Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

Fitch, Fulton, Rumsey and the Great Steamboat Debate
May is National Inventors Month. It is a time to recognize innovation and creativity, and to honor individuals around the world who dared to dream of what could be. As with all manner of explorers and pioneers, there is deep-rooted competition among inventors thirsty for firstness- to be the first to achieve a great feat for humanity, and to pave the way for those who might follow. With many great inventions, the original inventor is overshadowed by the person who first made the invention profitable. This is true of Henry Ford and cars, Samuel Morse and telegraphs, and it is certainly true of Robert Fulton and steamboats.
This popular print from Currier & Ives shows the burgeoning city of St. Louis in 1874,
with steamboats crowding the river as far as the eye can see.
From the collections of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library
Of the many inventions that altered the course of American history, the steamboat is surely at the top of the list. Through this cutting-edge technology, American settlers “unlocked” the western half of the continent, pushing aside indigenous people and other rival nations’ claims to the trans-Mississippi West inexorably through the strategic use of modern water and steam power, ultimately forging the nation we know today. The debate over who invented the first steamboat dates back centuries and continues to present. Popular history tends to misattribute the honor to Robert Fulton or even John Fitch, completely discounting the many inventors abroad, such as French physicist and mathematician Denis Papin, who piloted the first known steam-powered vessel down the Fulda River in 1705. This was decades before American inventors Robert Fulton, John Fitch, and James Rumsey entered the scene. These three larger than life figures, however, have come to dominate the popular narrative, largely due to their dramatic patent fights and pamphlet campaigns.

The origin of the famous trio’s feud is usually traced back to a meeting between James Rumsey, a tavern keeper and inventor, and George Washington, hero of the Revolutionary War. Washington stayed in Rumsey’s tavern in 1784, a year after the war ended. One evening Rumsey showed Washington his ideas for a mechanical pole boat. Washington admired the creative invention and offered his endorsement. This support enabled Rumsey to secure a patent from the Virginia legislature. At the time, U.S. patent law was non-existent, so these early state patents led to great frustration for fellow inventors. A year later, Washington appointed Rumsey to serve as superintendent of the newly formed Patowmack Company. He was given the funds to build his boat and tasked with clearing rocks from present-day Harper’s Ferry, making the river more navigable. Rumsey oversaw the river work, while his assistant and brother-in-law began construction on the boat. By this time Rumsey, had incorporated steam propulsion into his design to aid his pole-boat mechanism.
A Short Treatise on the Application of Steam to Propel Boats or Vessels by James Rumsey, 1788. From the collections of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library
As Rumsey worked away, John Fitch, a colorful frontier entrepreneur, was traveling the states, raising capital to build his own steamboat that would feature steam-powered oars. Fitch secured several state patents that gave him exclusive rights to his and any other steamboat, including a New York patent that gave him a 14-year monopoly over all steamboat river traffic. This monopoly helped him secure financial backers.
This 19th century print of one of Fitch’s models was briefly displayed at the Mercantile, evidence of the inventor’s far reaching influence and appreciation in a river city like St. Louis.
From the collections of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library
At this point Rumsey and Fitch were locked into a race to the finish line. Rumsey tested his boat in the spring of 1786 and failed due to issues with the boiler, steam pump, and pole-boat mechanism. It wasn’t until December 1787 that Rumsey had his first successful public demonstration on the Potomac River at Shepherdstown. Unfortunately for Rumsey, Fitch had successfully piloted his 45-foot long Perseverance down the Delaware River five months earlier, in August 1787.
Sketch of John Fitch’s Perserverance from John Hutchings' 1846 broadside Honor to whom honor is due: Origin of steam navigation; A view of Collect pond and its vicinity in the city of New York in 1793; On which pond, the first boat, propelled by steam with paddle wheels or screw propellers was constructed by John Fitch, six years before Robert Fulton made trial of his boat upon the river Seine, in France, and ten years prior to his putting into opperation [sic] his boat Clermont in New York; with a representation of the boat and its machinery, on the Collect pond.  From the collections of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library
In the following years, the two inventors engaged in a bitter pamphlet war featuring witnesses and sworn affidavits. Both men held vague and contradictory patents from years before the first U.S. patent laws were created. They also both struggled to secure financial backing, following their initial successes, so establishing claim to the monopoly was critical to continuing their work.
Left: A plan wherein the power of steam is fully shewn, by a new constructed machine, for propelling boats or vessels, of any burthen, against the most rapid streams or rivers, with great velocity by James Rumsey, 1788. Right: The original steam-boat supported; or, A reply to Mr. James Rumsey's pamphlet. Shewing the true priority of John Fitch, and the false datings, &c. of James Rumsey by John Fitch, 1788. From the collections of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library
In 1788 Rumsey published a pamphlet claiming he invented the steamboat (shown here on the left). An excerpt reads "... Mr. Fitch’s endeavouring to procure patents for his boat ... and having actually procured an exclusive right from two respectable Assemblies (who had granted me the same in the year 1784) ... I have been unavoidably led ... to prove my prior right to the steam invention, and I should have said no more, but let experience determine whose principles are soundest, had not Mr. Fitch, equally void of decency and truth, asserted 'I got what small knowledge I have of steam boats from him' ..." Fitch quickly published a reply (shown here on the right). The title of the pamphlet perfectly conveys the tone of the piece, The original steam-boat supported; or, A reply to Mr. James Rumsey's pamphlet. Shewing the true priority of John Fitch, and the false datings, of James Rumsey. The two men continued to publicly quarrel over who’s invention came first, both vying for the rights to Fitch’s 14-year monopoly patent. In 1791 the newly created federal Patent Commission awarded same-day patents to Fitch, Rusmey, Nathan Read, and John Stevens, stripping Fitch of his monopoly and also, ultimately, his investors.  Although many acquaintances encouraged the two inventors to work together, their animus drove their fight to England, where they both rushed to secure patents preserving their work. Rumsey died in England in 1792. Fitch continued his patent quest in France, arriving just as the infamous Reign of Terror was beginning. Fitch was eventually forced to abandon his dreams and retire to Bardstown Kentucky in 1797. He hoped to build a steamboat for the western waters, but depression and endless frustration led him down the dark path of alcohol abuse and ultimately to an opium overdose in 1798. Rumsey and Fitch’s battle didn’t end with their deaths. Friends and acquaintances picked up the long-standing feud, carrying the torch through Fulton’s steamboat successes and beyond.
This rare testimonial broadside was published by John Hutchings in 1846. As a young boy, Hutchings witnessed Fitch's steamboat Perseverance, and wrote this testimonial to cement and preserve the historical record. The broadside contains a short biography of Fitch, a sworn statement by Hutchings, signed by the Commission of Deeds in New York, three testimonial letters supporting Hutchings claims, sketches of Collect Pond and Fitch’s boats, and Hutchings' remarks on the launching of the Perseverance. Honor to whom honor is due: Origin of steam navigation; A view of Collect pond and its vicinity in the city of New York in 1793; On which pond, the first boat, propelled by steam with paddle wheels or screw propellers was constructed by John Fitch, six years before Robert Fulton made trial of his boat upon the river Seine, in France, and ten years prior to his putting into opperation [sic] his boat Clermont in New York; with a representation of the boat and its machinery, on the Collect pond.
From the collections of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library
Robert Fulton was an American engineer and inventor who is widely credited as the father of the steamboat. Unlike his predecessor’s, Fulton was well-connected socially and politically. He was able to focus on his work, free from the endless pursuit of financial backers that plagued all those before him. He had the support of Robert Livingston, a powerful politician and one of the wealthiest men in America, who was perhaps best known for serving as Ambassador to France during the negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase. After Fitch’s death, the New York legislature broke Fitch’s monopoly, and instead awarded it to Robert Livingston, and therefore Fulton. Having successfully shackled their competitors, Fulton and Livingston created the first financially viable steamboat, the North River Steamboat, later called the Clermont. Where Fitch’s boats had been deemed a novelty, and Rumsey’s overly complex and costly, Fulton’s was determined the future. Passengers found they could now regularly travel between New York City and Albany, a round trip distance of over 300 miles, in just 62 hours. Propelled by their success, Livingston and Fulton wasted no time moving on to their next revolutionary project. A mere twelve days after the Clermont’s first voyage in 1807, the pair began work on the New Orleans, which would become the first steamboat to travel the continent’s western waters.
Left: Portrait of Robert Fulton from The Life of Robert Fulton, written by his friend Cadwallader Colden, 1817. Right: Boat designs from Fulton’s Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation, 1796. From the collections of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library
Photograph of exhibit case from the Mercantile Library's anniversary exhibit A Nation, A City, and Its First Library. Selections from the Pott Waterways Library are featured heavily throughout the exhibit, including Marestier's book on American steamboats, the first on the subject, displayed here in the center.
Explore the saga of America’s early steamboat inventors and countless other stories in our new anniversary exhibit A Nation, A City, and Its First Library: Americana As a Way of Life at the St. Louis Mercantile Library for 175 years. Learn more or schedule a tour here.
 
Visit our gift shop to order your copy of the exhibition catalog while supplies last.


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