Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 14:
JOHN FITCH

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we meet a sad American inventor. 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.

John Fitch was born in 1743 in Connecticut. His mother died when he was four -- his father was harsh and rigid. A sense of injustice and failure marked his life from the start. Pulled from school when he was eight and made to work on his hated family farm, he became, in his own words, "almost crazy after learning."

He finally fled the farm and took up silversmithing. He married in 1776 but soon left his nagging wife, who couldn't bear his manic-depressive extremes. For several years he explored the Ohio River basin, spent time as a prisoner of the British and Indians, and eventually returned to the Colonies afire with a new obsession. He went to Pennsylvania, where he set out to make a steam-powered boat to navigate the western rivers.

In 1785 and '86 Fitch and a competing builder named Rumsey looked for money to build steamboats. The methodical Rumsey gained the support of George Washington and the U.S. Government. But Fitch found private support and then rapidly reinvented a sort of Watt engine, moving from mistake to mistake until he produced America's first successful boat, well ahead of Rumsey.

It was an odd machine -- propelled by a set of Indian-canoe paddles. Yet, by the Summer of 1790 Fitch used it in a successful passenger line between Philadelphia and Trenton. He logged some 3000 miles at 6 to 8 mph that summer. But in the end it failed commercially. People just didn't take it seriously. All they saw was a curiosity -- a stunt. And Fitch -- possibly because of his personality extremes -- couldn't sustain his financial backing.

This failure broke Fitch. He retired to Bardstown, Kentucky, and struck a deal with the local innkeeper. For 150 acres of land, the man agreed to put him up and give him a pint of whiskey every day -- while he drank himself to death. When that failed, Fitch put up another 150 acres to raise the dose to 2 pints a day. When that failed, Fitch finally gathered enough opium pills to do himself in.

They'd called him "Crazy Fitch," and now they buried him under a footpath in the central square. In 1910 the DAR finally put a marker over the spot, identifying him as a veteran of the American Revolution. I'm haunted by the picture of this six-foot-two figure in a beaver-skin hat and a black frock coat -- stumbling the streets of Bardstown -- the butt of children's jokes -- unable to see that his dream had not failed. History honors Fitch far better than he honored himself, for it was he who set the stage for Robert Fulton. He made it clear that powered boats were feasible.

A person who wants to function creatively has to function at risk. Watt and Fulton took risks, and won big -- but not before they, too, had suffered failure. The trick, of course, is to lose one day and come back to win the next. And that's what happens when we take a healthy pleasure and confidence in our creative processes.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Flexner, J. T., Steamboats Come True. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1978.

Harris, C. M., The Improbable Success of John Fitch. American Inventions: A Chronicle of Achievements that Changed the World. New York, Barnes & Noble Books, 1995, pp. 11-17.

This episode has been revised as Episode 1397.



Photo by John Lienhard

John Fitch's Grave in Bardstown



From the 1832 Edinburgh Encyclopaedia

Fitch's First Steamboat Propelled with Indian Canoe Paddles


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.