John Fitch - Encyclopedia

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JOHN FITCH (1743-1798), American pioneer of steam navigation, was born at Windsor, Connecticut, on the 21st of January 1743. He was the son of a farmer, and received the usual common school education. At the age of seventeen he went to sea, but he discontinued his sailor life after a few voyages and became successively a clockmaker, a brassfounder and a silversmith. During the War of Independence he was a sutler to the American troops, and amassed in that way a considerable sum of money, with which he bought land in Virginia. He was. appointed deputy-surveyor for Kentucky in 1780, and when returning to Philadelphia in the following year he was captured by the Indians, but shortly afterwards regained his liberty. About this time he began an exploration of the north-western regions, with the view of preparing a map of the district; and while sailing on the great western rivers, the idea occurred to him that they might be navigated by steam. He endeavoured by the sale of his map to find money for the carrying out of his. projects, but was unsuccessful. He next applied for assistance to the legislatures of different states, but though each reported in favourable terms of his invention, none of them would agree to grant him any pecuniary assistance. He was successful, however, in 1786, in forming a company for the prosecution of his enterprise, and shortly afterwards a steam-packet of his invention was launched on the Delaware. His claim to be the inventor of steam-navigation was disputed by James Rumsey of Virginia, but Fitch obtained exclusive rights in steam-navigation in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, while a similar privilege was granted to Rumsey in Virginia, Maryland and New York. A steam-boat built by Fitch conveyed passengers for hire on the Delaware in the summer of 1790, but the undertaking was a losing one, and led to the dissolution of the company. In 1793 he endeavoured to introduce his invention into France, but met with no success. On his return to America he found his property overrun by squatters, and reaping from his invention nothing but disappointment and poverty, he committed suicide at Bardstown, Kentucky, on the 2nd of July 1798.

He left behind him a record of his adventures and misfortunes, "inscribed to his children and future posterity"; and from this a biography was compiled by Thompson Westcott (Philadelphia, 1857.)

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