John Fitch and the Steam Boat

Steamboat of April 1790 used for passenger service

Steamboat of April 1790 used for passenger service

On January 21, 1743, American inventor, clockmaker, entrepreneur and engineer John Fitch was born. He was most famous for operating the first steamboat service in the United States even before Robert Fulton.

John Fitch grew up with his father and it is believed that he did not enjoy his childhood too much. He was pulled from school at the age of eight and had to work at the family farm. Eventually, he fled and took up silversmithing before exploring the Ohio River basin. Some years later, Fitch left again for Pennsylvania, where he set out to make a steam-powered boat to navigate the western rivers. His competitor, Rumsey, also looked forward to making money with steamboats and he gained support from the U.S. government in the 1780s. However, Fitch found support by a private investor and began reinventing a sort of Watt engine, constructing what is believed to be America’s first successful steamboat, ahead of Rumsey. [1,2]

Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and Virginia issued patents for his steamboat and he obtained financial backings for a total of three boats. Fitch was able to use his odd machines, which (in the first plans they were propelled by a set of Indian canoe paddles), in a passenger line between Trenton and Philadelphia. Unfortunately, his attempt failed commercially. It is widely believed that the people did not take his idea seriously and also, he apparently had difficulities in finding new investors. [1,2]

John Fitch was known to be a complex personality – intelligent, ambitious, stubborn, and probably paranoid. He was a self-taught scientist and mechanic, and he wanted to solve practical problems. Unfortunately, his setbacks hit him hard and Fitch felt highly betrayed after Robert Fulton, about a decade later, claimed that he was inventor of the steamboatFitch retired and it is believed that he committed suicide. [1]

At yovisto you might learn more about the principles behind steam engines and thermodynamics in the lecture videos of Prof. Ranamurti Shankar from Yale on ‘Fundamentals of Physics‘, where he also discusses the laws of thermodynamics.

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