John Fitch, an American inventor, and the pioneer in steam navigation, born in Windsor, Conn., Jan. 21, 1743, died in Bardstown, Ky., in June or July, 1798. He worked on his father's farm till the age of 17, when he was employed for some time on coasting vessels, and then became apprentice to a clock maker. On reaching manhood he commenced business as a brass founder in a small way, failed in an attempt to manufacture potash, married unhappily, separated from his wife, and settled in New Jersey as a button maker and silversmith. When the revolutionary war broke out, he was elected a lieutenant in the New Jersey line: but on meeting with some real or supposed injustice he left the service, and was employed by New Jersey as armorer of the troops. Driven away by the invading army, he engaged in his trade of silversmith in Bucks co., Pa., till the approach of the enemy again made it necessary for him to shift his quarters. He next supplied the American troops at Valley Forge with tobacco, beer, and other articles, in which he drove a prosperous business, resulting in a considerable accumulation of depreciated continental money. With this he purchased Virginia land warrants and removed to Kentucky, where he was appointed deputy surveyor.
Being captured by the Indians, he was marched through the wilderness to the British post at Detroit, where he was detained some time as a prisoner. He was at length exchanged, and finding his way again to Bucks co., formed a company for the survey and purchase of lands in Kentucky and Ohio. On his return from these surveys, by which he acquired several hundred acres of land, he petitioned congress for an appointment as surveyor, and while awaiting the unsuccessful result of his application prepared a map of the N. W. country, which he engraved on a sheet of copper and printed on a press of his own manufacture. In April, 1785, the idea occurred to him of propelling a carriage along an ordinary road by the force of steam. After a week's study he abandoned it as impracticable, and devoted himself to the application of steam to the propulsion of vessels. He immediately sought to interest leading men in Pennsylvania in the project; in August following he addressed a petition to congress in regard to it, and in September presented a drawing of the boat, models, and tube boiler to the American philosophical society. He next petitioned the legislature of Virginia for aid. James Madison presented his memorial, and Patrick Henry, then governor, took an interest in the plan.
But the legislature was slow, and Fitch conceived the plan of raising the necessary funds by the sale of his map. He accordingly executed a bond to Gov. Henry in the sum of £350, conditioned that if he should sell 1,000 copies of his map at 6s. 8d., he would in nine months thereafter exhibit a steamboat in the waters of Virginia. Nothing came of it. The assembly of Pennsylvania was next applied to, and encouraged him to the extent of a favorable report of a committee. The assembly of Maryland did the same; but there were no funds in her exchequer. The legislature of New Jersey rejected a proposition to grant £1,000, but gave Fitch an exclusive privilege for 14 years for the use of boats propelled by fire or steam. Disappointed in these efforts, Fitch formed a private company, and in April, 178G, the working model of a steam engine with a one-inch cylinder was the humble commencement of his enterprise. In three months' time he moved a skiff on the Delaware by his new contrivance at a speed satisfactory to the associates.
In March, 1787, a bill vesting in John Fitch exclusive rights in the steamboat passed the legislature of Pennsylvania, and similar laws were enacted in Delaware and in New York. In August of that year a new steamboat was tried on the Delaware, with an engine of 12-inch cylinder. Though the boat did not attain sufficient speed to answer the purpose of a packet, the trial proved conclusively the efficiency of steam as a motive power for vessels. To increase this efficiency it was only necessary to enlarge the machinery. Soon after this success the company learned for the first time that James Rumsey of Virginia claimed to be the first inventor of the steamboat, and to have made a prior successful trial. A war of pamphlets followed. An examination of the evidence leaves no reason to doubt that the first practical success in steam navigation was made by Fitch. It is probable enough that Rumsey had entertained the idea of propelling a boat by steam before it occurred to Fitch, as it had previously occurred to others. In 1788 Fitch built a second boat for the old machinery, which made several passages between Philadelphia and Burlington at the rate of four miles an hour. More power was requisite for commercial success.
A boat built for an engine of 18-inch cylinder was ready for trial in August, 1789. After several failures, and changes in the machinery, this boat was successfully tried in the spring of 1790, and was run as a passenger boat on the Delaware, making during the season more than 2,000 miles at an average speed of 7 1/2 miles an hour. But more money was wanted to introduce the invention, and the numerous stockholders in the enterprise could not be brought to respond to further assessments. Time ran on, and Fitch was cramped for the necessaries of life. He repeatedly asserted that the passenger traffic of the great western rivers would one day be carried on exclusively by steam; that ships of war and packet ships would navigate the Atlantic by steam; and that some one to come after him would reap fame and fortune from his invention. He now sought some small office under the government of Pennsylvania and that of the United States, but was disappointed. Failing to interest new parties in his project, and the company absolutely declining to make further advances, Fitch abandoned his boat, and for some months wandered about the streets of Philadelphia, a ruined man, with the reputation of a crazy projector.
On Oct. 4, 1792, he presented a sealed envelope containing manuscripts to the library company of Philadelphia, with a request that it might be kept unopened till 1823. In 1793 he went to France in pursuance of a contract with Aaron Vail, contemplating the introduction of his invention in Europe; but the times were not propitious, and the means and patience of Fitch were exhausted. On his return he remained a while in London, and in 1794 he worked his passage to the United States as a common sailor, landed at Boston, and spent nearly two years at East Windsor. In the summer of 1796 he was in New York, and placed a small boat on the Collect pond, worked by a submerged wheel at the stern, which has been described as a screw propeller. Soon after he visited Oliver Evans in Philadelphia, and expressed his intention of forming a company to introduce steamboats on the western waters. With this view, and to ascertain the condition of his western property, he went to Kentucky, where he found his land overrun with squatters, and no encouragement for his steam projects.
Mortified by his inability to carry out his great project, and wearied by the lawsuits in which he had been engaged for the recovery of his lands, Fitch became despondent and desperate, and terminated his life by swallowing a dozen opium pills which had been left with him from time to time by his physician to use as anodynes. The sealed, envelope was formally opened by the directors of the library company in 1823, and was found to contain a detailed history of his adventures in the steamboat enterprise, inscribed To my children and to future generations," with a journal and other papers, from which his biography was prepared by Thompson Westcott (Philadelphia, 1857). A memoir of Fitch by Mr. C. Whittlesey is in Sparks's "American Biography."