Historical Markers
John Fitch's Steamboat Historical Marker
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John Fitch's Steamboat

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Junction PA 132 and 263 in Warminster.

Dedication Date:
October 23, 1947

Behind the Marker

Well-versed in science and mathematics, with little money, and suffering from rheumatism, John Fitch thought about ways to make travel cheap and easy. The new United States had few long-distance roads in the late 1700s. Rivers were America's natural highways, but they could only be navigated by moving with the currents. Fitch reckoned that a steam-powered boat could defy nature itself and sail upriver against the current, and by doing so would invigorate commercial and private transport, and make him rich.

Fitch built that steamboat, but his invention brought him nothing but misery. A victim of the vagaries of the early U.S. patent system, he spent years trying to convince federal and state lawmakers and prominent scientists that his invention merited protection. And he was also plagued by the assertions of Virginian James Rumsey who also claimed to be the marker inventor of the first steamboat.

John Fitch's French patent "for his inventions for propelling boats...
Born in 1743, Fitch was raised on his father's Connecticut farm. He enjoyed learning and showed an aptitude for mathematics. He left school at age ten for farm work, but continued to study astronomy, geography, and arithmetic. When he left home at fifteen, he was restless, working as a shopkeeper, sailor, clockmaker, and brass-maker. A decade later he was short on money and unhappily married. So, in 1769, he abandoned his family for a fresh start in Trenton, New Jersey. There he operated a brass-making and silversmith enterprise until British troops occupied the city during the American Revolution.

During the war for Independence, Fitch continued his restless search for a career. He was a lieutenant in the New Jersey militia, then worked as a gunsmith, a silversmith, and a sutler who followed the Continental Army selling beer and tobacco. He invested his profits from those ventures in western lands, and in 1780 was hired by the State of Virginia to survey territory in what would become Ohio and Kentucky. In the process, he plotted out 1,600 acres for himself along the Ohio River.

In 1782 he was captured by Indians while surveying, and transferred to British custody in Canada, where he remained until his release later that year in a prisoner exchange. Once free, he headed for Pennsylvania and settled in Warminster, Bucks County. Fitch's dreams of capitalizing on his western landholdings were dashed in 1785 by the Northwest Ordinance, a law adopted by Congress under the Articles of Confederation that imposed a new system for dividing and governing the territory.

Illustration of John Fitch's design for a ferry boat with steam-driven oars, <i>Columbian Magazine</i>, December 8, 1786.
Illustration of John Fitch's design for a ferry boat with steam-driven oars,...
With no money and few prospects, Fitch, now forty-one, pondered the possibilities of marker steam-powered travel. He built a working steamboat model, then began a year-long odyssey to seek financial, legal, political, and scientific support for his venture. Because there was as yet no federal patent system, Fitch made an extensive road trip in 1786 to obtain patents from state legislatures and promote his idea to the nation's scientific community. In Philadelphia, the influential American Philosophical Society gave Fitch a lukewarm reception, probably because marker Benjamin Franklin,who had different ideas about powering boats, was unenthusiastic. The Virginia Assembly also rejected Fitch's device, despite James Madison's support, in favor of Rumsey's boat, which was endorsed by George Washington. Fitch finally prevailed in New Jersey, where he was granted the exclusive right to build and operate steamboats on the state's waters for fourteen years.

Fitch promptly established a company, assembled investors, and took on as a partner, Henry Voight, a Philadelphia clockmaker and "a superior mechanical genius." In July 1786, he successfully tested a new model and built a full-sized vessel. On August 22, 1787, Fitch unveiled his strange contraption to the curious Philadelphians assembled on the banks of the Delaware River. They watched the boat move upriver against the current at a stately speed of three miles an hour. Among the spectators that day were delegates to the Constitutional Convention, who reportedly adjourned their deliberations to watch Fitch's demonstration. Not long after, the delegates adopted the Constitution's patent clause-promoting "progress in science and useful arts"-unanimously and without debate.

Illustration of a ship on the water
An early image of Robert Fulton's North River Steamboat–the original name...
After Fitch's triumph, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and Virginia issued patents for his steamboat. In July 1788, he launched a second, larger vessel, sixty feet long and powered by a steam-driven paddle wheel that made passenger voyages from Philadelphia to Burlington, New Jersey. Fitch then obtained financing for a third boat, which performed well enough that in 1790 Fitch's company offered the first steamboat passenger service on the Delaware between Philadelphia, the New Jersey towns of Bordentown, Burlington, and Trenton, and Wilmington, Delaware. Few people used the service, however, so the company soon failed.

Fitch and Rumsey both received federal patents for a steamboat in 1791. Flabbergasted and angry that the patent board, headed by Virginian Thomas Jefferson, refused to acknowledge that he had created and publicly demonstrated his boat first, Fitch in 1793 sailed to France and England in an unsuccessful quest for foreign backing. After returning to America in 1794 he built a screw-propeller steamboat that he demonstrated on Collect Pond in New York City. But no one was interested. In 1796, Fitch traveled to Kentucky hoping for a better reception. Instead, he found squatters on his western land claims. Depressed, despondent, and exasperated, John Fitch committed suicide in Bardstown, Kentucky, in 1798.

John Fitch was a complex personality-intelligent, ambitious, stubborn, and probably paranoid. He was a self-taught scientist and mechanic like his peers Benjamin Franklin, David Rittenhouse, John Sellers and Samuel Hopkins, and like them, he wanted to solve practical problems. But his feelings of betrayal got the better of his intellect, and the void he left was eagerly filled by marker Robert Fulton, who a decade later would claim that he was inventor of the steamboat.
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