The Life of John Fitch, the Inventor of the Steamboat


BY THOMPSON WESTCOTT. Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott & Co.

WHAT would not honest Sancho have given for a good biography of the man who invented sleep ? And will not the adventurous pleasure-tourist, who has been jarred, jammed, roasted, coddled, and suffocated in a railroad-car for a whole night, with two days to sandwich it, on being deposited in an airy stateroom for the last two hundred miles of his journey, think the man who invented the steamboat deserving of a “ first-rate ” life ? We well remember the time when nobody suspected that person, whoever he might be,—and nobody much cared who he was,—of any relationship to the individual whose memory Sancho blessed, so great was the churning in the palaces that then floated. But in our present boats this unpalace-like operation has been so localized and mollified as to escape the notice of all but the greenest and most inquisitive passengers. And now that we find the luxury of travelling by water actually superior to that of staying at home on land, we begin to feel a budding veneration for the man who first found out that steam could be substituted, with such marvellous advantage, for helpless dependence on the wind and miserable tugging at oars and setting-poles. Who was he ? What circumstances conspired to shape his life and project it with so notable an aim ? How did he look, act, think, on all matters of human concernment ? Here comes a book, assuming in its title that one John Fitch, of whom his generation seems not to have thought enough to paint his portrait, was the inventor of the steamboat. It professes to be “ The Life of John Fitch” ; but we are sorry to say it is rather a documentary argument to prove that he was “ the inventor of the steamboat.” As an argument, it is both needless and needlessly strong. We already knew to a certainty that nobody could present a better claim to that honor than John Fitch. True, the idea did not wait for him. The engine could not have been working a hundred years in the world without giving birth to that. But till Watt invented it anew in 1782, by admitting the steam alternately at both ends of the cylinder, it was too awkward and clumsy to become a practical navigator. Moreover, though it could pump admirably, it had not been taught to turn a crank. The French assert, that experiments in steam-propulsion were made on the Seine, by Count Auxiron and Perrier, in 1774, and on the Saone, by De Jouffroy, in 1782 ; but we know they led to no practical results, and the knowledge of them probably did not, for some years, travel beyond the limits of the French language. There is no satisfactory evidence that a boat was ever moved by steam, within the boundaries of Anglo-Saxondom, before John Fitch did it, on the 27th of July, 1786. His successful and every way brilliant experiment on that occasion led directly to practical results,—to wit, the formation of a company, embracing some of the foremost men of Philadelphia, which built a small steam-packet for the conveyance of passengers, and ran it during three summers, ending with that of 1790. The company then failed, and broke poor Fitch's heart, simply because the investment had not thus fur proved lucrative, and they were unwilling to make the further advances requisite to carry out his moderate and reasonable plans. The only person who ever claimed, in English, to have made a steamboat experiment before Fitch, was James Rumsey, of Virginia, who, in 1788, published some testimony to show that he had done it as early as April, 1786, that he had broached the idea, confidentially, two years earlier, and that Fitch might have received it from one who violated his confidence. Fitch promptly annihilated these pretences by a pamphlet, a reprint of which may be found in the PatentOffice Report for 1850. This, and a contribution to Sparks’s “American Biography,” by Col. Charles Whittlesey, of Ohio, seem quite sufficient to establish the historical fact that John Fitch was the father of steam-navigation, whoever may have been its prophets. Though the infant, with the royal blood of both Neptune and Pluto in its veins, and a brand-new empire waiting to crown it, fell into a seventeen years' swoon, during which Fitch died, and the public at large forgot all that he had ever said or done, its life did not become extinct. It was not created, but revived, by Fulton, aided by the refreshing effusion of Chancellor Livingston's money. We did not need a new book to make us more certain of these facts, but we did need a more thorough biography of John Fitch, and, with great respect for the industry and faithfulness of Mr. Westcott, it is our opinion that we do still. He has demonstrated that the materials for such a work are abundant, and a glance at the mortal career of Fitch will show him to be an uncommonly interesting subject.

John Fitch was born in Windsor, Connecticut, in 1743. At the age of five, while his father was absent from home, courting his stepmother, he heroically extinguished a fire of blazing flax, which would otherwise have consumed the house, and while he was smarting from his burns was cruelly beaten by an elder brother, who misapprehended the ease of the little boy, very much as the world did that of the man he became. The domestic discipline he encountered under the paternal roof was of the severest New England pattern of those days, and between its theology and its economy he grew out of shape, like a thrifty pumpkin between two rocks. He loved to learn, but had few books and little schooling. His taste tended to mechanism, and he was apprenticed to a stingy clockmaker, who obliged him to work on his farm and kept him ignorant of his trade. Getting his liberty at last, he set up brassfounding, on a capital of twenty shillings, and made money at it. Then he went into the manufacture of potash, in which he was less successful. He married a wife who proved more caustic than the potash and more than a match for his patience. He settled his affairs so as to leave her all his little property in the most manageable shape, and left her with two children, to seek a separate fortune in the wide world. The war of the Revolution found him at Trenton, New Jersey, a man of some substance, acquired as a silversmith and peddler of silver and brass sleeve-buttons of his own manufacture. It made him an officer and then an armorer in the Continental service. As a fabricator of patriotic weapons, he incurred the displeasure of his Methodist brethren by working on the Sabbath, and lost his orthodoxy in his disgust at their rebukes. Towards the close of the Revolution, getting poor in fact by getting rich in Continental money, he endeavored to save himself by investing in Virginia landwarrants, went to Kentucky as a surveyor, and became possessed of sixteen hundred acres of that wilderness. On a second expedition down the Ohio, early in 1782, he fell into the hands of the savages, in the most melodramatic style, was led captive through the vast forests and swamps to Detroit, had a very characteristic and remarkable prison-experience under British authority at Prison Island, was exchanged, and by a sea-voyage reached his home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, at the close of the same year. Immediately after the establishment of peace, he formed a company to speculate in Ohio lands, and made extensive surveys for the purpose of forestalling the best locations. Mr. Westcott’s book confuses this portion of his his chronology by misprinting two or three dates, on the 113th page. The hopeful game was spoiled by unexpected measures of the Confederated government ; but Fitch's explorations had deeply impressed him with the sublime character of the Western rivers, and when, in April, 1785, the thought first struck him that steam could easily make them navigable upwards as well as downwards, he cared no more for lands. He had noticed the mechanical power of steam, but had never seen an engine, and did not know that one existed out of his own brain. This is the less wonderful, seeing there were only three then in America, and his science extended only to arithmetic. When his minister showed him a drawing of Newcomen’s engine, in “Martin’s Philosophy, ” he was chagrined to find that his invention had been anticipated in regard to the mode of producing the power, but he was confirmed in his belief of its availability for navigation. With no better resources than a blacksmith’s shop could furnish, he set himself at work to make a steamengine to test his theory. His success is one of those wonders of human ingenuity struggling with difficulties, moral, financial, and physical combined, which deserve both a Homer and a Macaulay to celebrate and record them. He was supposed by most people, and almost by himself, to have gone crazy. If anything, at this day, is more incredible than the feat which he accomplished, it is the derision with which the public viewed his labors, decried his success, and sneered at the rags which betokened the honesty of his poverty. To every one who had brains capable of logic, he had demonstrated the feasibility of his visions. But no amount of even physical demonstration, then possible, could bring out the funds requisite to pecuniary profit, against the head-wind of public scorn. It whistled down his high hopes of fortune. At last, dropping the file and the hammer, he took the pen, determined, that, if others must get rich by his invention, he would at least save for himself the fame of it. The result of his literary labors was an autobiography of great frankness and detail, extending to several hundred pages, and embracing almost every conceivable violation of standard English orthography, with which he seems to have had very little acquaintance or sympathy. It was placed under seal in the Philadelphia Library, not to be opened for thirty years. At the expiration of that period, in 1823, the seal was broken, and the quaint old manuscript, with the stamp of honest truth on every word, stood ready to reveal what the world is but just beginning to “ want to know ” about John Fitch. He afterwards went to Europe to promote his steamboat interests,—to little purpose, —wandered about a few years, settled in Bardstown, Kentucky, made a model steamboat with a brass engine, drowned disappointment in the drink of that country, and at last departed by his own will, two years before the close of the last century. A life so full of truth that is stranger than fiction ought not to be treated in the Dry-as-dust style, quite so largely as Mr. Westcott has done it.