In 1807, Robert Fulton, using an English mail-order steam engine, chugged four miles an hour up the Hudson River, passing into popular folklore as the inventor of the steamboat. However, the true first passenger steamboat in America, and the world, was built from scratch, and plied the Delaware River in 1790, almost two decades earlier. Its inventor, John Fitch, never attained Fulton's riches, and was rewarded with ridicule and poverty. Considering there was not a single working steam engine in America in the early 1780s, Fitch's steamboat's development was nothing short of remarkable. But he faced competition from the start, and he and several other inventors fought a string of bitter battles, legal and otherwise. Steam tells the dramatic story of Fitch and his adversaries, weaving their lives into a fascinating tale including the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. It is the story behind America's first important venture in technology, the persevering and colorful men that made it happen, and the great invention that moved a new nation westward.
Although schoolchildren are taught that Robert Fulton invented the steamboat in 1807, the reality is far more complex. Sutcliff (editor of Mighty Rough Times I Tell You) demonstrates that Fulton was a latecomer to the effort to build a commercially viable steamship. A full two decades before the Clermont carried passengers between New York City and Albany, the largely forgotten Virginian James Rumsey and Connecticut-born John Fitch battled each other to be the first to launch a steam-powered boat and for potentially lucrative waterway monopolies. Fitch was partially successful, running a steamboat commuter service between Philadelphia and Trenton during the summer of 1790, but couldn't compete with stagecoaches. Sutcliff illuminates the importance of the steamboat to the developing United States, explaining how boats that could bring goods upriver would unite the western portion of the country with the east, increasing trade dramatically and permitting greater development of the frontier. Sutcliff's story is one of political intrigue, involving virtually all of the nation's founding fathers, mixed with scientific acumen and a sense of business ethics so low that even in today's climate many of the principals' actions would sound an alarm. Sutcliff offers intriguing material in an extremely readable volume, though she doesn't provide any new insight into the personalities of the protagonists. 16 pages of b&w illus.