John Fitch
Posted by Admin on December 22 2012 05:13:28

John Fitch


John FitchAlthough John Fitch constructed the first steamboat that navigated American waters, he obtained little credit for the invention. Only recently has justice been done to the claims of this humble mechanic, whose misfortune it was that his merits were concealed under a rough garb.


John Fitch was born ou the 21st of January, 1743, at Windsor, Conllecticut. His father, Joseph Fitch, was descended from an old Saxon family which had emigrated to Essex, England, and had finally crossed to America, and settled at Windsor. When only four years old, John Fitch lost his mother, and at the age of eight he was put to work all the farm. Out of his scanty earnings he managed to purchase a copy of "Salmon's Geography," which he studied. When he was thirteen, after much difficulty, he persuaded his father to allow him to take lessons in surveying. Chiefly owing to the cruel treatment of his elder brother, life at hottle was no longer bearable, and at seventeen, John ron away. Arriving at Wethersfield, he shipped on board a vessel bound for New York. His treatment here was worse even than he had received at home, and he transferred himself to a Providence sloop.


Soon tired of a sailor's life, Fitch apprenticed himself to a clockmaker; but receiving little instruction in the practical part of this business from his master, he left and set up a brnss foundry, in which undertaking he had some success. Believing be could make more money in manufacturing potash, he gave up the brass work; but the potash business proved a failure. On the 28th of December, 1767, he married a Miss Lucy Roberts. This union brought nothing but misery to both parties, and in less than two years they separated on account of incompatibility of temper. The fruit of this marriage was two children, a son and a daughter. The children were taken by the mother, who seems to have alienated any affection they might have had for their father. In later years he wrote them frequently, offering them land and property, but received no response.


At the age of twenty six he left his little homestead and became a wanderer, traveling in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. When the American Revolution broke ont, he found occupation in repairing arms at Trenton. ;The British army entering that place, destroyed the little property he had accumulated and also his tools. Fitch now enlisted in a company of New Jersey volunteers, and was made lieutenant. At the expiration of his term of service he received $4,000 of Continental paper; for this he realized in specie only one hundred dollars. Working for a time as deputy surveyor under the State of Virginia, he, in 1780, set out on foot for Kentucky, and took up lands between Kentucky and Green Rivers. When he returned to Philadelphia, in 1781, he was the owner of 1,600 acres of land. In 1782, whilst descending the Ohio to New Orleans with a cargo of flour and groceries, he, with eight others, was taken prisoner by a party of Indians under Captain Buffalo. Fitch was passed from one tribe to another, and from one owner to another in exchange for skins, until he computed that he had traveled 1,200 miles through the North-western territory. In October of the same year his captivity ended by his being purchased from the Indians by a British officer at Detroit. Subsequently he was exchanged as a prisoner of war, and returned to the United States in the winter of 1782-3. By means of knowledge gained, during his Indian captivity, of the country, on his return he drew a map embracing the territory from the Lake of the Woods to the mouth of the Ohio River. He was assisted ill this by Thomas Hutchins, Geographer of the United States, and by William McMurray. These rough maps appear to have been in great demand.


One Sunday, on returning from church, the idea entered his mind of gaining a force by steam." On the 29th of August, 1785, he had so matured this idea that he presented the subject to the Continental Congress. The matter was referred to a special committee who neglected even to make a report upon it. Fitch returned to work on his map of the Indian Country, only, however, with the desire to accumulate funds which should enable him to carry out his design as to a steamboat. Patrick Henry secured for him one hundred and fifteen subscribers. In April, 1786, a company was formed to carry on the steamboat enterprise. Mr. Harry Voight, as superintendent, assisted Fitch in the construction of the engine. They both agreed that the paddles were to be worked by cranks. The boat was commenced at Philadelphia, and on the 1st of May, 1787, was considered ready for launching, and was named the" Perseverance." Her first private trial greatly disheartened Fitch. In smooth water she attained only a speed of three miles an hour; but improvements were made, and in October, 1788, she made a public trial and secured a speed of eight miles an hour. She made on the 12th of October, a trip up the Delaware to Burlington against the tide i on this journey she covered the twenty miles at the average speed of 6 1/3 miles an hour, having on board thirty passengers. Rittenhouse testified that he " was on board when the boat worked against both wind and tide, with a very considerable degree of velocity, by the force of steam alone." Dr. Thornton certifies that shortly after her Burlington trip she made eighty miles in a day. Fitch and his associates were presented with a handsome flag by the Governor of Penllsylvania, and received a complimentary notice from the resident minister of France.


A spirited contest, however, had arisen about the new application of steam. The State of New Jersey had granted Fitch the exclusive right to navigate her waters by "fire or steam," New York had given him a monopoly for fourteen years, and Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware granted privileges but in 1787 New York repealed the law in favor of Fitch, the poor Pennsylvanian, and transferred its privileges to Robert R. Livingston, a prominent citizen of New York. On the 26th of August, 1791, a patient to both Fitch and his chief oppo· nent, James Rumsey, of Virginia, who had secured the favor of many members of Congress, was granted for propelling boats by steam, leaving the question of priority and original. ity to be settled in the courts. So disheartened was Fitch by the contention that he determined to return and settle in Kentucky. In the Columbian Magazine" for December, 1786, a description of Fitch's Perseverance" is given; though it is certified that up to September, 1786, Rumsey had not applied a steam-engine or a force-pump to his boat.


In 1792 Fitch sailed for Prance to start a steamboat company in Europe; but on his arrival, on account of the Revolution, his hopes of success there were dispelled. He now visited London, and in 1793 published a pamphlet on navigation. entitled, "An Explanation for Keeping a Ship's Traverse at Sea by the Columbian Ready Reckoner." His money becoming exhausted, he worked his way across the Atlantic before the mast, arriving in Boston in 1794-. In 1796 he again went to Kentucky, and engaged in a series of Jaw suits to recover his lands. Thoroughly broken down in health and spirits, he gave way to the use of liquor, and gradually drank himself to death, dying about the middle of 1798. He was buried at Bardstown, Kentucky.


Fitch had in 1796 left a scaled manuscript with the Library Company of Philadelphia, giving instructions that it should not be opened until thirty years aner his death. At the expiration of this period the seal was broken, and it bore cvidenc~ to the fact that in April, 1785, the idea first occurred to him of propelling carriages aiong roads by steam. A week after he took up the idea of water-craft; respecting this, he writes,  I did not know that there was a steam-engine on earth, when I proposed to gain a force by steam. I leave my first draft and descriptions behind, that you may judge whether I am sincere or not. A short time after drawing my first draft for a boot, I was amazed and chagrined to find at Parson Erwin'S, in Bucks County. a drawing of a steam engine; but it had the effect to establish me in my other principles, as my doubts, at that time, lay in the engine
only." Fitch describes himself thus, "My temper of wind, being so different from any man's, causes me wany difficulties. I am modest, in easy circumstances, and imperious, and violent, and petulant, when in difficulty. I hope the considerate may forgive titis, and I wish to correct myself." Fitch was thoroughly honest, original in his ideas, obdurately fixed in his purposes; yet, like other inventors, somewhat restless in life. Unfortunately, the roughness of his appearance and manner, as well as the peculiarity of his temper, prevented him from winning friends, when friends were most necessary to his enterprises. It is remarkable that franklin, whose character and career might have seemed to lead him to favor the inventive mechanic Fitch, gave his influence to his less worthy rival, Rumsey. Harshly treated as a boy, unhappy in his domestic relations, baffled at every step of his inventive career, and sinking to the grave a disappointed man, John Fitch must forever be an object of sympathy to students or character.




In May, 1787, the steam-engine was completed; but it was found that" the wooden caps to the cylinders admitted air. They were also horizontal, and  the piston was leaky." Money was advanced by the company to set them right. The machinery was all taken out from the foundation and set up again-a very tedious job. After a heavy expenditure and a waste of time} the works were again fixed with a perpendicular cylinder. It was then discovered that the condensation was imperfect. They were obliged to "throw the condenser away, and procure others according to the draft of Voight, who entitled his invention" a pipe condenser. Several other forms of condensers had been previously tried, but were found to be useless. The steam valves were also imperfect. In lieu of these, Voight invented a double cock, "through which the steam could pass to the cylinder, and when it had done its work to repass said cock to the condenser." Whilst these alterations were being made, the projectors and company were expectant, but as soon as one defcot was remedied another became apparent At length it was supposed that everything was perfect; but, lot a new and unforeseen difficulty arose. The engine worked so briskly that the boiler could not furnish sufficient steam to supply it continuously. Yet the boat had been moved, and at a rate, too, when going, of three or four miles an hour; but frequent stoppages were necessary to accumulate fresh supplies of steam. The shareholders now became discouraged, and some of them abandoned the project. Fitch in despair was inclined to give lip the attempt; but he detennined to try another appeal. They relented, and more money was furnished. The necessary alterations were made. The machinery worked exceedingly well, and there was plcnty of steam.


The new boat was tried on the 22d of August, 1787 The Convention to frame a Federal Constitution was then in session in Philadelphia and the members were invited to witness the experimcnt. The bo..1.t was tried near the place where it was built, and it was propelled by the power of stcam. It went but slowly, however, the cylinder was only twelve inches in diameter, and the force of the machinery was not sufficient to move the boat at a rale of speed which would render it valuable for use on the Delaware as a packet· boat Nevertheless, those who were present were satisfied that the trial had demonstrated that a boat might be moved by steam. In his joumal, Fitch mentions that nearly all the members of me Convention were prese.nt, except General Washington. Goventor Randolph, of Virginia, was pleased to give the invention countenance, and Dr. Johnson, of Virginia, the next day sent the patient enthusiast the following note:


Dr. Johnson presents his compliments to Mr. Fitch, and assures him that the exhibition of yesterday gave the gentlemen present much satisfaction. He himself, and, be doubts not, the other gentlemen, will always be happy to give him every count Dance and encouragement in their power which his ingenuity and industry entitles him to. Thursday afternoon, 23d August, 1787.Tn the diary of Rev. Ezra Stiles, of New Haven, conn under date 1787, August 27, is the following entry: "Judge Ellsworth, a member of the Federal Convention, just returned from Philadelphia, visited me, and tells me the Convention will not rise under three weeks. He there saw a Steam. Engine for rowing boats against the stream, invented by Mr. Fitch, of Windsor, in Connecticut. He was on board the boat, and saw the experiment succeed."


In the spring of 1790, the Steamboat Company began to put the works on board, some of which had been taken out when the boat was laid up in the previous winter. The alterations to the boiler were also in progress. The pleasant prosecution of the business was prevented by recriminations and quarrelsome scenes between Fitch and some of the Directors. The dispute at this time was in reference to the propriety of getting a new condenser. The Directors ordered a new one to be made, twice as large as any which had previously been tried. To this Fitch was opposed. The new article was finished, however, and placed in the "condensing tub," which bad to be enlarged to hold it. Preparations were made to try the boat by Easter Monday. 'rhe engine would not work with any degree of force, and the little vessel scarcely stemmed the tide. Dr. Thornton was much disconraged. Already sevlm condensers had been tried, of different sorts and sizes, and all had failed. The five small ones were the most succesfull. That of 1787, a pipe-condenser without injection, was the best. viteh, as usual when he desired to carry out any point, resorted to his pen, and placed his ideas upon paper. He declared that the defect so long observable in the mauner in which the boat worked, the cause of which had so long puzzled them, could not be in the cylinder, air pump or boiler, but must be in the condenser. This paper was sbown to some of the Company, and they agreed to try the thing. Another condenser was ordered, and this, with other alterations, seems to have secured the long sought result.


On Monday, the 12th of Apri 1790, the machinery was tried; and it worked so forcibly that a pully was broken.They were compelled to come to anchor. A strong northwest wind was blowing. Several sail-boats passed them, but refused any help, jeering, at the same time, at their misfortune. There was now some hope of success and a new and
stronger pully having been procured, the adventurers made a trial which was glorious in its consequences. In the simplicity and exultation of his heart, Fitch thus exclaims in his


On the 16th of April, got our work completed, and tried our boat again; and although the wind blew very fresh at the northeast, we reigned Lord Higlz Admirals if tile Delaware, and no boat ill the river could hold its way with us, but all fell astern, although several s..'1il-boats, which were very light, and heavy sails, that brought their gUllwales well dowil to the water, came out to try liS. We also passed many boats with oars, and strong manned, and 110 loading, and they seemed to stand still when we passed them. Vve also run rouud a vessel that was beating to windward in about two miles, which had half a mile start of us, and came in without any of our works failing.


The next day was appointed to make a trip with members of the Company. The wind blew very strong, and none came but Dr. Benjamin Say. 'rhey ventured out in the stream, aud found that they could work very well. Before the wind they went "amazingly swifl," and they returned weU pleased, and with an idea that their troubles were nearly at all end. A short time afterward, David Rittenhouse and Dr. Robert Patterson were taken all a four-mile trip and returned, and subsequently Dr. Ewing, General James Irvine and Mr. Gray were favored with the novelty of a steam voyage. In the joy of his heart at this happy consummation, Fitch exclaimsThus has been effected, by little Johnuy Fitch and Harry Voight, oue of the greatest and most useful arts that has ever been introdnced into the world  and although the world and my country do not thank me for it, yet it gives me heartfelt satisfaction.


For the first time since these persevering experiments commenced, the public journals condescended to notice their progress. The following paragraph, published in the Gazette

of The United States, May 15. was republished generally throughout the Union, in newspapers and magazines.


BURLlNGTON, May II, 1790. "The friends of science and the liberal arts will be gratified in hearing that we were favored, on Sunday last, with a visit from the ingenious Mr. Fitch, accompanied by several gentlemen of taste and knowledge in mechanics, in a steamboat constructed on an improved plan. From these gentlemen we leanI that they came from Philadelphia in three hours and a quarter, with a head wind, the tide in their favor. On their return, by accurate observations, they proceeded down the river at the rate of upwards of seven miles an hour."


On the 16th of June, Governor Thomas Mifflin and Mcssrs. Samuel Miles, Zebulon PoUs, Amos Gregg, Christophcr Kucher, Frederick Watts, Abraham Smith, William Findlay, John Hartzell and Charles Biddle, of the Council, were on boa.rd, and took a trip. They were highly pleased, aud authorized Fitch to get a suit of colors at their expensc. This was done. The bill amounted to £565. 11d. There had been no flags on the steamboat before, and Fitch, naturally anxious for the eclat which such a gift would occasion, desired that it should be presented in fonn. The Governor and Council were too shrewd politicians thus publicly to commit themsclves in favor of a scheme which had beeu the subject of poplllar derision for four years. Mr. Biddle, the Secretary, infonned the inventor that the flags were given by private subscription among the members of the Council, and not officially.


The boat was now ready for active service; but it was necessary to make some accommodation for passengers. Dr. Thornton wanted the cabin high and stately. Fitch feared that such a structure would catch the wind, and prove an obstacle to the progress of the boat. There was a dispute about it, which finally resulted in the vanqllislmlent of the projector and the triumph of his adversary. It was probably about this time that the experiment took place which was described by Dr. Thornton in 1810: "The day was appointed, and the experiment made in the following manner: A mile was measured in Front Street, or Water Street, Philadelphia, and the bounds projected at right angles,
as exactly as could be, to the wharves, where a Bag was placed at each end, and also a stop-watch. The boat was ordered under way at dead water, or when the tide was found
to be without movement As the boat passed one Bag it was struck, and at the same instant the watches were set off; as the boat reached the other flag it was also struck, aud the watches instantly stopped. Every precaution was taken before witnesses; the time was shown to all, the experiment declared to be fairly made, and the boat was found to go at the rate of eight miles an hour, or one mile within the eighth of an hour; on which the shares were signed over with great satisfaction by the rest of the Company. It afterwards went eighty miles in a day.


The great problem, it was now thought, was demonstrated. The boat was run to Burlington frequently, beating everything which sailed on the Delaware. There were occasional
accidents but they were easily repaired. It is said in the journal that the boat ran as much as five hundred miles between these various accidents which would give an
average of nearly fourteen unintemtpted trips. At this time tbe steamboat was run as a regular passenger boat. -T. WESTCOTT.


John Fitch