26 August 2016
John Fitch was granted a US patent for the steamboat on 26 August 1791
On this day in history, 1791: American inventor, clockmaker, entrepreneur and engineer John Fitch (21 January 1743-2 July 1798) is granted a United States patent for the steamboat.
Fitch had heard about the efficient steam engine developed by James Watt in Scotland in the late 1770s, but there was not a single Watt engine in America at that time, nor would there be for many years because Britain would not allow the export of any new technology to its former colony. As a result, Fitch attempted to design his own version of a steam engine.
The first successful trial run of his steamboat Perseverance was made on the Delaware River on 22 August 1787. It was propelled by a bank of oars on either side of the boat. During the next few years, Fitch worked to develop better designs, and in June 1790 launched a 60-foot (18m) boat powered by a steam engine driving several stern-mounted oars. With this boat, he carried up to 30 paying passengers on numerous round-trip voyages between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey during the summer of 1790.
Fitch was granted a US patent on 26 August 1791, after a battle with James Rumsey, who had also invented a steam-powered boat. The newly created federal Patent Commission did not award the broad monopoly patent that Fitch had asked for, but rather a patent of the modern kind, for the new design of Fitch's steamboat. It also awarded steam-engine-related patents dated that same day to Rumsey, Nathan Read, and John Stevens. The loss of a monopoly due to these same-day patent awards led many of Fitch's investors to leave his company. While his boats were mechanically successful, Fitch no longer had the financial resources to carry on.
Fitch's idea would be turned profitable two decades later by Robert Fulton.
Fitch continued to work on steam engine ideas. He built two models. One was lost in a fire in Bardstown, but the other was found in the attic of his daughter's house in Ohio in 1849. That model still exists at theOhio Historical Society Museum in Columbus. In the 1950s, a curator from the Smithsonian Museum examined it and concluded that it was 'the prototype of a practical land-operating steam engine', meant to operate on tracks – in other words, a steam locomotive.
In 1802, the Englishman Richard Trevithick invented a full-size steam locomotive that, in 1804, hauled the world's first locomotive-hauled railway train, and within a short time the British invention led to the development of actual railways. Americans began importing English locomotives and copying them.
Pictured: Fitch’s steamboat of April 1790 used for passenger service.