In 1787 John Fitch constructed the first steam-powered boat in America. Fitch was not the original inventor of the steamboat – that honor goes to the Scottish inventor James Watt – but Fitch successfully brought the technology to the United States.
In a letter to Washington’s Cabinet on June 22, 1790, Fitch applied for a patent for “applying steam to the purposes of propelling Vessels thro’ the water.” Fitch predicted that the new technology would have “great immediate utility” and would have “important advantages… not only to America, but to the World at large.”
Fitch was right, and the steam engine later brought about what Daniel Walker Howe calls the Transportation Revolution in America. The steam engine eased trade between distant regions, particularly benefiting farmers along the Mississippi River and Great Lakes region, and brought innumerable advantages to the American economy through the expansion of markets. Unfortunately for Fitch, his name is not normally associated with the rise of the steamboat in America – that honor goes to Robert Fulton, who was the first American to successfully market the steamboat for commercial use. In 1807, Fulton’s North River Steamboat began regular passenger services between New York City and Albany, a journey of 150 miles in only 32 hours.