Today, America's 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
John Fitch was born in 1743
in Connecticut. His mother died when he was four;
his father was harsh and rigid. A sense of
injustice and failure wreathed his life from the
start. Pulled from school when he was eight and
made to work on the hated family farm, he became,
in his own words, "almost crazy after learning."
He fled the farm and took up silversmithing. He
married in 1776 a wife who reacted to his
manic-depressive extremes by raging at him. He
finally ran off to the Ohio River basin, spent time
as a prisoner of the British and the Indians, then
came back to Pennsylvania in 1782, afire with a new
obsession. He meant to make a steam-powered boat to
navigate those western rivers. In 1785 and 1786
Fitch, and competing builder James Rumsey, looked
for money to build steamboats. The methodical
Rumsey gained the support of George Washington and
our new government. Fitch found private support,
then rapidly built an engine with features of both
Watt's and Newcomen's steam engines. He moved from
mistake to mistake until he'd made our first
steamboat, well before Rumsey.
It was an odd machine -- driven by a rack of
Indian-canoe paddles. Yet, by the summer of 1790,
Fitch used it in a successful passenger line
between Philadelphia and Trenton. He logged
thousands of miles at six to eight mph carrying
passengers that summer. But it failed commercially.
People wouldn't take it seriously. All they saw was
a curiosity -- a stunt. And Fitch, with of his
personality extremes, couldn't sustain financial
Failure broke Fitch. He retired to Bardstown,
Kentucky, and struck a deal with the local
innkeeper. For 150 acres of land, the man agreed to
put him up and give him a pint of whiskey every day
while he drank himself to death. When that failed,
Fitch put up another 150 acres to raise the dose to
two pints a day. When that failed, Fitch finally
gathered enough opium pills to kill himself.
They'd called him "Crazy Fitch," and now they
buried him under a footpath in the central square.
In 1910, the Daughters of the American Revolution
finally put a marker over the
spot. It identified him only as a veteran of
the American Revolutionary War.
And I'm left haunted by the picture of this
six-foot-two figure in a beaver-skin hat and a
black frock coat -- stumbling the streets of
Bardstown, the butt of children's jokes -- unable
to see that his dream had not failed. History
honors Fitch far better than he honored himself,
for it was he who set the stage for Robert Fulton.
He made it clear that powered boats were feasible.
To function creatively we have to function at risk.
Watt and Fulton took risks and won big, but not
before they'd suffered
failure. The trick, of course, is to lose one
day and come back to win the next. But that's
possible only when we're able to feast upon the
pure pleasure of our God-given creative processes.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Flexner, J. T., Steamboats Come True. 2nd ed.
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1978.
Harris, C. M., The Improbable Success of John
Fitch. American Inventions: A Chronicle of
Achievements that Changed the World, New York,
Barnes & Noble Books, 1995, pp. 11-17.
This is a revised version of Episode 14.
From Lloyd's Steamboat
John Fitch: 1743-1798
From the Columbian Magazine,
Fitch's first steamboat, driven by Indian
From Westcott's Life of
Fitch's successful steamboat from 1790
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.