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John Fitch
John Fitch and steamboats

John Fitch's sketch and description of piston for steamboat propulsion, ca. 1795.

The diagram and description shown here provides a schematic of a piston designed to force air or water through the boat's keel, propelling it without allowing water to swamp the engine. It is not known whether John Fitch's revolutionary design was ever fabricated.

The era of the steamboat began in America in 1787 when John Fitch (1743-1798) made the first successful trial of a steamboat on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787, in the presence of members of the Constitutional Convention.

John Fitch
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The History of Steamboats
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John Fitch - Biography
John Fitch was born in 1743 in Connecticut.
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On August 26, 1791, John Fitch was granted a United States patent for the steamboat. Four years earlier, on August 22, 1787, John Fitch demonstrated the first successful steamboat, launching a forty-five-foot craft on the Delaware River in the presence of delegates from the Constitutional Convention. He went on to build a larger steamboat which carried passengers and freight between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey. Fitch was granted his patent after a battle with James Rumsey over claims to the invention. Both men invented similiar inventions.

John Fitch constructed four different steamboats between 1785 and 1796 that successfully plied rivers and lakes and demonstrated, in part, the feasibility of using steam for water locomotion. His models utilized various combinations of propulsive force, including ranked paddles (patterned after Indian war canoes), paddle wheels, and screw propellers. While his boats were mechanically successful, Fitch failed to pay sufficient attention to construction and operating costs and was unable to justify the economic benefits of steam navigation. Robert Fulton (1765-1815) built his first boat after Fitch's death, and it was Fulton who became known as the "father of steam navigation."

Fitch was granted his patent after a battle with James Rumsey over claims to the invention. In a 1787 letter to Thomas Johnson, George Washington discussed Fitch's and Rumsey's claims from his own perspective.

"Mr. Rumsey . . . at that time applying to the Assembly for an exclusive Act . . . spoke of the effect of Steam and . . . its application for the purpose of inland Navigation; but I did not conceive . . . that it was suggested as part of his original plan . . . It is proper however for me to add, that some timeafter this Mr. Fitch called upon me on his way to Richmond and explaining his scheme, wanted a letter from me, introductory of it to the Assembly of this State the giving of which I declined; and went so [far] as to inform him that tho' I was bound not to disclose the principles of Mr. Rumsey's discovery I would venture to assure him, that the thought of applying steam for the purpose he mentioned was not original but had been mentioned to me by Mr. Rumsey . . ."

John Fitch - Sketch of Steamboat, ca. 1787

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