William Henry & James RumseyOne of the earliest of these inventors was William Henry of Pennsylvania. In 1763, William Henry had the idea of applying power to paddle wheels, and constructed a boat, but his boat sank. However, future steamboat inventors John Fitch and Robert Fulton, were both visitors at William Henry's house and received some suggestions from him.
James Rumsey of Maryland began experimenting with steam in 1774, and by 1786 built a boat that could do four mph on the Potomac River.
John FitchJohn Fitch was a clockmaker from Philadelphia. John Fitch was quite ignorant about steam engines, however, he conceived the idea of a steamboat and decided to make one.
John Fitch's life is something of a tragedy. He was an unhappy man who never had much money. He left his family because of unhappy domestic relations with his wife. He wrote, "I know of nothing so perplexing and vexatious to a man of feelings as a turbulent wife and steamboat building."
Despite all of his difficulties John Fitch produced a steamboat, which carried passengers on the Delaware for several years.
John Fitch's Steamboat, The Lord High Admirals"We reigned Lord High Admirals of the Delaware; and no other boat in the River could hold its way with us," wrote John Fitch, "Thus has been effected by little Johnny Fitch and Harry Voight [one of his associates] one of the greatest and most useful arts that has ever been introduced into the world; and although the world and my country does not thank me for it, yet it gives me heartfelt satisfaction."
The Lord High Admirals of the Delaware, however, did not reign long. John Fitch's steamboat needed improvements to make it a commercial success. Fitch's money backers lost patience and faith in John Fitch. Fitch gave up inventing and retired into the Kentucky wilderness, where he died.
John StevensThe next inventor to tackle the problem of making the perfect steamboat was railroad designer John Stevens of Hoboken. Stevens' life was vastly different from that of John Fitch. He was a rich man with an influential family. John Stevens' summer residence on Castle Point, Hoboken, was a landmark of the Hudson river. For many years John Stevens crossed that river in an open boat propelled by sail or oars. John Stevens wanted to make the crossing easier. He knew about the work of James Watt and the steam engine in England, and John Fitch's boat had interested him.
In 1804, John Stevens built a successful screw steam vessel. In 1807, Stevens built a paddle steamer called the Phoenix. In June of 1808, the Phoenix made the first ocean voyage in the history of steam navigation.