By: Tom Frascella Jan. 2012
I consider John Fitch (January 21, 1743-July 2, 1798) American Patriot and Inventor to be one of the key founders of what would become the later 19th century American Industrial Revolution. As such his contributions to America can be directly linked to America’s industrial success which provided so many eastern and southern European immigrants with the job opportunities that enticed them to the United States in the mid 19th through early 20th centuries. The fact that Trenton is central to the story of Mr. Fitch is in no small way related to the story of how the many San Felese came to settle in Trenton starting in the 1860’s. As I consider him a very important figure in our history I am including a brief essay profile of his life as part of our website.
John Fitch was born on a farm in Windsor, Connecticut in 1743. As he apparently had little interest in farming at the age of seventeen he studied the craft of land surveying and then briefly hired out as a merchant seaman. Upon his return from the sea he eventually apprenticed as a clockmaker in Hartford. His apprenticeship however did not include learning watchmaking something that held some fascination for him. As an indication of what would be his future mechanical talent he taught himself watchmaking, as well as clock and watch repair during the time of his apprenticeship. Following successful conclusion of his apprenticeship he opened an unsuccessful brass foundry and watch repair business in East Windsor, Connecticut. His business failure placed a great strain on his marriage which also began to fail.
Seeking a fresh start he made his way to Trenton, New Jersey in 1767. There he was employed by Matthew Clunn, a tinsmith where he made brass and silver buttons. Subsequently, he went to work for James Wilson, a silversmith, who he eventually bought out. For the next eight years his silversmith business, located on what is now N. Warren St. was quite successful. Pieces of his silversmith work are rare but can still be found in some local museum collections. At the start of the American Revolution Mr. Fitch sided with the American cause. He petitioned and won a contract to repair American military arms, a task that his foundry and mechanical skills made him very prepared to do.
By the winter of 1776 it is said that Fitch had sixty employees working for him in Trenton engaged in weapon repair. Unfortunately, the British with their Hessian allies occupied Trenton that year and Mr. Fitch’s pro revolutionary work was discovered. This was not surprising as Trenton had a significant Loyalist element in its population. The British set out to arrest him and he narrowly escaped. However, they did burn down his business.
With his business destroyed Mr. Fitch then joined the Continental Army under the command of George Washington. During the early stages of the conflict he was designated Armorer by the Committee of Safety. It is known that during the Fall of 1777 Mr. Fitch provided food supplies to Washington’s troops, at his own expense, while they were in Philadelphia. Mr. Fitch also provided supplies at his own expense to Washington’s troops at Valley Forge the following Winter and Spring. In 1780 Mr. Fitch received an appointment as deputy surveyor in Kentucky. While there he filed a personal claim for some 1,600 acres in that territory. While returning from Kentucky to Philadelphia he was captured by Indians in 1782 and turned over to the British. He spent the better part of the next year aboard a British prison ship until he was released a t the end of the war. Following the war he returned to surveying this time in what was then considered the Northwest territory. It is while navigating the rivers and lakes in the Northwest that he conceived of a steam powered boat.
After he completed his survey work he moved back east to Southampton Pennsylvania. In 1785 he published for sale a map based upon some of his survey work which he titled “Ten New States”. Hoping to obtain funding in that same year he presented to the Continental Congress a model of his concept with several banks of oars powered by a steam engine and petitioned the Congress for a Patent. Congress declined funding and the Patent. Failing to obtain government backing he formed a company with several local Trenton businessmen. They obtained a grant of exclusive operation to operate steam powered vessels on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River for a period of fourteen years forward. This was the first grant of its kind concerning steam power locomotion on waterways in history. James Watts of England had invented a small steam engine, however England would not export the technology to the U.S. Fitch moved to Philadelphia where together with fellow clockmaker and inventor Henry Voigt they developed their own version of a small steam engine to power his proposed craft.
During the years between the end of the American Revolution and the adoption of the U. S. Constitution the Continental Congress met in various locations, New York, Philadelphia, Princeton and Trenton giving each location a claim to being briefly the U.S. Capital. In 1787 Fitch gave a demonstration on the Delaware River at Trenton of his first working vessel for members of the Federal Constitutional Convention delegation who were meeting at Trenton. The vessel had twelve side paddles and could move at approximately 3-4 miles per hour. Among the delegates in attendance was John Stevens, a lawyer, engineer and son of a wealthy New York shipbuilder.
Over the next several years Fitch and Voight continued to develop their designs leading to the launching of the vessel the sixty foot Perseverance in 1790. In that same year Fitch began ferrying passengers between Bordentown and Philadelphia. In the summer of 1790 he estimated that his vessel traveled back and forth along the river a total of between 1,300 and 3,000 miles.
In 1790 the U.S. Second Congress established the first U.S. Patent Law. It should be noted that the first Patent Law passed by this early Congress was under a Union of just Twelve States, Rhode Island having not yet joined the Union as the Thirteenth State. Apparently between 1790 and 1791 five applications for patents for steamboats were received by the Patent office. The applications were submitted by James Rumsey, John Fitch, Nathan Read, Issac Biggs and John Stevens. Further information was requested by the Board further reducing the applicant pool to four, James Rumsey, John Fitch, Nathan Read and John Stevens.
In 1791 the U.S. Patent Office granted all four individuals non exclusive patents. This pretty much insured that no one would get the financial backing they needed. Fitch briefly went to France to see if he could secure backing there but failed. He returned to the U.S. in 1794 and attempted to move to his land holdings in Kentucky. James Rumsey went to England to seek support however he suffered a fatal stroke while there and died on December 18, 1792. Nathan Read gave up on inventing and spent the rest of his life in politics and as a judge. John Stevens continued to work on the concept and in the late 1790’s formed a partnership with his brother-in-law Robert Livingston to build a working vessel to be constructed on his estate in Hoboken N.J.
Mr. Fitch’s troubles continued to follow him. Upon arriving in Kentucky he found the land he had filed claim to a decade before was now occupied by squatters. For the next four years he was consumed with legal matters by seeking to evict those on his land. In 1798 completely depressed he committed suicide either by shooting himself as some sources say or overdosing on a combination of opium and alcohol. In either case a sad end for a man who had done and created so much in his brief forty-five years.
The full extent of Mr. Fitch’s creativity was not known until well after his death in 1798. About twenty years after Robert Fulton’s steamboat sailed on the Hudson in 1807, two years after the 1791 patents lapsed 1805, an independent commission determined that Fulton’s design and vessel of 1807 were substantially the same as that of John Fitch’ vessel of 1790. In addition, some years after his death it was discovered in the home in Kentucky where Fitch had resided sketches and a model for a steam engine locomotive that he designed to operate on rails. This means that Fitch came up with a working plan for a train engine a decade before it started to be developed in England.
Sadly for Mr. Fitch, Trenton, and the United States the failure of the country to sponsor and promote his inventive genius delayed the development of these two crucial modes of transportation by at least a decade. It also shifted the initial development to England stimulating their industrial revolution and delaying it here.
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