The son of Joseph Fitch and Sarah Shaler, John Fitch was born in Windsor, Connecticut on January 21, 1743. Raised on the family’s farm, John received little formal schooling. He later taught himself the skill of repairing watches and clocks.
On December 29, 1767, John married Lucy Roberts and soon opened a brass foundry in East Windsor, Connecticut. After the business proved to be unsuccessful, he began a brass and silversmith enterprise. His efforts proved successful for eight years, but were later destroyed by British troops at some point in the American Revolution.
During the Revolution, Fitch served in New Jersey’s militia as a gunsmith. A dispute over a promotion caused Fitch to leave the militia; however, he continued to work in Trenton repairing and refitting fire arms. He was later in Philadelphia during the fall of 1777 and made available tobacco products and beer to the Continental Army. Beer, rum and supplies arrived for the troops at Valley Forge from Fitch the following winter and spring. Fitch later moved to Kentucky and recorded a land claim of 1,600 acres in 1780. Two years later, he worked as a land surveyor in the Northwest Territory (federal lands east of the Mississippi, between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes). Here he was captured by Indians who turned him over to the British. Fitch was later released by the British and completed his land surveying by 1785.
Fitch now settled in Southampton, Pennsylvania where he acted upon his ideas for building a boat powered by steam. In an attempt to raise capital for this endeavor, Fitch sought help from the Continental Congress. His requests fell on deaf ears, so his next fund-raising efforts were directed toward the state legislatures. He successfully persuaded a number of the legislatures to award him a 14-year steamboat traffic monopoly on their inland waterways. The monopolies made it possible for him to return to Philadelphia and gain the funding he needed from professional citizens and businessmen. The only thing left to do now was to design and build the watercraft.
Having done his research, Fitch was familiar with the British Newcomen steam engines. This device, however, did not meet his needs. Newcomen engine was extremely large in size due to the fact they were designed to pump water out of mines. A Scottish inventor, James Watt, had created a smaller version of a steam engine in the 1770s; however, there were none of these engines to be had within the country due to England’s banning of the technology being exported to the States. Fitch’s only other option was to design his own. To do so, he engaged the help of Henry Voigt, a Philadelphia inventor and clockmaker.
On August 22, 1787, Perserverance, the first successful steamboat completed by Fitch and Voigt, took her maiden voyage down the Delaware River under the watchful eyes of delegates from the Constitutional Convention. Leaving their tasks at hand for a brief respite in the cooler air along the river, the delegates lunched on meat pies as they beheld a rumbling machine bobbing on the river before them boasting twelve oars and belching black smoke from its chimney. Delegate James Wilson took a great interest in Fitch’s technology and became part owner of the company.
Fitch’s arrival and the timing with the delegates became a match made in Heaven. Though there is no way to know the effect Fitch and his steamship personally had on the framing of the Constitution, a 31-year old Philadelphia merchant by the name of Tench Coxe, though not a delegate himself, picked up the gauntlet and ran with it. Determined to influence the manner in which the Constitution was written with respect to present and future inventors, on May 11, he addressed some 40 members of the Society for Political Enquiries in the home of Benjamin Franklin. James Madison was one of those who became caught up in the mesmerizing vision Coxe shared. Coxe’s efforts paid off and in August, Madison and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina addressed the Convention regarding the addition of Coxe’s idea in the Constitution. Power would now be given to Congress to “issue patents, reward technological advancements, and promote “commerce, trades, and manufactures.”
In the years which followed, the dynamic duo of Fitch and Voigt enhanced their design and created a steam-powered boat with stern-mounted oars which paddled in somewhat the same manner as a duck. During the summer of 1790, thirty paying passengers would now cruise on the vessel during round-trip voyages from Philadelphia to Burlington, New Jersey. It was later estimated the ship traveled somewhere between 1,300 and 3,000 miles that summer, at speeds of between 5 and 7 kts.
On August 26, 1791, Fitch received a patent from the newly-created Patent Commission for his steamboat; however, the patent was not the all-encompassing monopoly he previously requested. Because of that, many of the investors who had back Fitch’s efforts left the company, putting Fitch in the position of being able to carry on due to lack of financial resources, even though the vessels he now owned were mechanically sound. Decades later, Fitch’s would be capitalized upon by Robert Fulton. Though Fulton obtained a monopoly in the state of New York due to his business relationship with Robert Livingston, he was not granted a US patent, due to the fact Fulton was unable to demonstrate the originality of his design.
Following the failure with the patent monopoly, Fitch traveled to France to meet with American investor Aaron Vail. Vail had promised to help Fitch build a new boat there, but as it turned out, Fitch’s luck went from ‘bad’ to ‘horrid’ in a hurry. Shortly after Fitch arrived in France, the Reign of Terror began, forcing him to flee to England. His luck proved to be no better in London, so in 1794 he returned to the United States and continued his unsuccessful steamboat efforts. He then returned to Bardstown, Kentucky in 1797 to sell some or all of the land he purchased in 1780, only to find squatters occupying his properties. Legal disputes over the situation would plague Fitch the rest of his life.
Not one to throw in the towel and admit defeat, Fitch continued on with his steam engine designs and built two models. One of these was later destroyed in a fire which occurred in Bardstown. The second, however, survived and was later discovered in the attic of his daughter’s Ohio home in 1849. It is now on display at Columbus’s Ohio Historical Society Museum. During the 1950s, a number of experts from the Smithsonian Museum inspected the engine and agreed it truly was a prototype of a practical land operating steam engine capable of operating on tracks (steam locomotive).
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Though Fitch’s efforts did not receive the notoriety in American history the likes of Robert Fulton, his name appears within personal letters written by Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. He also had a part in the enactment of the Patent Act of 1790. Add to that, the John Fitch Steamboat Museum, located on the grounds of Craven Hall in Warmister, Pennsylvania, has on display a model of Fitch’s steamboat – one-tenth the size of the original.