Who Designed the First Steamboat?
The first boat ever to be moved by steam power was designed by a Frenchman Jacques Perrier and tested on the Seine in Paris in 1775. But the first really successful steamboat was built by Perrier’s fellow countryman, the Marquis Claude de Jouffroy d’ Abbans. His craft which was 141 feet long and equipped with straight-paddled side wheels traveled several hundred yards against the current on the Saone at Lyons on July 25, 1783.
Among early American pioneers was James Rumsey who in 1786 drove a boat at four miles an hour on the Potomac River, propelled by a jet of water pumped out at the stern. Between 1786 and 1790 John Fitch experimented in the Delaware River at Philadelphia with different methods of propulsion, including paddle wheels, a screw propeller and steam-driven oars.
The first to apply successfully the principle of steam to screw propellers was John Stevens whose boat, equipped with two propellers crossed the Hudson River in 1804. However, his achievement was soon eclipsed by Robert Fulton’s 150—foot long paddle wheeler Clermont which in 1807 covered the 150 miles from New York to Albany in 30 hours at a maximum speed of 5 miles an hour. With Fulton in command on the Hudson, Stevens looked elsewhere, and in 1808 his new boat, the Phoenix, sailed out of New York harbor to become the first steamboat ever to go to sea.
Both Stevens and Fulton were following in the steps of the Scottish inventor William Symington who in 1802 constructed a steamboat in Scotland, the Charlotte Dundas, which was used as a tug on the Forth and Clyde Canal. The Charlotte Dundas was a paddle-wheel steamer. For many years all steamboats used this method of propulsion.
The era of the steamboat began in Philadelphia in 1787 when John Fitch (1743–1798) made the first successful trial of a 45-foot (14-meter) steamboat on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787, in the presence of members of the United States Constitutional Convention. Fitch later built a larger vessel that carried passengers and freight between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey on the Delaware. His steamboat was not a financial success and was shut down after a few months service.
Oliver Evans (1755–1819) was a Philadelphian inventor born in Newport, Delaware to a family of Welsh settlers. He designed an improved high-pressure steam engine in 1801 but did not build it (patented 1804). The Philadelphia Board of Health was concerned with the problem of dredging and cleaning the city’s dockyards, and in 1805 Evans convinced them to contract with him for a steam-powered dredge, which he called the Oruktor Amphibolos.
It was built but was only marginally successful. Evans’s high-pressure steam engine had a much higher power to weight ratio, making it practical to apply it in locomotives and steamboats. Evans got so depressed with the poor protection that the US patent law gave inventors that he eventually took all his engineering drawings and invention ideas and destroyed them to prevent his children wasting their time in court fighting patent infringements.
Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston, who owned extensive land on the Hudson River in New York, met in 1802 and drew up an agreement to construct a steamboat to ply a route between New York City and Albany, New York on the Hudson River. They successfully obtained a monopoly on Hudson River traffic after Livingston terminated a prior 1797 agreement with John Stevens, who owned extensive land on the Hudson River in New Jersey.
The former agreement had partitioned northern Hudson River traffic to Livingston and southern to Stevens, agreeing to use ships designed by Stevens for both operations. With their new monopoly, Fulton and Livingston’s boat, named the Clermont after Livingston’s estate, could make a profit. The Clermont was nicknamed “Fulton’s Folly” by doubters. On Monday, August 17, 1807, the memorable first voyage of the Clermont up the Hudson River was begun. She traveled the 150 miles (240 km) trip to Albany in a little over 32 hours and made the return trip in about eight hours.
The use of steamboats on major US rivers soon followed Fulton’s 1807 success. In 1811 the first in a continuous (still in commercial passenger operation as of 2007) line of river steamboats left the dock at Pittsburgh to steam down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and on to New Orleans. In 1817 a consortium in Sackets Harbor, New York funded the construction of the first US steamboat, Ontario, to run on Lake Ontario and the Great Lakes, beginning the growth of lake commercial and passenger traffic. In his book Life on the Mississippi, river pilot and author Mark Twain described much of the operation of such vessels.