Friday, February 20, 2009

The Idea For the Steamboat

John Fitch is not a name that immediately springs to mind if asked to name a great American Inventor. In fact, he could reasonably claim to have invented the steamboat decades ahead of Robert Fulton. If you visit the U.S. Capitol you will find a painting of John Fitch decorating one of the arches of that building. In fairness, Fulton never claimed to have invented the steamboat. But he and his partner, Robert Livingston, made it the first economically successful steamboat company by operating the North River steamboat (later called the Claremont) on the Hudson River between New York and Albany.

John Fitch was the complete opposite of Fulton in almost every way. Fulton was a learned man, a successful artist turned entrepreneur. Fitch was poorly educated, a sometime-clockmaker, button maker, and surveyor. But they shared a vision of how a successful steamboat could forever change commerce by allowing water navigation that was freed from the constraints of either currents or winds.

I am interested in Fitch because I am interested in how inventors and innovators think. How do they come up with their ideas? Is there anything in common between these influential creators that we can apply to today’s problems? Are these people somehow gifted with insights beyond the abilities of the rest of us? If we understood how the “Aha’s!” occurred, maybe we could learn how to be more creative or maybe even teach creativity.

John Fitch was born in 1743 and grew up in Connecticut, the fifth child of six in a poor, religiously-strict family. He went to school until he was ten after which his father pulled him out to work on his farm. He was a very bright child and devoured whatever books he could get his hands on. He taught himself advanced math and geography from books he read outside of school. Fitch was apprenticed at a young age to learn clock-making and he fulfilled his apprenticeship despite the fact that the clock maker only used John to work his farm fields and never taught him any of the skills of the clock-making trade. Fitch taught himself about clocks later by taking clocks apart to clean and repair them. He was taught a little about brass founding which he later used in a small successful business making and peddling buttons.

Fitch comes across in the histories as a cantankerous man who bickered his way through life. He was married just a year when he left his wife and newborn child because he couldn’t get along with his spouse. During the Revolutionary War, he tried to serve in various New Jersey militia units and was voted out of various officer positions by other people who took a dislike to him. He turned to surveying the lands west of the Appalachians after the war and was captured by Indians who sold Fitch and his companions as hostages to the British in Detroit. Along the way during the long enforced march to Detroit, he fought he fought with his fellow captives and later on with his captors. Eventually, he was released back in New York and returned to Pennsylvania where he had lived before his western adventures began.

None of this would suggest what came next. According to his own autobiography, Fitch and a friend were walking home after church one Sunday in the spring of 1785. Fitch was on foot because he had rented out his horse to help pay for the feed to keep the animal. Fitch was now in his forties and getting arthritic. His knee was hurting and they stopped for a moment to let him rest when a horse-drawn carriage whisked past them. According to Fitch, not having his horse he was suddenly struck with the idea of creating a horseless carriage. Not only that, and this is the part that I find hard to believe, he thought the power for this machine should come from steam. Why does this amaze me? Fitch had never even heard of a steam engine, let alone seen one. When he later described his idea to the minister, Fitch was chagrinned (his words) to have the minister show him a picture of a Newcomen steam engine in a book. At the time, there were only three steam engines in the whole of the United States and all of these engines were the large, stationary engines that were used to pump water.

Fitch went furiously about trying to work out the details of his horseless carriage idea for a few weeks. The details of what he came up with are missing but he apparently quickly came to the realization that the horseless carriage had bigger problems in terms of poor roads and other impediments to its success. Fitch did have direct experience with taking rafting boats down the Ohio River. These boats only made a one-way journey as it was just too difficult to row them back up the river against the current. They were broken up for timbers when they reached their destination. Fitch knew that a boat that could travel up-river easily would be of tremendous commercial value. Fitch also realized that it was not enough to come up with the idea. He had to have a way to protect it. He sought patent protection for the idea from state legislatures before there was a national patent law. He was locked in a furious battle with another independent inventor, James Rumsey, who also claimed to have invented the steamboat. For a fascinating account of all of this I would suggest you read Andrea Suttcliffe’s excellent book entitled Steam.

So how did it turn out? Badly. Fitch went on to actually create a working steamboat that operated for a year out of Philadelphia on the Delaware River but it was a financial loser and Fitch eventually gave up. He moved to Kentucky, turned to alcohol, and, legend has it, killed himself in despair in 1798. Not a happy ending to our story. Rumsey, by the way, also came to naught, dying in England of a stroke after an attempt to build a steamboat there.

So what to make of this story about Fitch? I find it amazing that Fitch could have conceived of a steam-powered horseless carriage when he had never in his life to that point seen or heard of a steam engine. That would be the equivalent of me thinking of using, I don’t know, an ion transmission de-rectifier (ficitious...I think?) to produce ethanol when I had never seen or heard of one. I think the story that Fitch told is an apocryphal one that he later invented for his own glory. Somewhere along the line, Fitch knew something about steam and harnessing it for power. He had heard of the concept or seen the power of steam in some other context. His trade work might have given him the insight. He was a brass founder and the melting and cooling of metal certainly involved water and quenching which produces steam. Being skeptical of his self-reported flash of insight may not be fair. He might truly have had just such a vision in which case, Fitch really was a genius. Fitch spent the rest of his life trying to realize his idea and he almost made it. The Delaware River was much slower flowing than the Hudson and there were decent enough roads by the river so that travelers had a viable alternative to his relatively slow steamboat.

Back to my original questions. Can we learn anything about creativity from Fitch? First, he was very bright and inquisitive. He described himself as a child as “crazy about learning”. He was tenacious. He was constantly looking for some way to make a buck. He could visualize a different future and he could also foresee the need for protection for his ideas. And his flash of insight first came as an answer to his own personal need. Fitch was too early. The technology wasn’t there yet, the patent laws weren’t yet in place. If Fitch had been born twenty years later, school children for generations might have learned that John Fitch, not Robert Fulton, invented the steamboat. So the last lesson is that ideas have their time and place. But hats off to John Fitch, American Inventor.

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