Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia, August 22, 1787. With the promise of some relief from their intense debate and the heavy summer air, delegates to the Constitutional Convention strolled a few blocks from the State House (now Indepen­dence Hall) to the banks of the Delaware River.

Along the river puffed an oddity, a curiosity that the statesmen had never before seen: a steam-operated boat­ – the first of its kind-propelled by six paddles on each side, in Indian war canoe fashion. The delegates – several of whom even boarded the vessel for a brief ride – witnessed the first public demonstration of a steamboat capable of ferrying passengers. The event should have been a historic bench­mark, heralding the beginning of an important era in the chronicles of American commerce and transportation. However, for the steamboat’s inventor, the unfortunate John Fitch (1743-1798), the glory he experienced that day came only with that moment of success – not the kindness of history.

Eventually the steam­boat would take the United States by storm and forever change the American landscape and the culture itself, but on that sweltering late summer day very few individuals, if any, thought much of it. In fact, the rather unkempt and ill-clad John Fitch was soon forgotten and, two decades later when fellow Pennsylva­nian Robert Fulton (1765-1815) showed his steamboat in New York, Americans reacted as if Fulton had invented the steamboat.

Like Benjamin Franklin, Fitch was originally a New Englander. He was born in Connecticut in 1743. His mother died soon after, but he grew up a precocious child. Even though his father took him away from school at the age of nine, he learned arithmetic and geography; two years later he could not only locate every country on the globe but also tell its popula­tion and religion. Intelligent but not handsome, he married, but it was not a happy union. Although his wife bore him a son, he left her in 1769, not knowing that she was again pregnant. Fitch was not to see his second child, a daughter, for twenty-five years.

Leaving Connecticut, he arrived in Trenton, New Jersey, where he spent several years making sleeve buttons and repairing clocks. When the Revolutionary War erupted, he found himself working as an armorer for the New Jersey militia. Armorers were exempt from military service, but he – ­ever the patriot – became a lieutenant. He enjoyed little rapport with his fellow officers and consequently left active service, resuming work as an armorer. When the British invaded Trenton, Fitch fled to Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

After settling in Pennsylva­nia, he became a sutler during General Washington’s en­campment at Valley Forge, selling tobacco and liquor, among other sundry provi­sions, to the soldiers and officers of the Continental Army. His enterprise earned him a small but respectable fortune, but he soon discov­ered that the Continental currency depreciated hope­lessly day-by-day. Investment in property, he believed, was one way to conserve his savings. Fitch looked toward real estate, and the land on which he set sights was along the Ohio River.

By 1780 he began a series of expeditions to the largely unsettled and uncharted territory that now constitutes the states of Ohio and Kentucky. He would eventually locate and survey thousands of acres of some of the choicest land bordering the Ohio River. [t was during these surveying expeditions that Fitch encoun­tered (and stoically accepted) the greatest dangers of his life. The threat of the vast wilder­ness was compounded by the presence of Native Americans. During one journey, Indians scalped two men in Fitch’s party before his eyes and took him prisoner. No sooner had the Indians released him than the British captured him. Released once more, he did make several more forays into the deep forests.

John Fitch was acutely observant, as well as entrepre­neurial; he engraved and printed in 1785 the most accurate map available of the so-called Northwest Territory (the region bounded by the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and by the Great Lakes). However, his most noteworthy contribution to posterity was not mapmaking but invention, invention sparked by a rather ordinary incident. In an autobiography addressed to friend and advisor, Pastor Nathaniel Irwin of Neshaminy, Fitch described the events that took place in Warminster, Bucks County, one Sunday in April 1785.

… I had some business with one of your Congregation. And on Sunday being a fine day went to hear you Preach on some passage in the Bible and see my friend.

It is true I never trouble Churches much but am always pleased to hear you and must say that the most candid and ingineous discourses coms from you that I ever heard from a pulpit and that it is rather of an entertainment than a Burthen to go to meeting where you are to deliver a discourse even if it is on the most absurd Text that you can pick out of a jargon of Absurdities.

I Sir had for some Time been Troubled with the Rheumatism but on that day seemed to be clear in the morning. And as Thad let my hors out to work for its liveing I walked to meeting on foot but on my return found it to seize me pretty severely in one of my knees. And in the Street Road a Gentleman passed me in a Chair with a Noble Horse. A thought struck me that it would be a noble thing if I could have such a carriage without the expense of keeping a hors. A query then immediately rose in my mind Thus viz what cannot you do if you will get yourself about it. Till then was busey in discourse with my Company and afterwards refrained it all I could and wanted to be shut off him and could not reply to his discourse.

I soon thought that there might be a force procured by Steam. and set to and made a draft. And in about one weeks time gave over the Idea of Carriages but thought it might answer for a Boat and better for a first rate man of war. These ideas Sir strongly impressed my mind and in about two or three weeks after went to see yourself on the Occation. When you shewed me Martins Philosophy with a Steam Engine laid down in it. Till then I did not know that there was such a thing in nature as a Steam Engine. Which chagreaned me considerably but it strengthened my opinion in the scheme knowing that the Machinery could not Jail of Propelling if I could gain the force as my only doubts lay in gaining the force itself.

And so began John Fitch’s relentless preoccupation with the steamboat.

Needing financial as well as moral support, Fitch ap­proached the Continental Congress, then convening in New York. He emphasized the considerable advantages of steam navigation, especially the roles it could play in a rapidly developing nation. Congress, however, wanted no part of it. Fitch, deriding the legislators as “Ignorant Boys of Congress,” decided to pursue his idea without their assistance.

One of those whose expert opinions he sought was Benjamin Franklin, who listened patiently to his concept of a steam-powered vessel. Instead of supporting Fitch, however, Franklin – aging and ailing but still shrewd and calculating­ – devised his own plan for a steamboat not long after their visit. Fitch traveled to Mount Vernon to meet with George Washington who offered little, if any, encouragement. Washington was purposefully reluctant to encourage Fitch; he was quietly encouraging James Rumsey, who was also trying to design and construct a self-propelled boat and who, coincidentally, had built a house and stable for Washing­ton in western Virginia. Washington wrote Rumsey about Fitch’s visit, urging him to expedite his work: “I would advise you to give it to the public as soon as it can be prepared conveniently.”

Within several years, the rivalry between John Fitch and James Rumsey erupted into one of the most virulent technological controversies in eighteenth century America. Involved in the fray, in one way or another, were some of the greatest statesmen of the day: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry. The crux of the problem was quite plain: both John Fitch and James Rumsey claimed credit for the inven­tion of the first steamboat. Rumsey claimed he had built and demonstrated a steamboat before Fitch. Fitch countered that Rumsey might have built a steamboat earlier, but that he had not demonstrated it before Fitch’s August 22, 1787, public showing.

Following his stop at Mount Vernon, Fitch met with Madison, who helped him appeal to the Virginia Assem­bly for support. Virginia refused Fitch, but did support Rumsey. Fitch then sought the help of Patrick Henry, who was intrigued with the concept of a steamboat. Fitch and Henry schemed to raise funds by selling the map Fitch had made after his Kentucky expeditions.

And at that time haveing nothing to do and for my own Amusement sat to and made a Draft of that Country from Hutchin’s and Murrows Maps with the additions of my own knoledge. This was more to keep the Ideas of the Country in my mind than for any other purpose. When I had this Done I thought a map of such sort would be useful to the World as I knew mine to be more accurate than any before me and Hutchin’s and Murrey’s was too Large and expensive for men to Carry into the Continent at that time turned their attention to the Western Country and wished every information I thought that the general outlines of that Country would be acceptable. And got a sheet of Copper and hammered it Pollished it and engraved it and then made a Press and Printed it. It is true it was but coarsely done it was cheap Portable to any who wanted to go to the Woods and more to be relyed upon than any when Published. This paid me reasonably for the time I was about it and I hope my country will not think they purchased my information too dear.

Fitch returned to Pennsyl­vania and asked Benjamin Franklin to endorse a subscrip­tion list for the map. Franklin, wanting no part of the venture and hoping to discourage the persistent inventor, instead gave him several dollars. Insulted, Fitch declined Franklin’s demeaning offer, and they parted company.

Fitch’s sale of the map raised very little money for the steamboat project. He then established a company and recruited shareholders to build a steamboat. It seemed as if he was at last making headway.

In July 1786, after several trials, he tested a model steamboat that satisfied not only himself, but the share­holders as well. His ally in the project was a Philadelphia clockmaker, Henry Voigt, who would continue to be Fitch’s closest technical associate for the next several years.

The Choice of my Partner in the Steam Boat Mr. Voigt was certainly the most juditious which I could have made in the City of Philadelphia. He most certainly is the first Mechanical genius that I ever met in the whole course of my life and 1 do believe his superior Mechanical genius is not to be found. He is a man the most ready of inventive improvements of any on Earth I mean in the mechanical line and I am persuaded I never could have compleated the Steam Boat without him. And permit me to say it was too great an undertak­ing for any one man on Earth. He is a man of high Passions confident in his own abilities flushed to excess with the prospect of success and equally depressed with a Disappointment. I esteem myself to be more cool and dispassionate. And it absolutely required two men of the same dispositions of ours to compleat the great undertakeing unless we had funds of our own.

With the model tested and proved, the company sanc­tioned the construction of a full-scale steamboat, with an engine whose cylinder was twelve inches in diameter. This was a tremendous task, for only three steam engines were in operation in the entire country and none of these in Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, an engine would be built.

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1787, a Philadel­phian wrote that Fitch “spent much money in the project and has heated his imagination so as to be himself a steam engine.” Some said such a boat could not be built; others said it would not move. But with his demonstration in August, Fitch was vindicated. His steamboat was built – and it did move. The steam engine drove six oars each on port and starboard. Of the six on each side, three oars sliced into the water as the other three emerged, propelling the boat at a speed of about three miles per hour.

In spite of the excitement, John Fitch noticed that George Washington did not attend the demonstration. After all, Fitch thought, Washington was chairing the Constitutional Convention, and had to have heard about the steamboat’s debut. Would he have failed to appear if it had been James Rumsey’s boat in the water? To Fitch the answer was painfully obvious.

By the following year, the inventor appeared to be moderately successful. Five states – Pennsylvania, Dela­ware, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia – had issued him patents for the steamboat by 1788. In July, he launched a sixty foot boat propelled by a steam-driven paddle wheel, which ferried passengers across the Delaware from Philadelphia to Burlington, New Jersey. Fitch’s desire to overcome public indifference toward steam navigation prompted him to persuade company shareholders to fund the construction of a third and larger boat. In 1790, he demonstrated this boat, clocked in still water at an impressive eight miles an hour. He operated a regular steamboat passenger service­ – the world’s first! – between Philadelphia and the New Jersey cities of Bordentown, Burlington, and Trenton. He also offered service south to Wilmington, Delaware. Fitch’s passenger service lasted only several months, but the steamboat logged two thou­sand miles between destinations. A new steam­boat, the Perseverance, was being readied when, because of spiraling costs, Fitch’s company lost interest and the entire venture fizzled. Disap­pointed though he was, Fitch knew he had at least proved his point. “Therefore,” he later recounted with sentiment, “am sure of going to Heaven when I die, for Heaven is pleased to make me happy.”

Heaven may have made him happy, but John Fitch was destined to suffer a bit of hell on earth. By 1791, when he applied for a federal patent, he learned that James Rumsey had also applied. Thomas Jefferson, a patent commis­sioner and the Secretary of State under Pres. George Washington, gave both claimants a patent for U1e steamboat. Naturally, Fitch was incensed.

Frank D. Prager, editor of The Autobiography of John Fitch, published in 1976 by the American Philosophical Society, whose early members initially supported Fitch’s experiments with the steam­-powered vessels, best summarized the controversy.

In 1790 the Congress of the United States enacted a patent statute, in response to requests made by Fitch and others. The statute repeated the British rule that the “first and true inventor” could claim an exclusive patent right; and under the statute as then interpreted, Fitch could expect a federal steamboat patent, as the “first and true inventor” of the steamboat. He was the first man to bring the steamboat idea to America, even if others had made private plans about this idea, and even if Rumsey had concerned the earlier Congress with a power-boat idea. After Fitch, Rumsey had also begun to develop a steamboat, but Fitch expected the new, federal statute would protect him from rival steamboat claims of Rumsey.

Such protection was not forthcoming. A federal Board of Patent Commissioners, headed by Jefferson, gave a broad patent for the steamboat invention to Fitch in 1791, but also gave a patent to Rumsey. Fitch had been led to expect at least that the rival patents would have consecutive dates and that he would receive the earlier one, as he was the prior “inventor” and earlier applicant. Possession of the earlier patent would have given him great advantages at law. The Board did not recognize Fitch’s seniority. It issued both patents on the same day.

Fitch then flew into an impotent rage. Only intermit­tently and only for a short time did he continue, thereafter, to work for his steamboat company. Until then he had overcome a succession of hard disappoint­ments; the decision of the federal Board was the final set-back.

Frustrated with the treat­ment he had received in the United States, Fitch sailed in 1793 for France, where he hoped to promote and popularize his invention. But, as his luck – or lack thereof­ – would have it, the French Revolution soon escalated into the Reign of Terror. Realizing the paucity of prospects, Fitch traveled to England. He left his drawings and specifications with the American consul at Lorient, who would later show them to another visiting American: Robert Fulton. Fulton had been working as a miniature painter in Philadel­phia in 1785 and early 1786, and probably knew of Fitch and his promotion of the steamboat.

John Fitch returned to America in 1794, dispirited and penniless. He moved to Connecticut, where he remained for two years. He again became involved with steamboats, and demonstrated a steamboat with a screw propeller in New York. Reportedly one of Fitch’s passengers was Robert Livingston, the Chancellor of New York and – as his continuing bad luck would have it – Fulton’s future financier.

Notwithstanding that demonstration, Fitch decided he was through with steam­boats in the East and decided to experiment with them in western rivers, mainly the Ohio and the Mississippi. He had not seen his land in Kentucky for several years and so he decided to travel there. On his way he stopped in Philadelphia for the last time and saw, among others, his friend Oliver Evans, the individual who would on Market Street in 1805 show America’s first self-propelled land vehicle. Fitch and Evans earnestly discussed the prospects of steam navigation in the West before he resumed his journey.

Upon arriving in Bardstown, Kentucky, the hapless Fitch discovered that his land was occupied by squatters. And instead of being able to further develop and promote his beloved steam­boat, he found himself unhappily immersed in acrimonious litigation. John Fitch could stand no more setbacks. He committed suicide in 1798 at the age of fifty-five.

Perhaps the most fitting threnody for Fitch was unwittingly written by the inventor himself: “The day will come when some more powerful man will get fame and riches from my invention, but nobody will believe that poor John Fitch can do anything worthy of attention.” Little could he have known that that man would be none other than Robert Fulton.

Following Fulton’s demon­stration in 1807, steamboats began to proliferate on America’s waterways. Penn­sylvania played a crucial role in the development of steam navigation. The first steamboat to traverse the Mississippi River was built in Pittsburgh, which became a major steam­boat-building center. By mid-century, two thousand steamboats had been built in Pittsburgh alone. But poor John Fitch ….

Cursed with bad luck or simply the victim of poor timing, John Fitch did not live to see the golden age of steam navigation that forever changed American transportation. He died, foiled and frustrated. His dreams of making the United States (and himself) rich and mighty seemed hopeless and out of reach. His visions became inevitably clouded by misfor­tunes, and he grew blind with anger until he took his own life. Nonetheless, John Fitch, even though few today recognize his name, deserves credit for a life given – and lost – to the invention of the steamboat.


For Further Reading

Barnes, Joseph. Remarks on Mr. John Fitch’s Reply to Mr. James Rumsey’s Pamphlet. Philadelphia: Joseph James, 1788.

Boyd, Thomas. Poor John Fitch. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1935.

Fitch, John. Original Steam­boat Supported. Philadelphia: Zachariah Poulson, 1788.

Howe, Henry. Memoirs of The Most Eminent American Mechanics. New York: A. V. Blake, 1844.

Klein, Philip S., and Ari Hoogenboom. A History of Pennsylvania. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1973.

Lloyd, James T. Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory. Cincin­nati: James T. Lloyd and Company, 1856.

Macfarlane, Robert. History of Propellers and Steam Naviga­tion with Biographical Sketches of The Early Inven­tors. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1851.

Morrison, John Harrison. History of American Steam Navigation. New York: W. F. Sametz and Company, 1903.

Prager, Frank D., ed. The Autobiography of John Fitch. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1976.

Thurston, Robert Henry. A History of the Growth of the Steam Engine. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1878.


The editor wishes to acknowledge the generous assistance of Phil Lapsansky, research librarian of the Library Company of Philadel­phia, who researched, located, and identified illustrations to accompany this article.


Ian de Silva of Dover, Delaware, is a teacher of mathematics and physics. His work has appeared in Car and Driver and Pennsyl­vania Magazine.