All those who projected the application of steam to vessels before 1786 may be excluded, without ceremony, from the list of those entitled to compete with Fulton for the honors of invention. No one, indeed, could have seen the powerful action of a pumping-engine without being convinced that the energy, which was applied so successfully to that single purpose, might be made applicable to many others; but those who entertained a belief that the original atmospheric engine, or even the single-acting engine of Watt, could be applied to propel boats by paddle-wheels showed a total ignorance of mechanical principles. This is more particularly the case with all those whose projects bore the strongest resemblance to the plan which Fulton afterward carried successfully into effect. Those who approached most nearly to the attainment of success were they who were farthest removed from the plan of Fulton. His application was founded on the properties of Watt's doubleacting engine, and could not have been used at all until that instrument of universal application had received the last finish of its inventor.
In this list of failures, from proposing to do what the instrument they employed was incapable of performing, we do not hesitate to include Savary, Papin, Jonathan Hulls, Perier, the Marquis de Jouffroy, and all the other names of earlier date than 1786, whom the jealousy of the French and English nations has drawn from oblivion for the purpose of contesting the priority of Fulton's claims. The only competitor whom they might have brought forward with some shadow of plausibility is Watt himself. No sooner had that illustrious inventor completed his double-acting engine than he saw at a glance the vast field of its application. Navigation and locomotion were not omitted; but, living in an inland town, and in a country possessing no rivers of importance, his views were limited to canals alone. In this direction he saw an immediate objection to the use of any apparatus of which so powerful an agent as his engine would be the mover; for it was clear that the injury which would be done to the banks of the canal would prevent the possibility of its introduction. Watt, therefore, after having conceived the idea of a steamboat, laid it aside as unlikely to be of any practical value.
The idea of applying steam to navigation was not confined to Europe. Numerous Americans entertained hopes of attaining the same object, but, before 1786, with the same want of any reasonable hopes of success. Their fruitless projects were, however, rebuked by Franklin, who, reasoning upon the capabilities of the engine in its original form, did not hesitate to declare all their schemes impracticable.
Among those who, before the completion of Watts' invention, attempted the structure of steamboats, must be named with praise Fitch and Rumsey. They, unlike those whose names have been cited, were well aware of the real difficulties which they were to overcome; and both were the authors of plans which, if the engine had been incapable of further improvement, might have had a partial and limited success. Fitch's trial was made in 17832 and Rumsey's in 1787. The latter date is subsequent to Watt's double-acting engine; but, as the project consisted merely in pumping in water to be afterward forced out at the stern, the single-acting engine was probably employed. Evans, whose engine might have answered the purpose, was employed in the daily business of a millwright, and, altho he might at any time have driven these competitors from the field, took no steps to apply his dormant invention.
Fitch, who had watched the graceful and rapid way of the Indian pirogue, saw in the oscillating motion of the old pumping-engine the means of impelling paddles in a manner similar to that given them by the human arm. This idea is extremely ingenious, and was applied in a simple and beautiful manner; but the engine was yet too feeble and cumbrous to yield an adequate force; and, when it received its great improvement from Watt, a more efficient mode of propulsion became practicable, and must have superseded Fitch's paddles had they even come into general use.
In the latter stages of Fitch's investigations he became aware of the value of Waft's double-acting engine, and refers to it as a valuable addition to his means of success; but it does not appear to have occurred to him that, with this improved power, methods of far greater efficiency than those to which he had been limited before this invention was completed had now become practicable.
When the properties of Watt's double-acting engine became known to the public an immediate attempt was made to apply it to navigation. This was done by Miller, of Dalswinton, who employed Symington as his engineer. Miller seems to have been its real author; for, as early as 1787, he published his belief that boats might be propelled by employing a steam-engine to turn the paddlewheels. It was not until 1791 that Symington completed a model for him, of a size sufficient for a satisfactory experiment. If we may credit the evidence which has since been adduced, the experiment was as successful as the first attempts of Fulton; but it did not give to the inventor that degree of confidence which was necessary to induce him to embark his fortune in the enterprise, The experiment of Miller was therefore ranked by the public among unsuccessful enterprises, and was rather calculated to deter from imitation than to encourage others to pursue the same path. . . .
The experiments of Fitch and Rumsey in the United States, altho generally considered as unsuccessful, did not deter others from similar attempts. . . . The first person who entered into the inquiry was John Stevens, of Hoboken, who commenced his researches in 1791. In these he was steadily engaged for nine years, when he became the associate of Chancellor Livingston and Nicholas Roosevelt. Among the persons employed by this association was Brunel, who has since become distinguished in Europe as the inventor of the block machinery used in the British navy-yards and as the engineer of the tunnel beneath the Thames.3 Even with the aid of such talent the efforts of this association were unsuccessful, as we now know, from no error in principle, but from defects in the boat to which it was applied. The appointment of Livingston as ambassador to France broke up this joint effort.
Livingston, on his arrival in France, found Fulton domiciliated with Joel Barlow.4 The conformity in their pursuits led to intimacy, and Fulton speedily communicated to Livingston the scheme which he had laid before Earl Stanhope in 1793. Livingston was so well pleased with it that he at once offered to provide the funds necessary for an experiment, and to enter into a contract for Fulton's aid in introducing the method into the United States, provided the experiment were successful.
Fulton had in his early discussion with Lord Stanhope repudiated the idea of an apparatus acting on the principle of the foot of an aquatic bird, and had proposed paddle-wheels in its stead. . . . He had recourse to a series of experiments upon a small scale.
These were performed at Plombières, a French watering-place, where he spent the summer of 1802. In these experiments the superiority of the paddle-wheel over every other method of propulsion that had yet been proposed was fully established. His original impressions being thus confirmed he proceeded, late in the year of 1803, to construct a working model of his intended boat, which model was deposited with a commission of French savants. He at the same time commenced building a vessel sixty-six feet in length and eight feet in width. To this an engine was adapted; and the experiment made with it was so satisfactory as to leave little doubt of final success.
Measures were therefore immediately taken preparatory to constructing a steamboat on a large scale in the United States. For this purpose, as the workshops of neither France nor America could at that time furnish an engine of good quality, it became necessary to resort to England for the purpose. Fulton had already experienced the difficulty of being compelled to employ artizans unacquainted with the subject. . . . An engine was ordered from Watt and Bolton, without any specification of the object to which it was to be applied; and its form was directed to be varied from the usual models, in conformity with sketches furnished by Fulton.
The order for an engine intended to propel a vessel of large size was transmitted to Watt and Bolton in 1803. Much about the same time Chancellor Livingston, having full confidence in the success of the enterprise, caused an application to be made to the Legislature of New York for an exclusive privilege of navigating the waters of that State by steam, that granted on a former occasion having expired. This was granted with little opposition. Indeed, those who might have been inclined to object saw so much of the impracticable and even of the ridiculous in the project that they conceived the application unworthy of serious debate. The condition attached to the grant was that a vessel should be propelled by steam at the rate of four miles an hour, within a prescribed space of time. This reliance upon the reserved rights of the States proved a fruitful source of vexation to Livingston and Fulton, embittered the close of the life of the latter, and reduced his family to penury. . . .
Before the engine ordered from Watt and Boltoxi was completed, Fulton visited England. Disgusted by the delays and want of consideration exhibited by the French Government, he had listened to an overture from that of England. This was made to him at the instance of Earl Stanhope, who urged upon the Administration the dangers to be apprehended by the navy of Great Britain in case the invention of Fulton fell into the possession of France. This effort, however, did not produce much effect. . . . In these experiments Earl Stanhope took a strong interest, which was shared by his daughter, Lady Hester,5 whose talents and singularity have since excited so much attention, and who long reigned almost as a queen among the tribes of the Libanus. . . .
The engine was at last completed, and reached New York in 1806. Fulton, who returned to his native country about the same period, immediately undertook the construction of a boat in which to place it. . . . The vessel was finished and fitted with her machinery in August, 1807. An experimental excursion was forthwith made, at which a number of gentlemen of science and intelligence were present. Many of these were either skeptical or absolute unbelievers. But a few minutes sufficed to convert the whole party and satisfy the most obstinate doubters that the long-desired object was at last accomplished. . . .
Within a few days from the time of the first experiment with the steamboat, a voyage was undertaken in it to Albany. This city, situated at the natural head of the navigation of the Hudson, is distant, by the line of the channel of the river, rather less than one hundred fifty miles from New York. By the old post road the distance is one hundred sixty miles, at which that by water is usually estimated. Altho the greater part of the channel of the Hudson is both deep and wide, yet, for about fourteen miles below Albany, this character is not preserved, and the stream, confined within comparatively small limits, is obstructed by bars of sand or spreads itself over shallows. In a few remarkable instances the sloops which then exclusively navigated the Hudson had effected a passage in about sixteen hours, but a whole week was not infrequently employed in this voyage, and the average time of passage was not less than four entire days. In Fulton's first attempt to navigate this stream the passage to Albany was performed in thirty-two hours, and the return in thirty. . . .
Regular voyages were made at stated times until the end of the season. These voyages were not, however, unattended with inconvenience. . . .
The winter of 1807-1808 was occupied in remodelling and rebuilding the vessel, to which the name of the "Clermont" was now given. By his contract with Chancellor Livingston the latter undertook to defray the whole cost of the engine and vessel until the experiment should result in success; but from that hour each was to furnish an equal share of all subsequent investments. Fulton had no patrimonial fortune, and what little he had saved from the product of his ingenuity was now exhausted. But the success of the experiment had inspired the banks and capitalists with confidence, and he now found no difficulty in obtaining, in the way of a loan, all that was needed. Still, however, a debt was thus contracted which the continued demands made upon him for new investments never permitted him to discharge. The Clermont, thus converted into a floating palace, gay with ornamental painting, gilding, and polished woods, commenced her course of passages for the second year in the month of April, 1808.
1 Renwick was a native of England (born in 1790), who settled in New York, where he became a noted physicist, and published several books on scientific topics, including a "Treatise on the Steam Engine." He also wrote biographies of Fulton and Livingston.
2 The scene of one of Fitch's trials was the Collect Pond in New York City, long since filled in. About it now rise the Tombs Prison and the Criminal Court Building. Chancellor Livingston furnished the capital by means of which Fulton was able to proceed with his work, and became his partner in the enterprise. Had John Fitch been equally fortunate as to a partner, it is not unlikely that his name, instead of Fulton's would now be associated with the successful construction of the steamboat. "The day will come," said Fitch, in his pathetic autobiography, "when some more powerful man will get fame and wealth from my invention, but nobody will believe that poor John Fitch can do anything worthy of attention."
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3 Brunel afterward acquired other fame as the designer of the steamship Great Eastern.
4 The poet famous in his day as the author of a work now forgotten, entitled "The Columbiad."
5Lady Hester Stanhope, niece of William Pitt, the younger, and from 1808 the head of his household and his private secretary. After Pitt's death, she established a small satrapy on Mount Lebanon. She wrote notable volumes of travels and memoirs.
I arrived this afternoon at four o'clock in the steamboat from Albany. As the success of my experiment gives me great hopes that such boats may be rendered of great importance to my country, to prevent erroneous opinions and give some satisfaction to my friends of useful improvements, you will have the goodness to publish the following statement of facts:
I left New York on Monday at one o'clock and arrived at Clermont, the seat of Chancellor Livingston, at one o'clock on Tuesday: time, twenty-four hours; distance, one hundred and ten miles. On Wednesday I departed from the Chancellor's at nine in the morning, and arrived at Albany at five in the afternoon: distance, forty miles; time, eight hours. The sum is one hundred and fifty miles in thirty-two hours, equal to near five miles an hour.
On Thursday, at nine o'clock in the morning, I left Albany, and arrived at the Chancellor's at six in the evening. I started from thence at seven, and arrived at New York at four in the afternoon: time, thirty hours; space ran through, one hundred and fifty miles, equal to five miles an hour. Throughout my whole way, both going and returning, the wind was ahead. No advantage could be derived from my sails. The whole has therefore been performed by the power of the steam-engine.
My steamboat voyage to Albany and back has turned out rather more favorably than I had calculated. The distance from New York to Albany is one hundred and fifty miles. I ran it up in thirty-two hours, and down in thirty. I had a light breeze against me the whole way, both going and coming; and the voyage has been performed wholly by the power of the steam-engine. I overtook many sloops and schooners beating to windward, and parted with them.
The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved. The morning I left New York there were not perhaps thirty persons in the city who believed that the boat would ever move one mile an hour or be of the least utility; and, while we were putting off from the wharf, which was crowded with spectators, I heard a number of sarcastic remarks. This is the way in which ignorant men compliment what they call philosophers and projectors.
Having employed much time, money, and zeal in accomplishing this work, it gives me, as it will you, great pleasure to see it answer my expectations. It will give a cheap and quick conveyance to the merchandize on the Mississippi, Missouri, and other great rivers, which are now laying open their treasures to the enterprise of our countrymen; and, altho the prospect of personal emolument has been some inducement to me, yet I feel infinitely more pleasure in reflecting on the immense advantage my country will derive.
1 Two letters, the first being addrest to a newspaper, The American Citizen; the second to Joel Barlow, the poet.