AMERICAN PATRIOT, LAWYER, STATESMAN, ENGINEER, INVENTOR AND INDUSTRIALIST (1749- 1838)
BY: TOM FRASCELLA SEPTEMBER 2012
John Stevens was born in 1738 in New York City but raised in Perth Amboy N.J. the son of a wealthy New York ship-building family. Home schooled he attended Kings College now Columbia University graduating in 1768. Three years later he was admitted to the bar but never entered private practice. During the American Revolution he joined the Continental Army where he was utilized primarily in raising funds and supplies for General Washington. He was rewarded with the rank of colonel. As a result of his social status and war efforts he was acquainted with many of the most influential revolutionary war era figures.
In 1782 Stevens married and in 1784, just after the end of the Revolutionary War he bought at auction a large tract of land that had previously been owned by pro British loyalists in northern New Jersey. The tract of land, a part of which would become his private estate would eventually develop as the City of Hoboken, N.J. Over the next several years he purchased a ferry crossing enterprise between Hoboken N.J. and New York City, became treasurer of the State of New Jersey and a representative to the Constitutional Convention. In 1788 Mr. Stevens was invited with George Washington and members of Congress to a demonstration in Trenton, N.J. by John Fitch. Fitch was seeking funding for his invention, a steam powered boat. During the demonstration Fitch’s oar banked propulsion craft attained a five m.p.h. upstream maximum speed. Stevens a ship builder and ferry company operator became fascinated with the possibilities of steam powered navigation and it became a life long passion and interest.
Before the fledging U.S. Congress Mr. Stevens successfully advocated between 1788- 1790 that the U.S. needed Patent Laws to protect American intellectual property. Upon the passing of the Patent Laws, which he largely wrote, in 1791 he filed along with John Fitch and James Rumsey patents relating to the design of steam powered boats. The Patent Office issued partial patents to each of the three, which resulted in it virtually being impossible for Fitch or Rumsey to secure financial backing for their craft development.
Eventually Stevens formed a partnership with his brother-in-law Robert Livingston and mechanic Nicholas Roosevelt to develop a steam powered water craft. Mr. Livingston an individual with deep New York political contacts was able to secure an exclusive temporary charter from the State of New York to operate steam powered watercraft on the Hudson River. The charter allowed the men to obtain financing but required that the enterprise produce a steamboat capable of obtaining a speed of 5 m.p.h. Stevens began experimenting with designs and fixed on a two screw propeller prolusion system feed by a high pressure steam boiler. After several years of work the result was the production of a small prototype craft named the “Little Julianna” which crossed the Hudson in 1804. However, in trials the craft failed to reach the required speed. With time to meet the speed requirements running down, Stevens began planning a larger more powerful version of the Julianna.
Panicked by the lack of progress and Stevens insistence on the radical screw propeller driving mechanism, Livingston now U.S. Ambassador to France, sought out American Robert Fulton in Paris and formed a second design team partnership which Stevens refused to be a part of. In 1807 Robert Fulton successfully completed and demonstrated his steamboat the “Claremont” on the Hudson River which used a mechanical bank of oars and achieved the required 5 m.p.h. benchmark. This allowed his partnership to secure the long term exclusive steamboat charter rights on the Hudson River. As a result, of this new mode of transportation a trip time from New York City to the State Capital in Albany reduced from two weeks by wagon and ten days by sailing ship to thirty-two hours by steamboat.
The following year Stevens completed his 100 foot long “Phoenix” which was propeller driven and also was able to achieve speeds in excess of the 5.m.p.h. However, Stevens was blocked out of operation on the Hudson as his brother-in law had the exclusive Charter rights. Undeterred Stevens then sought and obtained a charter to operate exclusively on the Delaware River. In 1808 Stevens’ Phoenix” left New York Harbor heading south to the Delaware Bay. In so doing the “Phoenix” became the first steam powered ship to navigate upon any Ocean in the world. Once the Phoenix had arrived at Philadelphia Stevens set up ferry service and began operations between Philadelphia and Bordentown N.J.
In 1810 he turned the operation of the ferry service over to his sons, who were talented engineers and innovators in their own right. Johns Stevens turned his attention to developing “rail” transportation. In 1815 he acquired the first ever State charter to build a “rail” line in the State of New Jersey. His concept was simple in that he argued that it was cheaper and more efficient to move cargo by rail rather than build canals. Canals at this time represented the most efficient way to move freight from the interior of the country by systems of canals, locks, rivers and lakes. His proposal and intention was to have mules pull freight cars as steam powered locomotives were not developed yet. This Charter’s time limit ran without any track being built for lack of financial backing for the project.
In the period 1815 – 1825 Stevens’ sons together with a talented mechanical engineer by the name of Isaac Dripps continued to make a number of improvements to both nautical steam engine design as well as ship design at their Bordentown location. In fact it would be fair to say that their Bordentown location represented one of the most advanced workshops for mechanically powered nautical ships in the world at that time.
However, John Stevens himself continued to be focused on “rail” transportation and carefully studied the advancements developing in England of steam powered rail locomotion. In 1825 he and his son Robert designed and built a small steam powered locomotive and a circular track at his Hoboken estate. As a result John Stevens is credited with building the first operational steam locomotive in the U.S. His experiments convinced him that this mode of transportation could work and held the future of U.S. transportation.
In 1830 John Stevens secured a second rail charter from New Jersey and formed the Camden Amboy railroad which he headquartered in Trenton. Later that same year he sent his son Robert to England to purchase the most advanced locomotive he could find available. Robert was also charged with purchasing a substantial amount of iron rail for track. It is recorded that on the way to England Robert Stevens thinking about the design of the track to be purchased came up with the concept of an “H” shaped track. Upon his arrival in England he had the English rail manufactures build the track to this new design specification. He made no attempt to patent this design. Robert Stevens unpatented “H” design which reduced the possibility of derailment became the standard rail track design in the world.
Returning from England in 1831 with several ship loads of track and the most advanced Locomotive engine available Robert Stevens unloaded his cargo in Bordentown. The task of both building an experimental track and starting the rail line northward fell to Robert Stevens and his work shops at Bordentown. The task of assembling the Locomotive fell to Isaac Dripps the chief mechanical engineer for the Stevens’ steamboat ferry company. Interesting the British manufacturer had shipped the Locomotive in pieces and had not sent assembly instructions. Undaunted Dripps who had never seen a locomotive not only assembled the engine but modified it with about a half dozen safety features. He also designed on his own initiative what we know as a cow-catcher. They named the engine the “John Bull”. The original restored “John Bull” engine is on public display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
During construction of the initial miles of track Robert Stevens began having trouble obtaining quarried stone for support of the rails. At the time track was secured by iron spikes driven into stone pillars which supported the track. Local New Jersey quarries which depended on convict labor could not produce the stone pillars fast enough and so Robert replaced the pillars with wooden cross ties, again a change that became standard in the industry. He also designed the fastening hook spike for use with the wooden cross ties.
In 1832 the first successful tests of the engine and tracks were conducted, with John Stevens aboard he was eighty-three at the time. Shortly thereafter from Bordentown the C&A Railway began operation extending track northward toward Perth Amboy and southward toward Camden . The C&A railroad’s success placed central N.J. squarely in line with the early development of what would be come the Northeast transit corridor. Rail transportation as well as canal and river transportation access was a critical part the early foundation of what allowed for Trenton’s industrial base. That base would in turn open up opportunity to many immigrants seeking jobs and a new life in America.
Stevens continued to lead an active and productive life for another six years. During his final years he developed two concept designs that he promoted but that would be built by others was a tunnel under the Hudson connecting New Jersey and New York City and trains that would operate on elevated platforms for crowded urban settings.
In the final year of his life John Stevens who was still active secured 1838, a U.S. Navy Department grant to design and build an iron clad steam powered naval war vessel. This project however passed on to his son Robert after his father’s death. The Navy eventually stopped funding of the project due to cost over runs. The problem with the cost over runs was not that an iron clad could not be built but rather Robert’s design was out in front of the technology of the day. Robert’s design was for a partially iron clad vessel with revolving turrets, water tight compartments below deck and extensive pumping systems. The ship as he designed it was capable in combat situations of flooding its lower compartments lowering its profile and reducing its exposure to enemy fire. Even after the Navy withdrew support Robert continued to experiment with the ship from his own resources. During the Civil War a much simplified version was commissioned and served in the U.S. Coast Guard seeing limit duty during the war.
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