Archival Adventures in Small Repositories

Forget Fulton; Fitch Was First!

Wednesday, 4/3/13
Topics: 18th century

 

Tags: inventions, John Fitch

 

Did John Fitch start the transportation revolution in Warminster, Bucks County, Pennsylvania? The John Fitch Steamboat Museum argues that the answer to this question is a resounding "Yes!" After all, it was in Warminster in 1785 that Fitch invented the first American steam engine feasible for propelling a boat. Several years later, he ran the world's first commercial steamboat service in 1790, along the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Trenton. (Although, even free beer, rum, and sausages could not entice enough customers to keep the operation viable.)

The John Fitch Steamboat Museum was created by members of the Craven Hall Historical Society in Warminster to tell John Fitch's story and attempt to reclaim his legacy as the inventor of the steamboat. Robert Fulton, whose commercial steamboat service operated years later but much more successfully than Fitch's, is given greater credit amongst the general population for his achievements. The John Fitch Steamboat Museum puts Fitch center-stage.

Fitch was born in Connecticut in 1743. In his youth we worked as a clockmaker, farmer, and silversmith before joining the New Jersey militia as a gunsmith during the American Revolution. After the war Fitch was principally engaged in land surveying and sales in several states, but without much success. Another unsuccessful commerical venture, transporting flour from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, resulted in his capture by a Native American tribe! When freed in 1782, Fitch settled in Warminster. 

In 1785, on his four-mile walk home from Neshaminy Meeting, John Fitch had his great breakthrough. Fitch suffered from rheumatism and fantasized about a steam-powered riding chair that might ease his commute. The steam-power riding chair quickly transformed in his imagination into a steam-powered boat, and Fitch got right to work. Less than six months after coming up with his initial idea, Fitch presented a model steamboat to the American Philosophical Society (the de facto patent office in the years before the United States passed its first patent law in 1790). Fitch discussed his plans with many potential investors, including Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, but was unable to secure investment in his steamboat. Even after Fitch built his first steamboat in 1787 and took Constitutional Convention delegates on a boat ride on the Delaware, support was not forthcoming.

Finally, Fitch was able to scrape together the funds to launch the world's first commercial steamboat service in 1790. He offered three round-trips a week between Philadelphia, Bristol and Trenton. Unfortunately, Fitch never found the customer base he hoped for, even when he offered the aforementioned free refreshments on board. Fitch's financing fell through.

Later in 1790, after the United States' first patent act was passed, Fitch was granted a patent. Because it was one of four patents for steamboats distributed at the time, however, it was not much use to him. Fitch died in penury in Bardstown, Kentucky in 1798.

To learn more of Fitch's incredible story--and to see a moving electric model of Fitch's steamboat--be sure to visit the John Fitch Steamboat Museum. Next door, the Craven Hall Historical Society has accumulated a convenient collection of research materials about Fitch to satisfy any lingering curiosity, along with a variety of original 18th- to 20th-century local history documents.

Comments

Thank you

As a resident of Warminster for forty-plus years, and a member of Craven Hall Historical Society, it is delightful to see John Fitch get the credit he deserves. Thank you for sharing this article on your site and for sharing with us.

The John Fitch - Robert Fulton Story

Celia, You captured the essence of our message on John Fitch with your excellent blog.Our thanks for helping us spread the word.
Erik Fleischer
The John Fitch Steamboat Museum

Deserving recognition at last

I grew up in Warminster and lived about a half mile away from a site said to have been the wheelwright shop where Fitch worked on his steamboat. As newlyweds, my husband and I were disappointed we were unable to purchase the old home on that property as our 1st residence. The story of John Fitch and his steamboat always intrigued me and I am so glad he is finally getting the recognition he so richly deserves!

Thank you for comments

Thank you to Terry, Erik, and E.G. for your kind words! I'm glad that you enjoyed my blog post.

John Fitch

It's particularly gratifying to learn that John Fitch's visionary contribution to American history is at long last being acknowledged. Anyone who has read the autobiographical account of his life--now out of print--will realize what enormous hardships he had to endure to achieve what he did.

He was severely burned and beaten as a child, shamelessly exploited as a clockmaker's apprentice, held captive by American Indians, imprisoned by the British, betrayed by his colleagues, and worst of all, snubbed by America's elitist founding fathers because of his low birth and unprepossessing appearance and manner. His experience of the "American Dream" was nothing if not nightmarish, and his life demonstrates that then--as now--hard work and even genius are not necessarily enough to ensure so-called "success" or even to earn a subsistence living.

Fitch was particularly close to his sister, Sarah, and brother-in-law, Timothy King, and acknowledges their kindness to him in his autobiography. Timothy, a poor Connecticut weaver, served in the Revolutionary War as commander of the brig "Defiance." Timothy's son, Roswell, founded the town of Roswell, Georgia after managing the vast sea island plantations in that state inherited by Philadelphia socialite Pierce Butler. (Butler's wife, the English actress Frances Anne Kemble, penned a scathing indictment of her husband's slaveholding class in her *Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation: 1838–1839*, a widely referenced but conspicuously biased account of her brief stay on Butler's and Saint Simons Islands.)

John Fitch deserted Lucy Roberts Fitch, his first wife, evidently because of serious personality conflicts, though he regretted being unable to be a father to their children. Lucy and John were never reconciled. Later, he became the "husband" of Mary Krafft, who gave him free room and board at her inn, believed to have occupied what is now 994 North Second Street in Philadelphia:

http://books.google.com/books?id=XQQQAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA244&lpg=PA244&dq=%22J...

Fitch entered into this relationship because his business partner, Henry Voigt--a married man--had impregnated Mary, and Fitch wanted to spare them all the indignities and abuses of a scandal. Although Fitch agreed not to "bed" Mary, some have characterized the relationship of the three as a "ménage à trois." The situation ended badly.

Failing to win the financial support he needed--the Founding Fathers were loth to promote steamboats on the Mississippi lest it put their own financial interests in the Eastern states at a disadvantage--Fitch withdrew to Bardstown, Kentucky, took heavily to drink and opium to relieve his physical ailments, and died in poverty and obscurity at age fifty-five.

His is a true American story, and deserves to be told for the lesson he expressly intended to share with his countrymen. It's a story that resonates with our experience today in a nation of haves and have-nots where plutocratic politics and socioeconomic class often have far more to do with "success" than we care to admit.

Timothy King and Sarah Fitch King were my fifth great grandparents, and John Fitch was my sixth great uncle.

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