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John Fitch


FITCH, JOHN (1743-1798), American pioneer in steam boat navigation, was born at Windsor, Conn., on Jan. 21, Largely self-educated, he became successively a clock-maker, brass-founder, silversmith and surveyor. During the Revolu tionary War he was made a lieutenant and at Trenton and Valley Forge furnished supplies to the American troops. After the sur render of Cornwallis, he became deputy-surveyor for Kentucky. In 1782, when near Marietta, 0., he was captured by the In dians, taken first to the British post at Detroit, thence to Mont real and there later released. He returned to eastern Pennsyl vania where early in 1785 he first conceived the idea of utilizing the power of steam in navigation. He built a model steamboat, with a small engine made of brass and wooden paddle wheels, which he tested on a mill pond near Davisville, Pennsylvania. To gain funds with which to build a commercial steamboat, he published in 1785 his "Map of the Northwest." In 1786 he constructed a boat propelled by steam, which was operated on the Delaware river at Philadelphia. In the same year New Jersey enacted a law giving Fitch exclusive rights for boats propelled by steam; in 1787 Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and Virginia passed similar laws. Fitch applied to the legislatures of several States for pecuniary aid in developing his invention, but without result. He succeeded, however, in building a larger steamboat in 1787, and in 1790 he operated between Philadelphia and Trenton a steamboat, making regularly advertised trips and carrying both freight and passengers.

But these undertakings, proving financially unsuccessful, were abandoned, and Fitch failed also in his attempt in 1793 to intro duce steam navigation into France. While in the operation of his various steamboats Fitch made use of steam-propelled oars, paddle wheels and a primitive type of screw, he was unable to convince the public of the practical value of steam navigation. In 1796 he went again to Kentucky, where he found his lands overrun by squatters. Reaping from his inventions nothing but disappointment and poverty, his health gave way and he died at Bardstown, Ky. on July 2, 1798. According to Westcott, his first biographer, he took his own life, but this is now disputed. In 1927 a national monument, provided by Congress in recogni tion of his inventions, was erected in Bardstown.

See Thompson Westcott, The Life of John Fitch, based on Fitch's autobiographical records (Phila. 1857, ed. 2, 1878) ; R. C. Fitch, His tory of the Fitch Family (1929) .

steam, steamboat, navigation and inventions