Who Really Invented the Steamboat? Fitch, Rumsey or Fulton?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary uses old newspapers to research the invention of the steamboat—and describes how much steamboats changed our ancestors’ world.

The invention of the steamboat radically changed our ancestors’ world. While researching your ancestors’ lives in historical newspapers, you will run across many mentions of steamboats. This blog article, including a fun quiz, will test your knowledge of the history of steamboats and help fill in some of the gaps for you.

Who Invented the Steamboat?

Although many, including the writer of this 1815 obituary, credit Robert Fulton (1765-1815) with the invention of the steamboat, it simply isn’t true.

obituary for Robert Fulton, American Beacon newspaper article 7 November 1815

American Beacon (Norfolk, Virginia), 7 November 1815, page 3

Perhaps you are an expert in steamboats; test your knowledge with this handy steamboat quiz and check your answers below.

a quiz about the history of steamboats

John Fitch

Most historians attribute the honor for the invention of the steamboat to John Fitch (1743-1798), who constructed the first steamboat in the United States.

As you can see from this 1786 announcement addressed “To the ENCOURAGERS of USEFUL ARTS,” Fitch “proposed a Machine for the improvement of Navigation” which was endorsed by a number of subscribers who thought that “it might be beneficial to the public.”

a proposal by John Fitch for a steamboat, Pennsylvania Journal newspaper article 4 January 1786

Pennsylvania Journal (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 4 January 1786, page 1

Several state legislatures granted Fitch a 14-year monopoly on all steamboat travel on the inland waterways within their borders. This steamboat monopoly in turn helped him attract investors. His invention used steam to power oars, and in 1788 his commercial steamboat could carry up to 30 paying passengers per trip on the Delaware River. (See Wikipedia’s image of a woodcut by James Trenchard showing Fitch’s steamboat.)

James Rumsey (or Rumsy), Fitch’s Rival

As is the case with many inventions, other inventors worked on the concept of steam navigation simultaneously, including James Rumsey (1743-1792). His steamboat incorporated steam propulsion and was patented by several southern states.

After Rumsey went to Philadelphia in 1788 a pamphlet war arose with Fitch, with each claiming the right to make steamboats. This 1910 newspaper article reported that:

“George Washington had written a letter certifying that he had witnessed trials of the Rumsey boat, and that although he formerly had but little faith in it, he was then convinced that Rumsey had discovered the art of working boats by mechanism.”

history of the invention of the steamboat, Watertown Daily Times newspaper article 18 November 1910

Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, New York), 18 November 1910, page 5

This article also reported that Rumsey “had a controversy before his death with Fitch, whom he accused of ‘coming pottering around’ his shop.”

Several people tried in vain to get the two inventors to work together. It is reported that Fitch tried to secure a patent in England based upon Rumsey’s water-tube boiler. There was even a Rumseian Society formed in 1788 to assist Rumsey, but it was disbanded in 1792 after his death. I recommend you read about it on the Web and at http://jamesrumsey.org/. It is a very interesting story.

Robert Fulton

Although Fitch and Rumsey preceded Robert Fulton with their steamboat inventions, Fulton’s contributions to commercial steamboat operations should not be overlooked.

In 1801, he and partner Chancellor Robert Livingston (1746-1813) built the North River Steamboat, which was later named the Clermont.

Livingston was one of our nation’s Founding Fathers and, among other accomplishments, became the first United States Secretary for Foreign Affairs (1781-1783). As you can see from this early advertisement, Livingston and Fulton charged $7 for passage from New York City to Albany on the North River Steamboat.

ad for travel fares on the North River Steamboat, American Citizen newspaper advertisement 5 September 1807

American Citizen (New York, New York), 5 September 1807, page 2

This next historical newspaper account describes, in Fulton’s own words, how he traveled from New York to Clermont, and arrived at the seat (home) of Chancellor Livingston in 24 hours and also includes a nice portrait illustration of him. Clermont would later become the famous name of Fulton’s steamboat, and of course we should note that Chancellor Livingston was the uncle of Fulton’s wife, Harriet Livingston.

letter from Robert Fulton, Columbian Gazette newspaper article 1 September 1807

Columbian Gazette (Utica, New York), 1 September 1807, page 3

There is so much written about Fulton, I’ll leave more in-depth research to you. However, I would recommend reading the many charming accounts of how Robert Fulton wooed and won the hand of his bride Harriet. Some report that she was present at the trial run of his first steamboat. The following account, reported by Fulton’s grandson Robert Fulton Blight, states:

“‘Is it too presumptuous in me to aspire to the hand of your niece, Harriet Livingston?’ young Robert Fulton one day asked her uncle, Chancellor Robert L. Livingston.

“‘By no means,’ replied the distinguished Chancellor. ‘Her father may object because you are a humble and poor inventor and the family may object, but if Harriet doesn’t object, and she seems to have a world of good sense, go ahead and my best wishes and blessings go with you.’”

article about Robert Fulton and his wife Harriet, New York Herald newspaper article 25 October 1891

New York Herald (New York, New York), 25 October 1891, page 32

Genealogical Challenge

I was not able to locate Robert Fulton and Harriet Livingston’s marriage announcement in the newspapers. If any of our readers find it, please let us know and we will update this post to include it.

Update

A sharp-eyed reader, J. Hansen, found the following marriage announcement for Robert Fulton and Harriet Livingston; we are now able to update this Blog article with that newspaper article. Thank you, J. Hansen!

marriage announcement for Robert Fulton and Harriet Livingston, American Citizen newspaper article 9 January 1808

American Citizen (New York, New York), 9 January 1808, page 3

How Steamboats Changed the World

So how did steamboats change the world?

You may be surprised at some of the answers. The emergence of mechanical navigation meant that:

  • Commercial boating was no longer dependent upon the wind.
  • Boats could navigate in a straightforward manner, eliminating the need to tack with the wind. This made navigation in narrower waterways feasible.
  • Travel times were shortened by the steamboat, as seen in this 1808 newspaper article reporting that one could travel from Albany to New York in 35 hours.
notice about the arrival of the steamboat from Albany, New York, Columbian Centinel newspaper article 14 September 1808

Columbian Centinel (Boston, Massachusetts), 14 September 1808, page 2

In addition to the above improvements, there was another astounding way that steamboats changed our ancestors’ lives.

The bitter dispute between Fitch and Rumsey actually led to the formation of the Federal U.S. Patent Office. Starting on 10 April 1790, patents were no longer granted by individual states—they had to be issued on a national level.

Congress named the Patent Office legislation “An Act to Promote the Progress of Useful Arts.”

legislation to create the U.S. Patent Office, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 13 April 1790

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 13 April 1790, page 2

Dig into historical newspapers yourself to find out more about Fitch, Rumsey and Fulton, and learn how steamboats dramatically changed your American ancestors’ lives.

See related Blog article:

In Search of Our Early American Ancestors’ Patents on Inventions

In Search of Our Early American Ancestors’ Patents on Inventions

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains that some of your ancestors may have patented inventions—and finding the government records or newspaper descriptions of these inventions may fill in some gaps in your family history.

When we think of patented inventions (not to be confused with land patents), the more famous inventors—such as Thomas Edison (inventor of the phonograph and 1000+ other inventions)—overshadow lesser-known American inventors.

But take a moment to reflect on life before the Industrial Revolution, when our early American ancestors were left to their own ingenuity. The family stories may have become lost over the years, but perhaps some of your ancestors invented unique tools or machines—and finding information about their patented inventions may fill in some gaps in your family history.

Necessity was the driving force behind many of these historical inventions, creating devices to deal with problems that don’t concern us today.

Peter Zacharie’s Mud-Moving Machine

For example, mud was a large problem in the late 18th century. When you cleared a swamp, it was a back-breaking, labor-intensive chore, and undoubtedly the inspiration for Peter Zacharie’s (of Baltimore) mud-moving device, which is described in this 1792 newspaper article.

Peter Zacharie's patent, Spooner's Vermont Journal newspaper article 14 February 1792

Spooner’s Vermont Journal (Windsor, Vermont), 14 February 1792, page 2

His device allowed a person to walk in a hollow wheel and raise, with what must have been a large spoon, a ton of mud. As the first one went up, a corresponding spoon simultaneously went down to get another load, thereby allowing a single man to empty it in a minute. What a fantastic labor-saving invention!

Although no drawing has been located of Zacharie’s machine, List of Patents for Inventions and Designs Issued by the United States from 1790 to 1847 (Edmund Burke, Commissioner of Patents, 1847) on Google Books, described it as an “Excavator, mud machine.” I imagine it more as an early elliptical machine—as this would undoubtedly have kept the farmer in shape!

Obadiah Herbert’s Spinning Wheel

That same 1792 newspaper reported that Obadiah Herbert (of Mount Pleasant) had created a spinning wheel that could eliminate the need for a second person. As noted, “the advantages of such a machine were evident.”

Obadiah Herbert's patent, Spooner's Vermont Journal newspaper article 14 February 1792

Spooner’s Vermont Journal (Windsor, Vermont), 14 February 1792, page 2

Miss E. A. Judkins Lace Loom

You’ll find descriptions of other lesser-known American inventions in early newspapers, such as this one by Miss E. A. Judkins (of Portland), who invented a loom to weave lace, fringes, etc., eliminating the need for tatting and crocheting.

E. A. Judkins's patent, National Gazette newspaper article 2 July 1839

National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 2 July 1839, page 1

Patent Protection in Early America

These early inventions received patent protection under the “Act to Promote the Progress of Useful Arts” of 10 April 1790. Protection under this act was granted:

“to such persons or petitioners, his, her or their heirs, administrators or assigns for any term not exceeding fourteen years, the sole and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing, using and vending to others to be used, the said invention or discovery.”

1790 Patent Act, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 13 April 1790

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 13 April 1790, page 2

There were various other stipulations, and the act included a statement that the issued patent “would be prima facia evidence that the said patentee or patentees, was or were the first and true inventor or inventors, discover or discovers of the thing so specified.” Filing fees were specified, which totaled $3.85:

    • 50¢ to receive and file the petition
    • 10¢ per copy-sheet containing one hundred words
    • $2.00 for making out the patent
    • $1.00 for affixing the great seal
    • 25¢ to endorse the day of delivering the same to the patentee
1790 Patent Act, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 13 April 1790

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 13 April 1790, page 2

Where to Find These Historical U.S. Patents?

Unfortunately for family historians searching government records, about 10,000 of the earliest patent documents were destroyed in an 1836 fire at the Post Office building. Luckily, many American patentees kept copies of their prized patents.

Known as the “X-Patents,” less than 1/3 of the documents destroyed in that fire have been restored to the United States Patent Office—mostly from personal collections or archives. One of the surviving early documents was Eli Whitney’s patent for the cotton gin.

drawing of Eli Whitney's cotton gin

Credit: Wikipedia Commons image

If you find one of the missing X-Patents in your family archives, be sure to contact the U.S. Patent Office. They’ll be appreciative you contacted them so that they can save more of these missing historical patents.

To learn more about patented early American inventions search GenealogyBank’s Newspaper Archives, along with Google Books and Google Patents. You’ll also find a number of accounts and related reference material in GenealogyBank’s Historical Books collection.

photo of an 1871 advertising card for Scientific American, Munn & Co., patent attorneys

Scientific American, Munn & Co., patent attorneys advertising card, 1 January 1871

Also visit the United States Patent and Trademark Office. There you’ll learn that protection for patented inventions is not much longer than it was in 1790, but fees now run into thousands of dollars!

From their website:

“How long does patent protection last?

“For applications filed on or after June 8, 1995, utility and plant patents are granted for a term which begins with the date of the grant and usually ends 20 years from the date you first applied for the patent subject to the payment of appropriate maintenance fees. Design patents last 14 years from the date you are granted the patent. No maintenance fees are required for design patents.”

Recommended reading from the newspaper archives:

Do you have any American inventors in your family tree? Share with us in the comments!