On August 26, 1791, John Fitch and James Rumsey, rivals battling over claims to the invention, were each granted a federal patent for the steamboat. They devised different systems for their steamboats. Four years earlier, on August 22, 1787, Fitch demonstrated a steamboat—a Watt-type engine with a separate condenser that transmitted power to oars mounted to stroke in a paddle fashion. The forty-five-foot craft launched on the Delaware River in the presence of delegates from the Constitutional Convention. Rumsey’s craft was powered by direct force—jet propulsion. Fitch went on to build a larger steamboat that carried passengers and freight between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey.
In a 1787 letter to Thomas Johnson, George Washington discussed Fitch’s and Rumsey’s claims from his own perspective.
Mr. Rumsey…at that time applying to the Assembly for an exclusive Act…spoke of the effect of Steam and…its application for the purpose of inland Navigation; but I did not conceive…that it was suggested as part of his original plan…It is proper however for me to add, that some time after this Mr. Fitch called upon me on his way to Richmond and explaining his scheme, wanted a letter from me, introductory of it to the Assembly of this State the giving of which I declined; and went so [far] as to inform him that tho’ I was bound not to disclose the principles of Mr. Rumsey’s discovery I would venture to assure him, that the thought of applying steam for the purpose he mentioned was not original but had been mentioned to me by Mr. Rumsey…
George Washington to Thomas Johnson, November 22, 1787. Series 2, Letterbooks 1754-1799: Letterbook 14, Feb. 11, 1787 – Feb. 22, 1788. George Washington Papers. Manuscript Division
Nonetheless, Robert Fulton is generally credited as the inventor of the steamboat. In 1814, Fulton and Edward Livingston, the brother of Robert R. Livingston, brought commercial success to steamboating when they began to offer regular steamboat service between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi. The boats traveled at the rates of eight miles per hour downstream and three miles per hour upstream. In 1816, Henry Miller Shreve launched his steamboat Washington, which completed the voyage from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky, in twenty-five days. Steamboat design continued to improve, so that by 1853, the trip to Louisville took only four and one-half days.
Between 1814 and 1834, New Orleans steamboat arrivals increased from 20 to 1,200 a year. The boats transported cargoes of cotton, sugar, and passengers. Throughout the East, steamboats contributed greatly to the economy by transporting agricultural and industrial supplies. In a 1938 interview, Iowan Joe Giesler, who was a steamboatman for fifty-four years, tells a story of a calamity that occurred while transporting a load of hogs upriver:
…we put [the hogs] on the boat and had them all penned up; as the boat was going up the river someone pulled the whistle; this scared the hogs and they broke through their pen and jumped over the side of the boat; and swam to shore. It took us two or three days to round them all up.
[Joe Giesler]. Edna B. Pearson, interviewer; Sioux City, Iowa, Nov. 15, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
Steam propulsion and railroads developed separately, but it was not until railroads adopted the technology of steam that they began to flourish. By the 1870s, railroads had begun to supplant steamboats as the major transporter of both goods and passengers.
- View the Transportation and Communication section in the Map Collections to see maps that document the development and status of transportation and communication systems on the national, state, and local levels. Learn more about the rise of the American railroad in the special presentation History of Railroads and Maps in the collection Railroad Maps, 1828 to 1900.
- Search on steamboat in the collections to find more images and stories. One item of note is an 1899 motion picture Pilot Boats in New York Harbor that includes views of steamboats.
- Search on steamboat in the pictorial collections to view hundreds of images of steamboats.