Tuesday, November 18, 2014

John Fitch: a man with a head of steam

New Jersey was fertile ground for the development of the steamboat industry, whether in Nicholas Roosevelt's side-mounted propulsion wheel or Cornelius Vanderbilt's ferry operations between New York and New Brunswick. And, of course, there was John Stevens, who established the first steam ferry operations between Hoboken and Manhattan.

One man, however, beat the rest of them to the punch, however imperfectly. In 1787 John Fitch proved that a boat could be propelled by steam engine, using a series of interconnected oars to row through the water.

Why, then, do we hear so little about Fitch and much more about Robert Fulton and his steamboat Clermont?

Fitch, as it turns out, is a classic case of a creative mind whose personality appears to have gotten in the way of his success. Born in Connecticut in 1743, he had little formal education but studied astronomy, math and geometry on his own as he tried to forge a work life that suited his interests. He attempted an apprenticeship as a clockmaker without much success before eventually making it to Trenton as a silversmith, losing his business during the British occupation of the city in 1776. He briefly served as a gunsmith to the New Jersey militia after losing his commission in a dispute, and also provided beer and other supplies to troops at Valley Forge. By the end of the war, he was surveying land in the territory that eventually became Ohio, where he was captured by Native Americans and turned over to the British.

Following his release from captivity, Fitch came back east to Pennsylvania to work on his ideas for a steam-powered boat. Collaborating with clockmaker Henry Voigt, he developed a proper steam engine and installed it on a boat outfitted with mechanized oars on port and starboard sides. Hoping to get funding or an endorsement from the federal government, he invited members of the Constitutional Convention to the 1787 demonstration on the Delaware. Many attended and were impressed as the boat moved forward an a slow but respectable three miles an hour. However, no backing was forthcoming.

Why is John Fitch not known as the inventor of the steamboat? There seem to be a few factors at play here. First, his invention came at a particularly inauspicious time in the development of the legal system in the United States. The Federal patent office had yet to be created, leaving intellectual property protection to the individual states. That meant an arduous trek to the capitols of all of the states, or at least those where competition or theft of his idea was most likely. He brought a working model of the boat, hoping to impress the legislatures and the scientific community with the genius of his design.

Perhaps more telling, he doesn't seem to have had the right personality. He was either a bad salesperson, or maybe he just rubbed people the wrong way. During his 1786 tour, he got less than encouraging feedback from Philadelphia's American Philosophical Society, where Benjamin Franklin held sway. The Virginia legislature was unimpressed, favoring the design of its native son inventor James Rumsey, who'd already secured George Washington's endorsement. The only place where he seems to have gained some sway is New Jersey, which granted him an exclusive 14-year franchise to build and operate steamboats. That endorsement in hand, he built the full-sized boat the Constitutional Convention observed in 1787.

Fitch is commemorated not far from
Trenton's minor league ballpark.
By 1788, Fitch had received patents from Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia and had attracted sufficient financing to build a new boat that ran the route between Philadelphia and Burlington. Two years later, a third boat was running between Trenton, Burlington, Bordentown, Wilmington and Philadelphia, a route that appears to have made as little sense to potential customers then as it might today. He may have created mechanically-sound equipment, but he seems not to have had a very strong understanding of market forces or customer demand. Stagecoaches could still reach his destinations faster, despite the steamboats' improved speed of eight miles an hour. Rather than seeing his craft as viable transportation, many viewed it as a curiosity or a stunt. His company was soon out of business.

When Fitch finally received his federal patent in 1791, he was infuriated to learn that Rumsey's design had been recognized by the patent office as well. Rather than getting the patent for the steamboat concept, it was for the particular design, as was Rumsey's, leading Fitch's investors to abandon him for other opportunities. Additional attempts to secure funding -- this time in Europe -- and demonstrate his newly-conceived steamboat innovations met with indifference, further angering him. Giving up hope on the steamboat, he headed west to Kentucky in 1796, apparently hoping for a better reception there.

He got none and died within months of his arrival, some say of poor health, others say of worse. According to some reports, he struck a deal with a tavern operator to provide him with room, board and a pint of whiskey a day in return for a few hundred acres of land. He planned to drink himself to death. When that didn't work, he committed suicide with an overdose of opium. He's buried in Beardstown, Kentucky, his grave marked with a modest military stone that notes his Revolutionary War service. He was moved there from his original pauper's plot through the actions of the John Fitch chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Some sources claim that Fitch endured bipolar disorder, that his emotional extremes fueled both his creativity and the less admirable personality traits that drove away investors. What is known is that inventing is a difficult trade, with people of many temperaments and similar ideas often competing for the ultimate prize. It's possible that if Fitch had possessed Fulton's ability to make steam travel more economically viable, he'd have been better able to capitalize on the technology.

Fitch's onetime hometown of Trenton recognizes what many of his contemporaries may not have: his genius and perseverance. The first of two memorial boulders was placed at the site of the Old Wharf along the Delaware in Fitch's name in 1921, with the nearby highway rechristened John Fitch Way from the site to Assunpink Creek.

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