John Fitch



Occupation 1

Steamboat inventor


steam engine


NA/Mid-Atlantic region


Maritime Republic (1751-1815)








Inventor and craftsman

Fitch was about to prove his genius in an entirely new field: steam navigation� How Fitch got turned in this direction is not clear. He professed to have never read about steam engines and denied having heard of anyone using steam to propel boats before it occurred to him in April 1785. He did subsequently read treatises on steam, and he talked with William Henry of Lancaster, who years before had contemplated building a steamboat, but much of what Fitch did from 1785 on came from his own trial-and-error approach to experimentation�

Before the end of 1785 Fitch had designed an engine and boiler that utilized the same principles as a Newcomen atmospheric engine, and he built a model of a proposed steam-driven boat that used side-mounted paddles connected by an endless chain. He submitted his model to the American Philosophical Society, though he probably never made a full-scale version. Collaborating with watchmaker Henry Voight, Fitch constructed a boat that he was able to demonstrate on the Delaware River on 22 August 1787. Spectators included men attending the Constitutional Convention. This boat was powered by a Watt-type engine with a separate condenser, and the engine transmitted power to oars mounted to stroke in paddle fashion, six oars to each side of the boat. In 1789 Fitch and Voight switched to a newer, double-acting engine and shifted the driving paddles to the rear of the boat. Fitch even had the satisfaction of seeing his third boat run a successful Burlington-Philadelphia-Trenton packet service in 1790. Despite a summer of service and perhaps a total of 2,000 miles on the Delaware at a notable eight miles per hour--twice the speed of the 1787 model--Fitch's boat was a commercial failure. His backers lost interest and his 1791 model, the Perseverance, was doomed--ironically, for lack of perseverance.

Inadequate financing and technical problems proved inescapable. Nor did there seem to be a great public demand for steamboat travel. Equally vexing to Fitch was his competition with James Rumsey of Maryland. Rumsey designed a steamboat that ran by direct force--jet propulsion. Although he did not publicly demonstrate a working model until December 1787, he claimed to have thought of using steam power as early as 1784 and competed with Fitch as the originator of the idea in a practical form. Fitch and Rumsey battled for some six years, from 1785 to 1791, taking their arguments to the Continental Congress, state legislatures, and the American Philosophical Society. They even formed companies to attract investors. Virtually every leading politician and scientist in the middle states became caught up in the controversy at one point or another. Fitch won some rounds, securing state patents that gave him a monopoly on steam navigation in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia. But Rumsey, even if he ended up with fewer state patents, had the backing of more prominent men: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.

By 1790 neither Fitch nor Rumsey would compromise; both wanted full credit for discovery and an exclusive right to all forms of steam navigation. Their dispute pressed home the need for federal patents to replace the chaos of the existing state system, and the Patent Act of 1790 can in part be attributed to them. Even though both men received federal patents on the same day--26 August 1791--neither was satisfied�

[Fitch] apparently committed suicide in Bardstown by taking an overdose of opium pills that had been prescribed for insomnia


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Related Events

1786 - Steamboat invented by John Fitch,

Related Source

History of the Growth of Steam Engines
Reinventing the Ship

Record ID: 321