• By Robert Bachand

The Birth of Steamboats


In its operation, the Nation’s first steamboat resembled an Indian War Canoe. Built during the early-1780s by John Fitch, a native of Windsor, Connecticut, the skiff was equipped with two pairs of 3 paddles, on both sides of the vessel. Mounted on a shaft that alternately moved the forward pairs followed by the aft paddles, they were powered by a 3-inch cylinder steam engine. On July 26, 1786, Fitch successfully demonstrated his invention on the Delaware River. By 1788, Fitch had built his first passenger boat. Operated on the Delaware River, the 60-feet long and eight-feet beam vessel was propelled by oars that pushed outward from the stern. Its steam engine had a twelve-inch cylinder. Financial difficulties however, never allowed Fitch to profit from his inventions. Though he is said to have died in poverty, he predicted that “time will come when all of our great lakes, rivers and ocean will be navigated by vessels propelled by steam.” At about the same time, Maryland resident James Rumsey took a different approach for propelling his 50-foot vessel. He installed steam engine operated water pump that had a 4-inch square pipe running out to the stern, just below the rudder. The force of the exiting water managed to move the vessel forward at a speed of about 4 miles per hour. Others, including Benjamin Franklin, had suggested waterjet propulsion for a vessel, but no-one else of that era was able to develop the approach. In December of 1787, Rumsey demonstrated his “jet-propelled steamer” on the Potomac River, above Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The following year, he traveled to England to obtain backing for his ideas. But four years later, on the evening before the scheduled demonstration of his new steamboat, the Columbia Bay, he died unexpectedly. He was buried in London at Saint Margaret’s Church. Back at home, his wife and three children were reportedly left penniless.


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