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John Fitch

John Fitch (January 21, 1743 – July 2, 1798) was an American inventor, clockmaker, and bronzesmith who built the first recorded steam powered ship in the United Statesmarker. He also invented the first recorded working model of a steam railway locomotive. His visitations with President George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and others resulted in the formation of the US Patent Office shortly after the birth of the nation as he attempted to consolidate his state granted steamboat patents into a US patent. A Painting showing Fitch working on one of his models of steamboats appears in the US Capitol in a Fresco by Constantino Brumidi . He is mentioned in the personal letters of several historical figures including George Washington, Ben Franklin , Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Early life

Fitch was born in Windsor, Connecticutmarker, on a farm that is part of present-day South Windsor, Connecticutmarker. He received little formal schooling and eventually apprenticed himself to a clockmaker. Following his apprenticeship in Hartford, he opened an unsuccessful brass foundry in East Windsor, Connecticutmarker and then a brass and silversmith business in Trenton, New Jerseymarker which succeeded for a time but was wiped out in the American Revolution.

He served briefly during the Revolution and then left the army to manage a gun factory in Trenton. Fitch also made considerable money selling beer and tobacco to the Continental Army. In 1780, he began work as a surveyor in Kentucky where he recorded a land claim of for himself. Later, surveying in the Northwest Territory he was captured by Indians and turned over to the British who eventually released him.

Steam-powered ship

By 1785, Fitch was done with surveying and settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvaniamarker 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 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 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.

Fitch was granted a patent on August 26, 1791, after a battle with James Rumsey, who had created a similar invention. Unfortunately the newly-created Patent Commission did not award the broad monopoly patent that Fitch had asked for, but a patent of the modern kind, for the new design of Fitch's steamboat. It also awarded patents to Rumsey and John Stevens for their steamboat designs, and the loss of a monopoly caused many of Fitch's investors to leave his company. While his boats were mechanically successful, Fitch failed to pay sufficient attention to construction and operating costs and was unable to justify the economic benefits of steam navigation.

Fitch's idea would be turned profitable by Robert Fulton, decades later. Though Fulton was able to obtain a monopoly in the state of New York, because of the powerful influence of his partner Robert Livingston, he was unable to gain a US Patent largely because one of Fitch's company, William Thornton, had become a clerk of the Patent Office and bitterly opposed Fulton. Fitch also received a patent the same year from Francemarker, and is more widely credited than Fulton in Europe for the invention and development of the steamboat.

Steam locomotive

John Fitch invented the steam railroad locomotive during the 1780s and demonstrated his little working model of it before President George Washington and his cabinet in Philadelphia. The model still exists at the Ohio Historical Society Museum in Columbus. Although he hoped to win backing for a full-scale working locomotive, interest in it was not forthcoming, and the locomotive was soon forgotten.

In 1802, the Englishman Richard Trevithick invented a full-size steam locomotive that, in 1804, hauled the world's first locomotive-hauled railway train, and within a short time the British invention led to the development of actual railways. Americans, by that time ignorant of Fitch's pioneering invention a quarter of a century earlier, began importing English locomotives and copying them.


A memorial to Fitch stands in Bardstown, Kentuckymarker's Courthouse Square, complete with a replica of his first steamboat. Fitch Monument also stands in Warminster Township, Pennsylvaniamarker at the spot he first conceived the idea for a steam driven vehicle.

John Fitch High School was built on Bloomfield Avenue in Windsor, Connecticutmarker in the 1934. It became an elementary school in the 1950s. The building was converted to elderly housing in the 1990s, but its facade still bears Fitch's name and likeness carved in stone. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There is also a John Fitch Elementary School in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

The state of Connecticut has designated US Route 5 through South Windsor and East Windsor, as the "John Fitch Boulevard." The four-lane highway runs parallel to, and often within site of, the Connecticut River. There is also a "John Fitch Highway" in Fitchburg, Massachusettsmarker.

Fitch's journal and memoirs were published many years later as The Autobiography of John Fitch. Though told with the biases of a bitter and disappointed man, they are a vivid and moving picture of his times and unhappy life.

The state of New Jersey designated a section of Rt. 29 in Trenton, along the Delaware river, The John Fitch Parkway.

See also


  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  5. Ohio Historical Society – catalogue search (model of steam locomotive)
  6. Steamtown NHS: American Steam Locomotives – includes photo of the model railway locomotive
  7. National Register of Historic Places Register Listing


  • Boyd, Thomas, Poor John Fitch: Inventor of the Steamboat (1972) Manchester, NH: Ayer Company Publishers ISBN 0836956842; ISBN 978-0836956849
  • Prager, Frank , editor (1976) The Autobiography of John Fitch Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society
  • Watson, John F. (1850), Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, King and Baird
  • Wescott, Thompson (1857), The life of John Fitch, the inventor of the steamboat, Philadelphia: J. B. Lipponcott & Company.
  • "John Fitch." Dictionary of American Biography. 1928-1936.
  • "John Fitch." Webster's American Biographies. G&C Merriam Co. 1975.

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