Learn About the Interesting History of Steamboats

Long before there were cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes, people used waterways and boats to travel. They would use boats for transporting goods and people from place to place. One of the major downfalls of water transport is that it’s slow, and the speed of travel greatly depended on the water current and manpower.

Due to this problem, the steamboat was created. Steamboats have an engine that burns coal to turn water into steam, powering the boat. The steam-powered boats could travel at a speed of up to five miles per hour. The steam was used to manage a propeller or a paddlewheel. This soon revolutionized travel and trade and dominated the waterways by the 1800s.

If you want to learn more steamboat facts, read here. But if you’re wondering how the steamboats came into existence, read on to learn more!

History of Steamboats

Early Steam Engines

Early attempts of powering a boat by steam were pioneered by English inventor Thomas Newcomen and French inventor Denis Papin. Papin invented the steam digester and experimented with closed cylinders and pistons pushed in by atmospheric pressure. This was analogous to the pump built in England during the same period.

In 1705, Papin created a ship powered by his steam engine, which was linked mechanically to paddles. He became the first to create a steam-powered vehicle. However, when he steamed down the river Fulda, a guild of boatmen who had a legal monopoly of the traffic on the river smashed Papin’s boat and the steam engine into pieces.

Newcomen was the one who was able to produce mechanical power with steam, but his engine was large and heavy. In 1736, Jonathan Hulls was given a patent in England for a Newcomen engine-powered steamboat. By 1783, a French naval engineer Marquis Claude de Jouffroy, and his colleagues created the first steam-powered ship Pyroscaphe, which was powered by a Newcomen steam engine. The Pyroscaphe traveled in the river Saône for 15 minutes before the engine failed.

A Scotsman named James Watt improved the Newcomen engine, which made travel by steam feasible. In 1769, Watt invented a steam engine that was smaller in size and did not use as much coal to power the boat. His steam engines became in demand as steamboat designs started coming into play. By the way, he was the same man whom the measurement of power (watt) is named after.

The First Steamboats

The years after the Revolutionary War were years of growth in the Southeastern United States. Southern rivers like Mississippi, Alabama, Chattahoochee, Apalachicola, and others were at the heart of this growth. In 1798, the Mississippi Territory was created, which includes today’s Alabama and Mississippi. Then, when the Louisiana Purchase happened, it gave the newly formed United States the city of New Orleans and the large Louisiana territory. The rivers flowing through Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana ushered a way for settlers to move west from states like South Carolina and Georgia. The cities grew along the rivers to make trade and transportation easier, which ushered in the popularity of steamboats.

Watt’s pioneering efforts on steam technology would eventually revolutionize transportation. His patented version of the steam engine spurred other inventors to explore how steam can be used to propel ships.

In 1785, John Fitch of Philadelphia built the first steamboat in the United States. His 45-foot craft successfully navigated the Delaware River in 1787. Later on, Fitch built a larger vessel to carry freight and passengers between Burlington, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. He received his first patent for a steamboat in 1791, winning a battle with rival inventor James Rumsey over similar steamboat designs. However, Fitch did not gain a monopoly, leaving the field for steamboats open for Rumsey and other inventors.

Fitch constructed four different steamboats that successfully plied rivers and lakes to show the feasibility of steam power for water locomotion. His boats were mechanically successful, but Fitch failed to pay sufficient attention to operating and construction costs. He lost investors to other inventors and was unable to stay afloat financially.

Robert Fulton: Father of Steam Navigation

While Fitch, Rumsey, and other inventors were successful in the steamboat industry, Robert Fulton is credited with designing the first commercially successful steamboat that combines a hull design and steam engine.

Fulton secured English patents with a wide variety of functions and applications. He began to show a marked interest in the construction and efficiency of canal systems. By 1797, conflicts in Europe led Fulton to start work on weapons against piracy, including mines, submarines, and torpedoes. Soon after, Fulton moved to France, where he took up work on canal systems.

In 1800, Fulton built a diving boat, which he named Nautilus, but there wasn’t enough public interest to push him to pursue any submarine design.

But his passion for steamboats did not waver. In 1802, he started work on a steamboat for use on the Hudson River. He worked with Robert Livingston.

In 1807, Fulton and Livingston invented the Clermont, or the North River Steamboat, which was the first American steamboat. It was a huge success and led to increased exploration by opening up two-way river transportation. The ship traveled from New York City to Albany in 32 hours, while regular sailing ships and other boats would take almost four days to finish the trip. The boat was extremely noisy, and many people named it “Fulton’s Folly,” thinking it might explode.

After a few years, in 1811, Fulton and Livingston designed the New Orleans, which traveled on the Mississippi River carrying plenty of passengers and goods. They found a way to make steam-powered boats that’s not only useful but profitable, and the age of steamboats was born.

The Rise and Fall of the Steamboat

In 1816, Henry Miller Shreve launched his own steamboat, Washington. It can complete the voyage from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky, in 25 days. Shreve broke the monopoly of Fulton-Livingston monopoly of steam navigation on the river. Shreve became the “father of Mississippi navigation” as his adaptations of steamboat designs are made to fit the shallow waters of the river. He used a high-pressure steam engine and hoisted it high up above the waterline. Shreve’s experiment became the prototype of all subsequent Mississippi steamboats.

Since then, the steamboat dominated the economy, commerce, and agriculture of the middle area of the United States. In 1814, New Orleans saw hardly 20 steamboat arrivals, and within 20 years, the figure reached 1,200. The major cargos include sugar and cotton, along with passengers.

In the 1850s, the steamboat industry was at its peak success, as it transports goods and people quicker than ever. But as its popularity rose, their dangers were also noticed by travelers.

Steamboats were a fairly dangerous form of transport due to its nature and construction. The boilers used to create steam will often explode when they built up too much pressure, which means steamboats have a short lifespan of only four to five years on average. The navigation of boats can be difficult, and sometimes, it leads to captains experiencing mishaps such as shifting channels and log jams. Traveling upstream is also a struggle for the boats. There were even many accidents and deaths caused by boiler explosions on the steamboats due to poor design. Spontaneous races between captains of steamboats were common, which caused deaths in steamboat disasters between 1810 and 1850. Some ships also are the target of various Native American Attacks.

Steamboats also played a major part in the Westward Expansion. It even thrived again after the interruptions caused by the Civil War. But by the 1870s, the railroads became more efficient and safer modes of transport, causing the decrease of the steamboats from the river.

By the 1900s, the railroads have long surpassed steamboats as the dominant form of commercial transport in the US. Steamboats were eventually retired, except for a few showboats that serve today as tourist attractions.