John Fitch and the Steam Boat

Steamboat of April 1790 used for passenger service

Steamboat of April 1790 used for passenger service

On January 21, 1743, American inventor, clockmaker, entrepreneur and engineer John Fitch was born. He was most famous for operating the first steamboat service in the United States even before Robert Fulton.

John Fitch grew up with his father and it is believed that he did not enjoy his childhood too much. He was pulled from school at the age of eight and had to work at the family farm. Eventually, he fled and took up silversmithing before exploring the Ohio River basin. Some years later, Fitch left again for Pennsylvania, where he set out to make a steam-powered boat to navigate the western rivers. His competitor, Rumsey, also looked forward to making money with steamboats and he gained support from the U.S. government in the 1780s. However, Fitch found support by a private investor and began reinventing a sort of Watt engine, constructing what is believed to be America’s first successful steamboat, ahead of Rumsey. [1,2]

John Fitch (1743-1798)

John Fitch (1743-1798)

Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and Virginia issued patents for his steamboat and he obtained financial backings for a total of three boats. Fitch was able to use his odd machines, which (in the first plans they were propelled by a set of Indian canoe paddles), in a passenger line between Trenton and Philadelphia. Unfortunately, his attempt failed commercially. It is widely believed that the people did not take his idea seriously and also, he apparently had difficulties in finding new investors. [1,2]

While living in Kentucky, Fitch continued to work on steam engine ideas. He built two models. In 1802, the Englishman Richard Trevithick invented a full-size steam locomotive that, in 1804, hauled the world’s first locomotive-hauled railway train, and within a short time the British invention led to the development of actual railways. Americans began importing English locomotives and copying them

John Fitch was known to be a complex personality – intelligent, ambitious, stubborn, and probably paranoid. He was a self-taught scientist and mechanic, and he wanted to solve practical problems. Unfortunately, his setbacks hit him hard and Fitch felt highly betrayed after Robert Fulton,[3] about a decade later, claimed that he was inventor of the steamboat. A life of continual failure, frustration and litigation wore Fitch down. He began drinking heavily once he returned to Bardstown in 1797. In the end, Fitch took his own life by ingesting an overdose of opium pills. He died on July 2, 1798, at the age of 55. [1]

At yovisto academic video search you might learn more about the principles behind steam engines and thermodynamics in the lecture videos of Prof. Ranamurti Shankar from Yale on ‘Fundamentals of Physics‘, where he also discusses the laws of thermodynamics.

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