1743, Windsor, CT
1798, Bardstown, KY
After he was captured and released by Delaware Indians, Fitch was haunted by dreams of canoes chasing him. These dreams inspired his first steamboat design, which didn't have a paddle wheel but a moving rail that lifted a series of paddles much like those on the Indian canoes.
Photos: (left) Architect of the Capital; (right) Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, NMAH/Transportation
An unsung jack-of-all-trades built America's first steam-powered boat, envisioning open access to the new nation's natural resources.
While the credit usually goes to inventor Robert Fulton, John Fitch was actually the inventor of America's first steamboat. He was born in the British colony of Connecticut on January 21, 1743, and he grew up to do a little of everything: farm work, clockmaking, silversmithing, land speculation, map-making, and fighting for the Continental Army in the American Revolution. After the war, he explored the Ohio River valley and was captured by Native Americans.
Fitch survived his captivity, and hit on the idea of a steam-powered vehicle in 1785. He certainly may have mused that a steam-powered boat would have prevented his capture in the first place. Such a boat -- able to move upstream or down, independent of weather and tide -- would have obvious advantages for people using the nation's waterways. Initially, he knew nothing of the British inventors of low-pressure steam engines, or of Oliver Evans and his contemporary high-pressure steam engine, being developed on the east coast.
Scraping together private investments and racing ahead of his competitors, Fitch built the first steamboat in 1787. Its distinguishing feature was a rack of canoe-like paddles, inspired by the sight years earlier of a canoe full of Indian warriors racing through the water. He took it to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in summer 1787, hoping to impress the delegates and garner financial backing. He left only with words of praise.
In April 1790, Fitch and his partner, Henry Voigt, launched a refined version of the craft. Although it made a successful maiden trip between Philadelphia and Trenton and provided regular service for a season between Philadelphia and Bordentown on the Delaware River, their steamboat nevertheless failed to find business. Desperate for funding, Fitch crossed the Atlantic to introduce his steamboat in France. Realizing that it would not be adopted there either, Fitch returned to the United States and fell into a depression. He died by his own hand on July 2, 1798. Yet despite his ultimate misfortune, Fitch had demonstrated that steamboat travel was viable. Future innovators like Robert Fulton, with better financial backing, would make Fitch's vision of steamboats plying American waterways a reality.