Today, another first steamboat. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
France, the United States,
and Scotland each has its own first
steamboat. In France, the marquis de Jouffroy
built the earliest one, and demonstrated it on the
Saonne River, in 1783. John Fitch actually operated
a steamboat passenger service between Philadelphia
and Trenton during the summer of 1790.
The first British steamboat has had less attention
here, in the United States. While Fitch was working
on his steamboat in America, a retired banker named
Miller was working with an employee on
steam-powered pleasure boat for his Edinburgh
When they read about yet another American who'd
received a steamboat patent, Miller hired Scottish
engineer William Symington. Symington had already
built the first plausible steam-powered automobile.
Now he finished a real steamboat for Miller, by
1788. He made a second, larger, boat a year later.
Unloaded, it traveled seven miles per hour.
But miller was very critical of the clumsy
rack-and-pinion drive system that Symington had
cooked up for his boat, and he lost interest. He
went on to other things. Twelve years later, Lord
Dundas, Governor of the Forth and Clyde Canal
Company, asked Sym-ington if he could build a
functional commercial steamboat.
This time, Symington developed a slider-crank drive
system and, in 1802, he unveiled a fine
steam-powered tugboat. He named it Charlotte
Dundas. On its maiden voyage, the
Charlotte Dundas carried Lord Dundas and
an archbishop. The twenty-mile trip took six hours;
but the Charlotte Dundas was now hauling
two seventy-ton barges, and it was doing so against
strong head winds.
So Lord Dundas ordered eight more steamboats to be
built. Then conservative forces rose up against a
new (and hence fearful) technology. Opponents
argued that the paddle wheel action would erode the
canal banks. The enterprise finally collapsed.
That same year, we find two Americans in Paris: On
a business trip there, wealthy promoter Robert
Livingston met Robert Fulton. Fulton was trying to
sell the French Navy a submarine he'd designed.
Livingston told Fulton that he would invest big
money in the creation of a practical steamboat. So
Fulton dropped submarines.
Historian James Flexner says that Fulton was "less
interested in originality than results." Fulton
knew the history of previous steamboats very well,
and he made no priority claims to the basic idea.
First, he tried to build a steamboat for Napoleon.
It failed because the engine was too heavy for the
structure. Five years later, he got it right on the
Hudson River, in New York.
But Flexner points to Symington's Charlotte
Dundas as the one steamboat invention that did
not, in some way, eventually feed Fulton. It was a
fine machine. And, but for public fears, it could
easily have been the beginning of steamboat service
in Great Britain -- five years before Fulton's
boats began spreading across America.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. T. Flexner, Steamboats Come True. Boston,
Little, Brown and Company, 1978 .
H. Dale, and R. Dale, The Industrial
Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press,