Today, the present helps us to understand the past.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Historian Louis Hunter looks
for Robert Fulton's legacy. We tell children that
Fulton invented the steamboat when, in fact, many
people built steamboats before him. At the same
time, we forget Fulton's contributions to steamboat
travel on the Mississippi. Yet there he's
overshadowed by Henry Shreve, whose namesake is
Fulton went to New Orleans in 1811 to make
steamboats for our central river system. He built
them the way people had always built ships -- with
deep hulls and keels. He had his share of trouble,
but that's the price of being first. His boats
would turn huge profits for a few trips, and then
break down or suffer accidents. Fulton started
the Mississippi riverboat traffic and then died
only four years later.
In 1813 a Brownsville, Pennsylvania group began
making steamboats on the upstream end of the
Mississippi-Ohio-Monongahela system. These were
still deep-hulled keelboats, and Shreve was one of
their captains. Shreve made the first New
Orleans-to-Louisville trip in 1815. He built his
first steamboat for the Brownsville group a year
later, and he really opened up riverboat trade when
he made the first run from New Orleans all the way
The town named Shreveport, by the way, lies far up
the Red River -- not the Mississippi. That's
because, long after he'd become the major riverboat
builder, Shreve took on the job of clearing a vast
natural log jam which had, for centuries, plugged a
140-mile stretch of the Red River. And he's honored
for doing so.
But Henry Shreve built his name by following Fulton
into the steamboat business and picking up where
Fulton left off. Fulton had used Watt engines in
his boats, and they'd only run as far upriver as
Natchez. Shreve used the lighter high-pressure
engines of American builder Oliver Evans. Then,
along with Fulton, he began tinkering with the
weight distribution in his boats.
The familiar flat-bottomed steamboat wasn't fully
evolved until a generation later -- until around 1850. You know the form:
engine mounted low in the center, cabins above the
main deck, and (to complete the stereotype) slaves
loading cotton from the dock.
So why do history books say Fulton invented the
steamboat and Shreve invented the flat-bottomed
riverboat? It's probably because we want a simple
answer to the complex question, "Who was first?"
I'm sure you'd laugh if I suggested the computer
was invented by Bill Gates or by Charles Babbage.
You and I can clearly see how the machine is
evolving under the hands of millions of people. And
users like you and me are an important part of that
Of course, it was just the same with the steamboat.
It was the same with the electric light and the
telegraph. And -- I suppose -- it was even so when
we first learned to carry the warmth of fire into
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds