John Fitch was an American inventor, clockmaker, entrepreneur, and engineer. He was most famous for operating the first steamboat service in the United States.
Fitch was born to Joseph Fitch and Sarah Shaler in Windsor, Connecticut, on 21 January 1743, on a farm that is part of present-day South Windsor, Connecticut. He received little formal schooling and eventually apprenticed himself to a clockmaker. During his apprenticeship, Fitch was not allowed to learn or even observe watchmaking (he later taught himself how to repair clocks and watches).
He married Lucy Roberts 29 December 1767. Following this apprenticeship in Hartford, he opened an unsuccessful brass foundry in East Windsor, Connecticut, and then a brass and silversmith business in Trenton, New Jersey, which succeeded for eight years but was destroyed by British troops during the American Revolution.
He served briefly during the Revolution, mostly as a gunsmith working for the New Jersey militia. He left his unit after a dispute over a promotion but continued his work repairing and refitting arms in Trenton. In the fall of 1777, Fitch provided beer and tobacco to the Continental Army in Philadelphia. During the following winter and spring, he provided beer, rum and other supplies to troops at Valley Forge.
In 1780, he began work as a surveyor in Kentucky where he recorded a land claim of 1,600 acres (6.5 km2) for himself. In the spring of 1782, while surveying in the Northwest Territory, he was captured by Indians and turned over to the British, who eventually released him.
By 1785, Fitch was done with surveying and settled in Warminster, Pennsylvania, where he began working on his ideas for a steam-powered boat
Fitch had seen a drawing of an early British Newcomen atmospheric engine in an encyclopedia, but Newcomen engines were huge structures designed to pump water out of mines. He had somehow heard about the more efficient steam engine developed by James Watt in Scotland in the late 1770's, but there was not a single Watt engine in America at that time, nor would there be for many years . As a result, Fitch attempted to design his own version of a steam engine. He moved to Philadelphia and engaged the clockmaker and inventor Henry Voigt to help him build a working model and place it on a boat.
The first successful trial run of his steamboat Perseverance was made on the Delaware River on 22 August 1787. Fitch had also received a patent in 1791 from France, and in 1793, having given up hope of building a steamboat in America, he left for France, where an American investor, Aaron Vail, had promised to help him build a boat there. But Fitch arrived just as the Reign of Terror was beginning, and his plans had to be abandoned. He made his way to London to make an attempt there, but that also failed. He returned to the United States in 1794 and made a few more tries to build a steamboat.
Failing this, he moved to Bardstown, Kentucky in 1797, where he hoped to sell some of the lands he had acquired there in the early 1780's, and use the proceeds to build a steamboat for use on the Ohio or Mississippi River. He arrived to find settlers occupying his properties, resulting in legal disputes that occupied him until his death on 2 July 1798 in Bardstown.
While living in Kentucky, Fitch continued to work on steam engine ideas. He built two models. One was lost in a fire in Bardstown, but the other was found in the attic of his daughter's house in Ohio in 1849. That model still exists at the Ohio Historical Society Museum in Columbus. In the 1950's, a curator from the Smithsonian Museum examined it and concluded that it was "the prototype of a practical land-operating steam engine," meant to operate on tracks – in other words, a steam locomotive.
A life of continual failure, frustration and litigation wore Fitch down. He began drinking heavily once he returned to Bardstown in 1797. In the end, Fitch took his own life by ingesting an overdose of opium pills. He died on 2 July 1798 and was buried in Bardstown.
BURIAL: Bardstown Courthouse Square in Bardstown, Nelson County, Kentucky
Find A Grave: Memorial #11086121 John Fitch
Lloyd's Steamboat Directory
Disasters on the Western Waters: Containing the History of the First Application of Steam, as a Motive Power
The Lives of John Fitch and Robert Fulton...History of the Early Steamboat Navigation on Western Waters
Full Accounts of All the Steamboat Disasters
A Complete List of Steamboats and All Other Vessels Now Afloat on the Western Rivers and Lakes, Maps of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers
Lists of Plantations on the Mississippi River, One Hundred Engravings and Forty Six Maps
For More Information:
"John Fitch: First Steamboat." PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/fitch_hi.html. (accessed on July 7, 2005).
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