The American engineer and inventor John Stevens (1749-1838) was one of the country's earliest experimenters with steamboats. He spent his entire career promoting better transportation in the form of steam railroads, canals, and steamboat lines.
John Stevens was born in New York City, where his father was a shipowner and shipmaster and a wealthy landowner prominent in politics. Young Stevens was raised in Perth Amboy, N.J., and educated primarily by tutors until he attended King's College (now Columbia University), from which he graduated in 1768. Three years later he was admitted to the bar but never practiced law as a profession. During the American Revolution he rose to the rank of colonel, largely for his efforts in raising funds for the patriot cause. He married in 1782 and 2 years later acquired at auction a large tract of land around the present site of Hoboken, N.J., which he developed.
In 1788 Stevens saw John Fitch's steamboat on the Delaware River and became convinced of the bright future for that mode of transportation. Within a few months he petitioned the New York Legislature to grant him the exclusive privilege of steam navigation within the state, but that privilege went to another. Frustrated by his attempts to gain patents from the several states, he aided in drawing up the first Federal patent law in 1790. In August 1791 he was awarded a patent for improvements in steam machinery.
Stevens's father died in 1792, and for the next few years he was busy administering the family estates. About 1797 he entered into partnership with Nicholas I. Roosevelt and Chancellor Robert R. Livingston to build and operate steamboats. The partners differed over such matters as the proper way of applying steam (Stevens preferred the use of screw propellers), and no successful boat was ever built by the group. Stevens then became consultant for the Manhattan Company, which was building a water system for the city of New York, and in 1802 he became head of the Bergen Turnpike Company.
In 1804 Stevens achieved a measure of success with his small steamboat Little Juliana and began to build a larger boat, the Phoenix, in 1806. Before he could get it into operation, however, Robert Fulton successfully ran the Claremont on the Hudson River (1807). The Phoenix was sent by sea to the Delaware River and put into ferry service between Philadelphia and Trenton.
About 1810 Stevens turned his steamboat interests over to his sons, who became prominent engineers in their own right, while he concentrated on the development of steam railroads, which he preferred to the more popular canals. In 1825 he constructed and operated on his estate the first steam locomotive built in the United States. He was a leader in establishing the utility of steam railroads in the United States.
Further Reading on John Stevens
The standard biography of Stevens is Archibald Douglas Turnbull, John Stevens: An American Record (1928). An older book, which gives information on his sons as well, is R. H. Thurston, The Messrs. Stevens, of Hoboken, as Engineers, Naval Architects and Philanthropists (1874). The best book on early steamboat developments, including those of Stevens, is James Thomas Flexner, Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action (1944).