John Fitch And James Rumsey Are Granted A Federal Patent For The Steamboat

On August 26, 1791, John Fitch and James Rumsey, rivals battling over claims to the invention, each were 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.

By 1785, Fitch was done with surveying and settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where he began working on his ideas for a steam-powered ship. Unable to raise funds from the Continental Congress, he persuaded various state legislatures to award him a 14-year monopoly for steamboat traffic on their inland waterways. With these monopolies he was able to secure funding from a group of prominent citizens in Philadelphia.

Fitch had seen drawings of British steam engines, but was required to build his own because of the expense and difficulty of purchasing one. He built several successful models and then with the help of Henry Voight, a watchmaker, he constructed a 45-foot (14 m) steamboat.

The first successful trial run of his steamboat was made on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787, in the presence of delegates from the Constitutional Convention. It was propelled by a bank of oars on either side of the boat. The following year Fitch launched a 60-foot (18 m) boat powered by a steam engine driving several stern mounted oars. These oars paddled in a manner similar to the motion of a swimming duck's feet. With this boat he carried up to thirty passengers on numerous round-trip voyages between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey.

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