John Fitch (1743 – 1798)
Lady luck plays a large part in someone’s success. If you are cursed with bad luck, then it is even harder to reap the rewards that your invention merits. A case in point is the story of the American, John Fitch, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame.
Born in Connecticut, Fitch was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades in his youth, turning his hand to farm work, clock making, silversmithing, cartography and fighting in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. After his discharge, he explored the Ohio River valley and was captured by a group of Native Americans who turned him over to the Brits. Eventually he was released but perhaps it was this experience that caused him to ponder whether there was a method of propelling river craft more quickly than simply muscle power.
Fitch’s idea was to deploy the new-fangled steam powered engines that were beginning to make their mark in Britain. They would enable boats to move up and down rivers independently of concerns such as tides and weather. Unfortunately for Fitch, the consequence of independence was that the Brits refused to share their new technology with their erstwhile colonists and so he had to start from scratch, deploying the services of a clockmaker, Henry Voight, to build an engine. By this time he had persuaded various state legislatures to grant him a 14 year monopoly for steamboat traffic on their inland waterways, a concession that enabled him to raise investment from prominent Pennsylvanian businessmen.
The first public trial of Fitch’s steamboat, called appropriately Perseverance, took place on the Delaware river on August 22nd 1787 in front of assembled dignitaries. Although successful and drawing fulsome praise, no additional funding was forthcoming. Undaunted, Fitch and Voight built a more substantial vessel, sixty feet long with a steam engine which powered a number of oars positioned in the stern which paddled rather like a duck. During the summer of 1790 Fitch carried up to 30 passengers a time on journeys between Philadelphia and Burlington, travelling in total over 1,500 miles at speeds averaging 6 miles per hour but getting up to a racy 8 miles per hour at times. As importantly, Fitch claimed they could travel upwards of 500 miles without any mechanical mishap.
Although Fitch was awarded a patent on August 26th 1791 for his steamboat, after a ferocious battle with James Rumsey who had also invented a steam-powered vessel, it did not grant him a monopoly, just protecting his design. This caused many of Fitch’s investors to jump ship and our hero was left high and dry. Desperate for funding, he went to France but arrived at the height of the Reign of Terror when the monied classes had more pressing concerns on their collars. A fund-raising trip to Blighty drew a blank and so Fitch returned to the States.
Misfortune continued to dog him. He moved to Kentucky where he had bought some land in the 1780s, hoping to sell some to finance the building of a steamboat to ply the Ohio or Mississippi rivers, only to find them occupied by settlers, necessitating a protracted legal battle to evict them. He continued working on steam engine concepts and what was found in his attic was described as “the prototype of a land-operating steam engine” meant to operate on tracks. His train preceded that of Richard Trevithick’s, built in 1802 and recognised as the daddy of the steam locomotive.
Alas, Fitch fell into depression, drank heavily and committed suicide in 1798, allowing Robert Fulton with better financial backing to steam in and make his dream of steam-powered boats a reality.
John, for pioneering the steam-powered boat and train but failing to get the credit, you are a worthy inductee.
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