John Fitch (1743-1798)

John Fitch (1743-1798)

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Credit: SHEILA TERRY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Caption: Until the development of the railroads after 1850, the principal means of transporting goods in the US was largely by river and was restricted to downstream traffic. The need for powered boats led to many proposals. The first successful design was demonstrated by John Fitch of Philadelphia on the Delaware River in 1787. In the “Perseverance” steamboat the steam power was provided by a wood-burning boiler. It had six sets of vertical wooden oars acting as paddles. Whilst the three forward sets were immersed and moving backwards to give the thrust, the other oars were raised and moving forward in a reciprocating manner. The vessel could navigate upstream at 3 miles per hour and covered over a 1000 miles in 1790, but with alternative competition in the Delaware River area it was economically unsuccessful. Problems in protecting his inventions helped establish the US patent system.

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Keywords: delaware river, history of science, history of steam engines, history of technology, history of transport, john fitch, paddle steamer, perseverance, philadelphia, river boat, steam power, steamboat, transport, transportation

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