No field of invention seems to have thad a greater number of inventors and more obstacle to success than the field of steam.
It is understandable, when we consider that the whole idea of steam was foreign to people who for centuries had used beasts
of burden, water-power, or their two hands and a strong back to accomplish work. Agriculture and fishing were the basic means
of livelihood in Colonial America. These required a knowledge of the winds, weather, the sun, and the tides. Men, however, had
learned to make these elements work for them.
It took many years and a lifetime of many inventors before steam was accepted. John Fitch, a pioneer in steam, belongs to that type
of Americans called the "whittling boys". From this group came some of America's earliest inventors. They had very little formal
schooling and no knowledge of mathematics. With a knfe and a block of wood they fashioned things that expressed their ideas
and dreams. Often in time the model they fashiioned became a useful invention. "Whittling boys" were sometimes disappointed to
their parents, who needed strong sons to work the farms. This was the case in the Fitch family.
John Fitch grew u in Connecticut under a stern father who underfed and overworked him. An undersize boy, John had no inclination
toward agriculture, but he did show mechanical ability and he could "whittle". Dissapointee, the elder Fitch denied the boy an
educatiion. By the time Fitch was beyond the apprentice age, he had neither occupation nor prospects. He marred a woman who
nagged him. They had two children by the time Fitch was in his early twenties. Despairing of ever making enough to support his family,
Fitch left home and became a wanderer.
For a time he made brass buttons from discarded kettles. When he had a supply, Fitch would walk around the countryside peddling
buttons. During the period before the Revolutionary war, he acquired a little money with which he bought sixteen hundred acres of
land in the Northwest territory. It was while he was surveying this land that he saw the great need for steamboats on the western
rivers. He thought also of steam carriages but as he strogled the poor roads of that time he gave up this idea as impractical. On his
return to the East, Fitch took his idea of a steamboat to a Swiss watchmaker, Harry Voight. Voight assembled a steam engine for
a strange-looking boat that the two men tried out on the Delaware river.
The boat, which had six paddles on each side, chugged up the river about as fast as a man could walk. Although it made entertainment
for those who watched the first trip, Fitch could not interest men with money to invest in his idea. Some of these men had invested
their money in a stagecoach line between Philadelphia and Trenton, and they did not want steamboat competition.
In the next few years Fitch built five boats and carried passengers on schedule. His most successful boat attained the speed of
eight miles an hour. Some writers of the period declared that the boats were remarkable in good performance. Others claimed
that they were constantly getting out of order. The fact remains that all later steamboats were based on the five model Fitch built,
from the side paddle-wheel to the screw propeller type. Fitch proved that all his boats could work.
Very few people recognized Fitch as a genius. Neverthless, he was the first American to use steam to propel a boat. He spent