A life of this early American inventor, by Thompson Westcott, just published by Lippen-cott &Co., of Philadelphia, affords matter for intelligent comment. John Fitch was a native of Windsor, Conn., in which place he was born in 1743. His lot, in many respects, seems to have been surcharged with sadness. From early infancy to the last sad act in his life's drama—when he became weary of the world and put an end to his existence—he seams to have been the subject of misfortune and disappointment. When he attained to manhood he emigrated to Trenton, N. J., and having taught himself to be a watch and clockmaker, also a silver and brass smith, he commenced business for himself, and for a brief space was somewhat successful. But the war of the Eevolution having broken out, he was compelled to fly before the British army, sacrificing nearly all his property. On one occasion he was taken captive by the Indians, and retained a prisoner for a considerable time, during which he suffered incredible hardships. After the war of Independence had terminated, and peace had settled down upon the land, commerce and trade began once more to smile upon the mechanic arts. It was then that his inventive mind was directed to improvements in navigation, he having become convinced that some superior mode could be devised for propelling vessels on our noble rivers and lakes than by the old plans of oar, sail, or setting-poles. It is not generally known that Fitch constructed a steamboat in 1787, which made several trips on the river between Philadelphia and Burlington, N. J. This was eighteen years before Fulton's boat—the Clermont— made her first successful trip on the Hudson river. When it is taken into consideration that Fitch was poor, and that his steam engine and boiler were constructed in a very rude manner, it is a matter of surprise that his boat was able to make a single trip; that it made several does him great credit, as at that early day it completely demonstrated the practicability of steam navigation. Being deficient of means to have a good engine and boat built, he was not able to infuse the same enthusiasm regarding its success which he felt himself. By some he was looked upon as one "beside himself;" and generally he met with sneers where he should have found encouragement. Becoming discouraged at last, he took up his abode at Bardstown, Ky., where he ended his life in 1798. He often said that although his invention was then looked upon as visionary, the time would come when steamboats would be seen on every river of his native land. His prophecy has been fulfilled on a grander scale than he ever dreamed of. It is not a little remarkable that about the same time as Fitch's experiments were being conducted in America, efforts of a similar character were being carried out in Europe by Patrick Miller, of Dalswinton, Scotland, and neither of these two was aware of what the other was doing. It appears to us that these two cotemporaneous inventors deserve the credit of being original inventors of steam navigation—the one representing the Old, the other the New World. They were the first to demonstrate the practicability of steam navigation; and although they were not permitted to reap the frtiits of their inventions, thsy deserve the bonor.
This article was originally published with the title "Steam Navigation and John Fitch" in Scientific American 13, 46, 365 (July 1858)