THE FIRST STEAMBOAT
by John H. Lienhard
Click here for audio of Episode 1084.
For fifteen minutes, the boat chuffed past
cheering crowds. Then it started breaking up under the
pounding of the engine. Jouffroy managed to ease the
boat to shore before anyone spotted the failure. He
bowed to the cheering crowd. Then he sent affidavits to
Paris, testifying to his success. After a long debate,
the French Academy of Sciences decided the town of Lyon
never could've succeeded where Paris had failed. They
denied him a license.
Today, let's go looking for the first steamboat.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
We tell our schoolchildren
that Robert Fulton invented the first steamboat.
What Fulton did do was locate an efficient new Watt
engine in a warehouse. And in 1807 he installed it
in a well-designed boat. We had a huge network of
inland rivers we badly needed to navigate. Fulton
enjoyed immediate commercial success.
He had access to a lot of new technology by 1807,
and he put his boat together with an ease that
would've been impossible just a few years before.
His patent makes no pretense about inventing the
steamboat. It acknowledges 30 years of early
The story of one of those boats began in France.
Two French artillery officers passed time in camp
talking about how they might use steam to power
boats. One officer, the Count d'Auxiron, left the
army in 1770 to work full time on a boat. By 1772
he'd talked the French government into promising
they'd give the first successful builder exclusive
license to run the boat for fifteen years.
D'Auxiron installed a huge old Newcomen steam
engine in a boat. The engine was so heavy that the
boat sank. After three years of lawsuits, d'Auxiron
died of apoplexy.
That would've ended it, but, while
d'Auxiron was at work, another young aristocrat,
the Marquis de Jouffroy, got involved in a duel. He
landed in a military prison on the isle of Ste
Marguerite. That's the same prison where the famous
Man in the Iron Mask was held. During years of
enforced contemplation he watched the boats below,
and he thought about d'Auxiron.
When he got out in 1775, Jouffroy went to d'Auxiron
and his supporters. He decided they were on the
wrong track, and he left Paris for Lyon. There he
built his own Newcomen-style engine and, in 1783,
made a trial run with a 150-foot boat on the Saone
Finally, the French Revolution drove Jouffroy out of
France. He died poor and embittered. Still, he hadn't
failed. For, after Jouffroy, Fulton could only be an
aftermath. Fulton is really just America's thin claim
to an invention that'd been proven feasible in Europe
-- long, long before.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Flexner, J.T., Steamboats Come True.
Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1978.
L'expérience de Jouffroy d'Abbans en
1783 et la navigation à vapeur dans la
région lyonnaise. Musé
Historique de Lyon, Hotel Gadagne, 1983. (This is a
catalog of Jouffroy materials from the Lyon
Mollat, M., Les Origines de la Navigation a
Vapeur. Paris: Presses Universitaires de
This episode is a revised version of Episode 6. My thanks to Philippe
Vandermarlier for providing the Lyon Museum
catalog. And my thanks to Jouffroy's relative,
Christophe Zeilas, for providing me both with
additional counsel and the two images above.
An artist's impression of Jouffroy's
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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