1902 Encyclopedia > John Fitch

John Fitch
American inventor

JOHN FITCH (1743-1798), one of the first inventors in connexion with steam navigation, was born at Windsor, Connecticut, January 21, 1743. He was the son of a farmer, and received the usual common school education. At the age of seventeen he went to sea, but he discontinued his sailor life after a few voyages, and became successively a clock maker, a brassfounder, and a silversmith. During the rebellion he followed the trade of sutler to the American troops, and amassed in that way a considerable sum of money, with which he bought land in Virginia. He was appointed deputy-surveyor for Kentucky in 178U, and when returning to Philadelphia in the following year he was captured by the Indians, but shortly afterwards regained his liberty. About this time he began an exploration of the north-western regions, with the view of preparing a map of the district; and while sailing on the great western rivers, the idea occurred to him that they might be navigated by steam. He endeavoured by the sale of his map to find money for the carrying out of his projects, but was unsuccessful. He next applied for assistance to the legislatures of different States, but though each reported in favourable terms of his invention, none of them would agree to grant him any pecuniary assistance. He was successful, however, in 1786, in forming a company for the prosecution of his enterprise, and shortly afterwards a steam-packet of his invention was launched on the Delaware. His claim to be the inventor of steam-navigation was disputed by James Rumsey of Virginia, but Fitch obtained exclusive rights in steam-navigation in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, while a similar pri» vilege was granted to Rumsey in Virginia, Maryland, and New York. A steam-boat built by Fitch conveyed passengers for hire on the Delaware in the summer of 1790, but the undertaking was a losing one, and led to the dissolution of the company. In 1793 he endeavoured to introduce his invention into France, but met with no success. On his return to America he found his property overrun by squatters, and reaping from his invention nothing but disappointment and poverty, he committed suicide in 1798. He left behind him a record of his adventures and misfortunes, " inscribed to his children and futnre posterity;" and from this a biography was compiled by Thompson Westcott (Philadelphia, 1857).

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