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
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.
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
Fitch's First Steamboat Propelled with Indian Canoe
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.