Today, we ride the first successful 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
American schoolchildren learn
about Robert Fulton's invention of the steamboat.
Actually, what Fulton did was to locate one of the
efficient new Watt engines in a warehouse in 1807. He
installed it in a well-designed boat and created an
immediate commercial success. But when he patented
his steamboat, he acknowledged thirty years of
earlier work by other people.
Fulton had access to a lot of new technology by 1807,
and he put his boat together with an ease that
would've been unimaginable just a few years before.
Our story of the first successful steamboat begins in
France, with two artillery officers passing time in
camp talking about the possible use of steam to power
boats. One of them, the Count d'Auxiron, resigned his
commission in 1770 to work full time on a boat. By
1772 he'd talked the French government into promising
they'd give the first successful steamboat builder an
exclusive license to operate the boat for fifteen
D'Auxiron installed one of the monstrous
old-fashioned Newcomen steam engines in a boat. The
engine was so heavy that it sank the boat in the
Seine river, and -- after three years of the
resulting lawsuits -- d'Auxiron died of apoplexy.
That could have been the end of it. But while
d'Auxiron was at work, another young nobleman, the
Marquis de Jouffroy, had been thrown into the
military prison on the island of Ste Marguerite in
connection with a duel. That's the same prison where
the famous Man in the Iron Mask had been held. During
several years of enforced contemplation, he watched
the boats below
When he was released in 1775, Jouffroy made contact
with d'Auxiron and his supporters. He rapidly decided
that they were on the wrong track, and he left Paris
for the town of Lyon to continue the work alone. He
developed his own improved version of a Newcomen
engine and, in 1783, made a trial run of a new,
150-foot-long boat on the Saone river.
The boat motored past cheering crowds for fifteen
minutes until its hull sprang a leak. Jouffroy eased
it to shore before anyone spotted the failure, and --
on that fine June day -- he bowed to receive the
ovation of the crowd. He sent affidavits, testifying
to his success, to Paris, and he waited. After a long
debate, the French Academy of Sciences decided that
the town of Lyon could never have made a success of
something that had failed in Paris, and they denied
him the license. Then, a few years later, the French
Revolution drove him out of the country.
It wasn't a happy ending for Jouffroy. But his
stubborn, irrepressible, driving genius led to the
creation of the machine that was soon to open up the
Western United States.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Flexner, J.T., Steamboats Come True.
Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1978.
See Episode 1084 for a
revised and updated version of this episode.