The steamboat opened trade routes within the US and Europe, but especially the early US. The cost of travel throughout the US dramatically decreased while safety and quality increased. The steamboat also allowed upstream river navigation, impossible without paddling, opening vast areas of land to development.

Early Efforts

De Jouffroy allegedly had a predecessor steamboat in 1776. He invented his while in a military prison where he was sent for being wild and unruly. De Jouffroy was denied a license to use his ship and died in poverty in the Hotel des Invalides from cholera.

In 1785, American John Fitch invented the steamboat and demonstrated his steam-powered boat to the Continental Congress. He saw the steamboat as a way to more safely navigate the early US via rivers, after being captured by Native Americans, who handed him to the British, who (nine months later) freed him. Fitch, along with three others, received a narrow patent from the newly created patent office because other innovators, including James Rumsey, had developed a similar type of boat.

Fitch operated a commercial boat service that eventually failed, and committed suicide in 1798. Part of the reason for his failure to commercialize the boat is tension with his investors. Depending upon the narrative, he either married his lead investors mistress, after she became pregnant from the investor, or impregnated his investor’s mistress. Either way, this caused a rift from which he never financially recovered.

William Symington launched a steamboat in Scotland in 1785, creating several iterations and variations for use as a pleasure boat, a canal boat, and a tugboat. He built and patented two entirely different engines, both low-pressure steam-based. Both worked but investors were not interested. His boats were a commercial failure and he abandoned the business, dying in debt.

Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton was an aspiring artist, demonstrating enthusiasm not commensurate with his talent. An American visiting England, he transformed himself into a civil engineer, building canals. For this, he relied on his artistic skills, creating nice paintings to find financing and political support. He went to post-revolutionary France and built a working submarine.

Fulton met American Robert Livingston in France and they formed a partnership to create a steamboat business back in the US. Fulton worked on many small prototypes and eventually built a working model on the Seine. Livingston, a trade ambassador, working with American James Monroe, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with Napoleon, making him especially politically influential on his return to the US.

Livingston lost interest in the boat. In 1805, Fulton changed allegiance from France to England, working with the English navy to build a submarine. His ship never worked but the English paid him £12,000 for the effort. More importantly, the English licensed Fulton the right to purchase a Boulton & Watt engine that, at the time, forbidden for export to the US due to the American Revolution.


Back in the US, in 1806, Fulton used the engine and perfected Fitch’s boat ー using a water-wheel propelled by an engine (the opposite of a mill propelled by a waterwheel) ー and created a successful steamboat service about a decade after Fitch’s death. Despite the waterwheel, Fulton is said to have invented nothing new besides a business model. Rather than relying on patents, Fulton relied primarily on exclusive waterway navigation rights secured by Livingston. Fulton’s first ship, the Clermont, sailed on Aug. 17, 1807.

Fulton became a shipping baron and went into countless history books, wrongfully, as the innovator of the steamboat. Henry Miller Shreve eventually busted Fulton’s river monopoly via litigation and introduced high-pressure steam engines. “Never,” wrote Fulton, “did a single encouraging remark, a bright hope or a warm good wish, cross my path,” Fulton said about his work to create a commercial steam-engine business (Evans, Harold. They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators.)