John Fitch

John Fitch (1743-1798), an American mechanic and inventor, was the first to build and operate a steam boat successfully.

John Fitch was born on a farm in Hartford County, Conn. By the age of 10 he had left school and begun farming. To escape farming he spent the next 6 years at clerking and various other jobs. He was apprenticed to two different clockmakers, and when he reached his twenty-first birthday he set up his own brass shop in East Windsor, Conn. He always had trouble maintaining stable social relationships; in 1769 he deserted his wife and left the state.

Settling in Trenton, N.J., Fitch set up as a brass and silver smith. During the American Revolution he earned a modest living repairing guns and provisioning the Continental troops. In 1780 he went west for the first time, as a surveyor for a land speculation company. While running lines along the Ohio River he laid claim to 1,600 acres in Kentucky. On another trip west, in 1782, he was captured by Indians and turned over to their British allies. After his imprisonment in Canada, he was released and continued his speculations in western lands. Following his last trip in 1785, he drew and engraved a map of the Northwest Territory which brought him some fame and a small income.

After 1785 Fitch devoted himself to developing the steamboat. The idea was not new, but Fitch later claimed to have gotten it independently after seeing a picture of a steam engine in a book. He first thought to apply steam power to driving wagons, but he soon turned to the problem of making a boat go by the force of steam. By 1786 he was granted an exclusive privilege to employ steam on the waters of New Jersey, and in 1787 he received similar grants from Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and Virginia.

Fitch worked with the clockmaker and master mechanic Henry Voight of Philadelphia to perfect his idea. He lacked the funds to purchase an engine ready-made from England; furthermore, export of steam engines was banned by the British government. So he tried to make an engine himself—a task which detracted significantly from his chances for success. Nevertheless in August 1787, before a distinguished group of Federal and Pennsylvania state officials, he demonstrated his first boat on the Delaware River. One handicap was the method of propulsion—a row of steam-powered oars on each side of the boat. His future boats used the paddle wheel. During this period he expended much energy in a controversy with James Rumsey of Virginia, who disputed his claim to have originated the steamboat.

In July 1788 Fitch successfully launched a new and larger boat, which made many trips between Philadelphia and Burlington, N.J., carrying as many as 30 passengers at a time. In 1790 he put another boat into service that made regularly scheduled runs across the Delaware River. Despite this success, however, steamboat travel was not accepted by the public. This, combined with constant mechanical troubles and uncertain financial backing, resulted in the failure of Fitch's enterprise.

Fitch received a patent in August 1791 but was not able to capitalize upon it. He sought the patronage of the Federal government as well as of several states, and he even corresponded with the Spanish government over the possibility of operating boats on the Mississippi River. He traveled to France looking for backing but failed there too. He returned to the United States and in 1796 moved to Kentucky. Here he died, presumably by his own hand, 2 years later.

Something of the difficulty of Fitch's life may be understood from the bitter humor of a declaration (with misspellings) he once made: "I know of nothing so perplexing and Vexatious to a man of feelings, as a turbulant Wife and Steam Boat building. I experienced the former and quit in season, and had I been in my right sences I should undoubtedly [have] treated the latter in this same manner, but for one man to be teised with Both, he must be looked upon as the most unfortunate man in this World."

Fitch's attempt to establish the steamboat was followed by at least a dozen other experimenters before Robert Fulton's success in 1807.


Further Reading on John Fitch

Fitch told his own story in The Original Steamboat Supported (1788). The standard biography is still Thompson Westcott, The Life of John Fitch, the Inventor of the Steam-boat (1857), but it may be supplemented by Thomas A. Boyd, Poor John Fitch, Inventor of the Steamboat (1935). A balanced account of the rivalry between Fitch and others is James Thomas Flexner, Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action (1944).

Additional Biography Sources

Fitch, John, The autobiography of John Fitch, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1976.