August 20: Connecticut Inventor Breaks the Rule of Wind Over Water


During the Age of Sail, all people who traveled by water did so at the mercy of wind and tide. Too little wind, or wind from the wrong direction, brought delay or disruption to the best-laid plans. Too much wind brought danger, and sometimes even death and destruction. No trip was predictable. When it began and ended was subject to the will or whim of capricious winds. This remained true for thousands of years, until a Connecticut-born inventor showed there was a way to break the rule of wind over water.

That man was John Fitch, who today in 1787 successfully sailed America’s first steamboat up the Delaware River in hopes of gathering financial support from influential members of Congress. Born in Windsor, Connecticut in 1743, Fitch displayed an insatiable drive for dabbling in mechanics at an early age. As a young man, he tried his hand at a number of seemingly unrelated occupations, working alternately as a clockmaker’s apprentice, a sailor, silversmith, and brass-maker. In 1769, he moved to New Jersey, and from there joined the Continental Army when the Revolutionary War broke out several years later. As the war drew to a close in the early 1780s, Fitch was captured by a band of Indians while surveying land in what is now Kentucky. While his captivity was short, the experience left an indelible impression on him: Fitch later claimed that the unique design of his first steamboat, which featured oar-like paddles instead of a paddle wheel, was inspired by the sight of dozens of Indians paddling canoes up the Kentucky river.

A woodcut depicting one of John Fitch’s early steamboat designs, from the December 1786 issue of The Columbian Magazine.

By the mid 1780s, Fitch had created a workable design for a steam-powered ship, but found it difficult to obtain financial backing to produce his designs on a larger scale. In 1787, with the help of a Philadelphian clockmaker, he constructed a 45-foot-long working model of his steamboat and named it the Perseverance. On August 20, Fitch conducted a live demonstration of what is widely recognized as America’s first steamboat along the Delaware River, in front of delegates who were in Philadelphia as part of the Constitutional Convention. Impressed at the sight of the curious craft chugging up the river at a speed of four miles per hour, the delegates showered Fitch with plenty of praise — but little else.

While Fitch continued to improve the efficiency of his steamboat over the next several years, the fruitless pursuit of both financial support and legal protections for his invention left him exhausted and frustrated. In 1791, the newly-formed U.S. Patent office finally granted Fitch a narrowly-defined patent for his steamboat — on the very same day that it awarded similar patents to three other Americans for steam-powered vehicles that Fitch felt copied from his original designs, instantly negating any business-related advantages Fitch hoped to gain with a patent under his own name. Despite his groundbreaking innovations in steamboat design, Fitch continued to be plagued by financial setbacks for the rest of his life, and he died in relative obscurity in 1798

Further Reading

Innovators: John Fitch,” PBS ‘Who Made America?’

John Fitch’s Historical Steamboat Marker,”