of an hour; on which the shares were signed over, with great satisfaction, by the rest of the company. It afterwards went eighty miles in a day! [fn.: Yet Mr. Fulton asserts that no successful experiments were ever made with steamboats before his!] The governor and council of Pennsylvania were so highly gratified with our labors, that without their intentions being previously known to us, governor Mifflin, attended by the council in procession, presented to the company, and placed in the boat, a superb silk flag, prepared expressly, and containing the arms of Pennsylvania, [fn.: Perhaps I here make a mistake; for in the patent taken out by Messrs. Fitch and Voight, for the company, I find the flag of the United States represented. The archives of the state will show it, if necessary.] and this flag we possessed till Mr. Fitch was sent to France by the company, at the request of Aaron Vail, Esq., our consul at L'Orient; who being one of the company, was solicitous to have steamboats built in France. John Fitch took the flag, unknown to the company, and presented it to the national convention. [fn.: Since writing the above the Hon. Rufus King, Senator of the United States, informed me that the late Mr. Fitch did not leave it in France, but took it to England and deposited it in his hands, [["his hands" is crossed out in LC copy with an inked marginal entry reading "the hands of Thomas Pinckney, Esq., his predecessor as minister resident at the Court of St. James,"]] that he brought it to New York, and is ready at any moment to deliver it to my order.] Mr. Vail finding the workmen all put into requisition, and that none could be obtained to build the boats, paid the expenses of Mr. Fitch who returned to the United States, and Mr. Vail afterwards, subjected to the examination of Mr. Fulton, when in France, the papers and designs of the steamboat appertaining to the company. Mr. Vail finding the workmen all put into requisition, and that none could be obtained to build the boats, paid the expenses of Mr. Fitch, who returned to the United States; and Mr. Vail afterwards subjected to the examination of Mr. Fulton, when in France, the papers and designs of the steamboat appertaining to the company. [[fn.: No. 4, the petition of John Fitch. [[In the LC copy, "the petition of John Fitch" is crossed out in ink.]] ]

Finding that the works on board the first boat were not strong enough, we built another, of twenty-five tons burthen, rigged schooner fashion, intended to go to New Orleans, and mount the Mississippi. When the principal parts of the works were prepared, and ready to put on board, the author of this, thinking no mistakes could be made by the company, went to the West Indies, on the 16th of October 1790, to visit his mother for the last time, and expected to find, on his return, the boat ascending the Mississippi, at the rate of at least four miles an hour; but a spirit of innovation having seized some of the company, and their attempts to simplify the machine having ruined it, their unsuccessful endeavors to make it work, subjected them to debts, which obliged them to sacrifice both boats and all the machinery; and on my return, after two years' absence, I found, to my inexpressible grief, the whole of this very valuable scheme ruined. I had only then to wait till the patent taken out from the United States, during my absence, [see No. 1] for the benefit of the company, by Mr. John Fitch, in the year 1791, expired, and to take out a patent for those peculiar improvements which I had invented or suggested, omitting, however, that of applying steam to the wheels at the sides, which I had suggested to the company.

Finding Mr. Fulton about to take out a patent, after he had examined every thing in the Patent Office, relative to steamboats and steam engines; and not knowing whether he might recollect, among so many, those I had shewn him of my own invention, I thought it proper to take a patent for them previous to a sight of his papers, or of any hint of what they contained; and I believe he will do me the justice to say I never saw one of his, nor had a hint of what they were, before my patent from the United States was issued. I find Mr. Fulton's patent rests principally on proportions, though the second section of the law expressly excludes proportions. [fn.: But if claimed, I find his boat is exactly in the proportion of the boat we used, and which was made known to him by Mr. Aaron Vail, viz.: 8 feet wide, by 60 feet long, Mr. Fulton's 20 feet wide and 150 feet long, in both cases exactly 7 1/2 times the length of the breadth. Other proportions may answer as well, but this is given to show whence he derived his original ideas; for I believe there was never a boat of similar proportions before these.] He uses Watt's and Boulton's steam engines, and wheels at the sides of the boat, but an engine on the principles of Watt's and Boulton's was used by us, the application of which I since patented; and the use of the wheels at the sides was known to us, and I often urged their use in our first boat, as can be testified by Mr. Oliver Evans; [fn.: See his certificate (No. 3) ] but the objection to them, on so small a scale, was their waste of power by the fall of the buckets or paddles on the water, and their lift of water in rising, both of which objections would diminish as the wheel increased in size: but side wheels could not be claimed as a new invention, for their use in navigation had long been known, and published to the world by Dr. John Harris, in his Lexicon Techinicum, in 1710, just one hundred years ago. If Mr. Fulton should claim the actual application of steam to wheels at the sides of a boat, in opposition to the above declarations, I beg leave to offer as a caveat against any such claim, the fire ship of Edward Thomason, in the tenth volume of the Repertory of the Arts, which was laid before the Lords of the Admiralty, in 1796. This contains wheels at the sides, operated on by a steam engine, and was intended to possess the power of moving given distances in all directions, according to the intention of the director; so that, without any person being on board, it would conduct itself into an enemy's port, and by clockwork at any given moment, explode the combustibles; which plan, I also presume, might suggest to any person, of even less original genius than Mr. Fulton, the mode of letting off torpedoes, which were invented, during the war for independence, by the late Major Bushnell of Connecticut.

Mr. Fulton's boats have never exceeded five miles an hour in dead water, and he declared it impossible to make one exceed that velocity, and offered me $150,000 if I would make one that would exceed it. I agreed to his proposal at once, but he declined to write the terms. Our boat went at the rate of eight miles an hour in the presence of many witnesses, still living, and to comply with terms, as before stated, which were completely and satisfactorily fulfilled; and yet he has nominally an exclusive privilege for navigating the waters of the State of New York; but not satisfied with this apparent violation of the rights of his fellow-citizens, he took out a patent from the United States on the 11th of February 1809, which act the legislature of New York must surely admit supersedes their own, if they even thought its validity was before indisputable; and if Messrs. Livingston and Fulton attempt to shelter themselves under the expression in the seventh section of the patent law of 1793, by asserting that the provision only includes the grants of exclusive rights by States prior to the adoption of the present form of government, others may surely, on reversing the case, assert, that the silence of the law is a clear proof that such a case was not considered as worthy of attention, because it could not be supposed to exist, being repugnant to common sense. This silence precludes any construction favorable to the parties, and by making provision for the constitutional and general act, they are, by a liberal and plain conclusion, excluded, ipso facto, from the prior advantage of the state act, even if it were valid, and that validity founded on proofs that these gentlemen were the inventors of the application of steam to navigation, or had made any essential improvements therein; but, in the present circumstances, to attempt an exclusive monopoly of these waters, is not merely to attempt to deprive others of natural and inherent rights, but without a shadow of reason, to attempt also to deprive them of acquired rights, under the general government; and, as if the power and influence of individuals, which seem to have hitherto prevented an interference in vast monopoly, had encouraged to further acquirements of the rights of their fellow citizens, and being discontented with the wise and equitable provisions of the Congress, in which all other citizens have rested satisfied, they have exhibited an avaricious desire of obtaining a universal monopoly of the waters of the Union, by addressing the different legislatures of the states; and were even, in Virginia, on the point of succeeding; and the final question about to be put, when my letter (No. 2) was handed to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the bill was immediately negatived. So bold and unprecedented an attempt to infringe the privileges of the citizens at large, if successful, would probably have terminated in soliciting the Congress to grant to a combination of rich merchants, the monopoly of the seas, by the promise of low freights.

The law already passed in the State of New York, in favor of those gentlemen, shews, that in the most enlightened assemblies of men, there are cases, which being brought forward by persons of high character, to whom no suspicion of incorrectness can possibly attach, are hurried through the house without doubting their legality, or seeing any injustice in their consequences; especially when the minds of the leading members are deeply abstracted, or absorbed in the contemplation of important affairs. -- If those gentlemen had successfully pursued their monopolizing system, and had obtained exclusive rights to navigate all the valuable waters in the union, of what consequences would a patent, obtained in a legal and regular way, from the United States have been, and that for only 14 years, while excluded by those gentlemen, for 30 years from every valuable water, and this too without any plea whatever? Such grants, it is true, would be deemed so illegal, so unjust, so unconstitutional and oppressive, that every person would be willing to contend for, rather than abandon, his rights; but there are few men, especially those who live by their wits or invention, so powerfully supported as Mr. Fulton has been, or who would, voluntarily, enter into suits, that, by protraction, would perhaps only be their death, or terminate in their ruin.



[No. 1]

To the Honorable, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General.

The petition of John Fitch, of the city of Philadelphia, humbly sheweth,

That your petitioner, in the spring for the year, one thousand seven hundred and eighty five, conceived the idea of applying steam to the purposes of propelling vessels through the water; that fully satisfied in his own mind, of the practicability of such a scheme, of its great immediate utility, and the important advantages which would in future result therefrom, not only to America, but the world at large, if the scheme should be carried into effectual operation, he divested himself of every other occupation, and undertook the arduous task, not doubting, that when perfected he should be amply rewarded. In his first attempts to procure assistance from Congress, and the Legislatures of many of the States, from the peculiar situation of their finances and the seeming impossibility of the success of his scheme, he met with no relief. Not entirely discouraged by those disappointments, he continued his application to his project, and prayed several of the states for an exclusive 'right to the use of fire and steam to navigation:' that New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia, granted him an exclusive right, agreeably to the prayer of his petition, for fourteen years.

That the impracticability of procuring experienced workmen in America, your petitioner's total ignorance of the construction of a steam engine, together with the necessary deviations from the form described in books in order to accommodate its weight and bulk to the narrow limits of a vessel, have caused him not only to expend about eight thousand dollars in successive experiments, but nearly four years of some of his grants have expired, before he has been able to bring his engines to such a degree of perfection as to be carried into use.

That having at length fully succeeded in his scheme, proofs of which he is prepared to offer, he trusts, he now comes forward, not as an imaginary projector, but as a man who, contrary to the popular expectation, has really accomplished a design, which, on examination, will clearly evince the many and important advantages which must result therefrom to the United States, some of which your petitioner begs leave to enumerate.

The western waters of the United States which have hitherto been navigated with great difficulties and expense, may now be ascended with safety, conveniency and great velocity, consequently by these means, an immediate increased value will be given to the Western Territory; all the internal waters of the United States will be rendered much more convenient and safe, and the carriage on them much more expeditious; that from these advantages will result a great saving in the labor of men and horses, as well as expense to the traveller.

Your petitioner also conceives, that the introduction of a complete steam engine, formed upon the newest and best principles, into such a country as America, where labor is high, would entitle him to a public countenance and encouragement, independent of its use in navigation; he begs leave to say, that the great length of time, and vast sums of money expended in bringing the scheme to perfection have been wholly occasioned by his total ignorance of the improved state of steam engines, a perfect knowledge of which has not been acquired, without an infinite number of fruitless experiments: for not a person could be found, who was acquainted with the minutia of Bolton and Watt's new engine: and whether your petitioner's engine is similar or not to those in England, he is to this moment totally ignorant; but is happy to say, that he is now able to make a complete steam engine, which in its effects, he believes, to be equal to the best in Europe; the construction of which he has never kept a secret.

That on his first undertaking the scheme, he knew there were a great number of ways of applying the power of steam to the propelling of vessels through the water, perhaps all equally effective; but this formed no part of his consideration, knowing that if he could bring his steam engine to work in a boat he would be under no difficulty in applying its forces; therefore, he trusts no interference with him in propelling boats by steam, under any pretense of a different mode of application, will be permitted; for should that be the case, the employment of his time, and the amazing expense, attending the perfecting of his scheme, would, whilst they gave the world a valuable discovery, and to America peculiar and important advantages, eventuate in the total ruin of your petitioner; for a thousand different modes may be applied by subsequent navigators, all of them benefiting by the expense and preserving labor of your petitioner, and thus sharing with him those profits, which they never earned: such consequence he is confident will not be permitted by your honorable body.

Your petitioner therefore prays that your honors will take the subject of his petition into consideration, and by granting him an exclusive right to the use of the steam navigation, for a limited time, do him that justice which he conceives he merits, and which he trusts will redound to the honor and add to the true interest of America: and your petitioner, as in duty bound shall ever pray.
New York, 22d June 1790


[No. 2.]

Sir: -- I address you with extreme reluctance on a subject which affects very nearly the interests of many of my fellow citizens; but being called upon by them, I consider it as a duty to represent to you, and through you to the honorable body over which you preside, that they view with very great concern an attempt to obtain from the legislature of your state an exclusive right to navigate with steamboats, the waters therein, for a very long period; which if granted would effectually deprive many ingenious inventors and mechanics of the benefits expected from the various inventions and improvements in steamboats, for which they have taken patents from the United States, under an impression that the states had ceded, by the constitution, to the Congress, the right to grant patents or exclusive privileges, for limited times to authors or inventors, thereby to promote the science and arts; on the expiration of which limitations their several inventions become the property of every citizen of the United States, by which tacit contract the individual is for a time benefited, and the public forever after. But if the honorable the legislature of your state may grant the privileges now desired, the example may lead to dangerous and oppressive consequences.

This is submitted to your consideration, with the highest respect and deference.


To the Honorable the Speaker of the House &c.


Enclosure No. 3

District of Columbia
Washington County
At the request of Dr. William Thornton of this county, personally appeared before me the subscriber, one of the justices of the peace for the said county, Oliver Evans of Philadelphia, who solemnly affirmed, that when John Fitch and his company were engaged in constructing their steamboat in Philadelphia, he, the said Oliver, suggested to the said John Fitch, the plan of driving or propelling the said boat by paddle or flutter wheel at the sides of the boat: then the said Fitch or some other person, but he thinks it was Fitch, informed him that one of the company had already proposed the use of wheels at the sides, but that he had rejected them. The said Oliver also states that he afterwards mentioned the same to Henry Voigt, one of the members of the company, but he said that Dr. William Thornton, also a member of the same, was the person who had proposed the said paddle or flutter wheels at the sides of the boat, but that both himself and John Fitch had objected to them.

The said Oliver further says, that Robert Fulton, the patentee of steamboats in the state of New York, had observed to him, that he deemed it impossible to drive a boat or vessel by steam at a greater speed than five miles per hour: but the said Oliver says, that he had understood Fitch's boat had very far exceeded that speed, and that Fitch's experiment had completely succeeded to shew that boats could be driven by steam to advantage; and also that when the said John Fitch was afterwards setting out for the western country, he called on the said Oliver at his house, and declared his intention to form a company to establish steamboats on the western waters; of the advantages of which he appeared to have formed vast conceptions and good expectations. The said Oliver also sayeth, that sometime about the years 1786, 1787, or 1788 the said Fitch informed him that he contemplated employing his steamboats on the lakes, and meant to construct them with two wheels, to answer as rudders, and when the lakes freeze over he would raise his boats on the ice, and by a wheel on each side, with spikes on the rims to take hold of the ice, he calculated it would be possible to run thirty miles an hour. Also that he had meant to tow boats and other floats by steamboats.
(signed) Oliver Evans

Sworn to before the subscriber, one of the justices of the peace for Washington County, Columbia, the sixteenth day of December 1814.
Joseph Forrest


Enclosure No. 4

Washington City, December 13, 1814
Ferdinando Fairfax, Esq.
In reply to your letter of the third instant, relative to a remark I had previously made in a conversation on the subject of propelling boats by steam, I can only state from memory what had past between Aaron Vail, Esqr. and myself relative to the project of Mr. Robert Fulton for that purpose. Not having any particular interest in favor of, or against, its success, I took no note in writing that can lead to a precise statement of dates of my interview [?] with Mr. Vail, above referred to; but to the best of my recollection it must have been in the month of September, 1805. It was at Paris, where I then resided, that I called upon him to make him some proposals relative to carrying into effect our project of a mechanical rope manufactory. I had been long acquainted with Mr. Vail and knew that he was well established at L'Orient as a merchant, was consul to the United States, and respectably connected by marriage; moreover, I was given to understand that he was interested in a rope walk of the old fashion, which was conducted by a brother of his wife. He previously indicated that Mr. Fulton claimed the original invention of the rope machinery that I then had in hand; and the investigation of the system as proposed to him naturally evolved into remarks on Mr. Fulton's claim to other discoveries

After speaking of the ingenious mode of propelling his Nautilus, beneath the surface of the water, we naturally came to speak of the success of his experiment of applying steam to drive a boat upon the surface. At this part of our conversation, Mr. Vail allowed that Mr. Fulton was not the first among our countrymen to have succeeded in propelling a boat by steam; and then took occasion to relate the successes that had attended the efforts of a Mr. Fitch, many years before; who, notwithstanding the demonstration that he had given of its feasibility, had found it impossible to secure funds sufficient to carry his plan into useful operation. That Mr. Fitch came to France in pursuit of this object; but could not obtain the pecuniary aid requisite for his purpose, and after exhausting his patience and the limited means at his disposal, he deposited his specifications and drawings in the hands of Mr. Vail and quit the pursuit in France: whether he died abroad or returned to America, I do not recollect.

Mr. Vail further remarked that he himself was not sufficiently acquainted with mechanical combinations to know whether or not the mechanism now intended to be used by Mr. Fulton was the same in principle as that formerly invented and used by Mr. Fitch; but it might be the same for ought [sic] he knew; for he had lent to Mr. Fulton at Paris all the specifications and drawings of Mr. Fitch, and they remained in his possession for several months; and that a man of Mr. Fulton's ingenuity would not fail to profit by any new or useful combination of the mechanical powers that he might there discover; especially as he might suppose no one living would convict him of the plagiarism. I perfectly recollect that, at the time of his conversation, my impression was, that in all probability Mr. Fulton had merely adopted some of Mr. Fitch's improvements and hints without giving credit for them. My suspicion on this end was founded on a positive conviction of his having done the same thing with respect to the principle of a machine for laying cordage, which he sold to me in Paris as his own invention; whereas, when I was four years afterwards in London, I found that a gentleman with whom he was formerly intimate in the latter city, had actually patented it at the time he was there; and the patentee, the Rev. Mr. Cartwright, shew me a model of it which he said Mr. Fulton had also seen, the operation of which was precisely the same as the one constructed for me, under Mr. Fulton's direction, in Paris; excepting that what may be called the main shaft in one is horizontal, and in the other perpendicular.

I am, Sir, respectfully, your obedient servant,
Math Cutting


[Appears to be a separate item, date blurred, probably]

June 8 [or 3], 1813
[must be 1814, because it refers to a letter written in 1814]

P.S. When Mr. Fulton heard the above letter read before the assembly in New Jersey, he, under oath, denied its truth, wrote a most violent letter to Mr. Cutting on the subject; and ordered a suit against him for libel, which however, Walter Jones, Esq., refused to issue. Mr. Fulton stated before the legislature that he had only sold the patent right to Mr. Cutting as an imported invention, and not as his own, for a mere trifle, about $130; whereas he sold it for 500 pounds sterling, and as his own, as the contract signed by both, before Mr. Barlow, and acknowledged before Fulwar Skipwith, as consul general of the United States to France, will shew; which original contract is still in the hands of Mr. Cutting, and which carries conviction on the face of it. In France inventions imported are only patented for ten years; original inventions (or those sworn to be original) for fifteen years. This was for fifteen, and consequently must have been represented as an original invention. Besides the agreement stipulates that Mr. Cutting was to take out patents for the [?] period on their joint account -- Mr. Fulton had been intimate in the family of the Rev. Mr. Cartwright, and when he returned from England, he took with him the invention of that worthy clergyman. If Mr. Fulton had not publickly denied the contents of this letter, it would have remained without notice; but the character of a gentleman of respectability, still living, is certainly as much to be respected as a gentleman who has departed this life; for Mr. Cutting wrote without an idea of being contradicted, especially as he had the proofs in hand.

But these are not the only proofs of Mr. Fulton's disposition to avail himself of the invention of others, he was shewn by Captain Hatch some years before, then subsequently by Mr. William Elliot, a plan of a ship of war, or floating battery, to be propelled by steam, on principles so like the one to which his own name was given, that these gentlemen appear to be forgotten, or their names engulphed in the great whirlpool of honor that has so long been encircling the name of Fulton; whose useful labors have certainly rendered great benefits to his country; but it is to be lamented, that while he sought to add to his own fame, he should not have hesitated to deprive his contemporaries of the eclat due to their various talents, and genius; for, by his monopolizing system, he sought not only to rob them of the comforts of their labors, but also the honors of their inventions.


[I transcribed much of the foregoing from a microcassette tape which I recorded while reading from the original in the rare book room of the Library of Congress, where I could not make photocopies, and from the partial copy of the pamphlet from the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents for 1850. Accordingly, some of it is not as precisely done as if copied directly from the printed original. kwd]


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