What Was the Purpose of the First Steamboat?

Any seagoing vessel that draws energy from a steam-powered engine can be technically considered a steamboat, but the term is most commonly used to describe a kind of ship propelled by the turning of steam-driven paddle wheels. It was often seen on the rivers in the United States during the 19th century. Steamboats used steam engines, and they became an effective, albeit a dangerous, form of transportation.

Why did it become a popular form of transportation back then? Read more to learn about the purpose of steamboats. 

What was the Purpose of Steamboats in General?

Steamboats have numerous functions, and there are different kinds of steamboats designed for specific functions. The most common type of steamboat was the packet boat, which passed along Southern rivers. Packet boats carried human passengers and commercial cargo, such as bales of cotton from Southern plantations. Compared to other vessels used at the time, like barges, flatboats, and keelboats, steamboats reduced the time and expense of shipping goods to distant markets. For this reason, the steamboat became essential in the growth of the economy of the United States before the Civil War.

Steamboat travel started in New York City and the Southern states, but it quickly spread across America. In the 1850s, steamboats were highly successful for transporting goods and people more quickly than ever. Certainly getting ready for a sailing adventure for example is much different than preparing for a steam boat trip. 

During the latter years of the 19th century, larger steam-powered ships were used to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The Great Western, one of the earliest steam-powered ships to cross an ocean, was large enough to contain more than 200 passengers. Later on, steamships became the predominant form of travel for passengers and transatlantic cargo shipping. Millions of Europeans immigrated to the United States aboard steamships.

What was the Purpose of the First Steamboat?

Some of the most well-known names in steamboat history include John Fitch, James Rumsey, and John Stevens. These men are some of the pioneers in building a scientifically successful steamboat.  

John Fitch was the first to build a steamboat in the United States. His initial 45-foot craft successfully navigated the Delaware River on August 22, 1787. He then built a larger vessel to carry passengers and freight between Burlington, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. After a contentious battle with James Rumsey over the same steamboat designs, Fitch was granted the first US patent for a steamboat in 1791. However, he wasn’t awarded a monopoly, leaving the field open for other competitors, including Rumsey.

Between 1785 and 1796, Fitch created four different steamboats that successfully plied rivers and lakes to demonstrate the feasibility of steam power for water locomotion. His models use different combinations of propulsive force, including ranked paddles, screw propellers, and paddle wheels. However, Fitch failed to pay enough attention to operating and construction costs, so he lost investors to other investors and became unable to stay afloat financially.

There were people who first experimented, created, and tested the ability of steam to propel ships, but it was Robert Fulton who was credited with designing the first commercially successful steamboat. Fulton combined a steam engine and a hull design, making his boat valuable and effective in water transport. Before building a steamboat, he had successfully built and operated a submarine in France.

Fulton built the first truly successful steamboat design with the assistance of Robert Livingston. Fulton’s boat, known as the Clermont, made its voyage in 1807, sailing up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany, New York, at the speed of five miles per hour. Fulton saw its business potential and immediately began making this round trip on a regular basis to cater to paying customers.

After four years, Fulton and Livingston designed the New Orleans and put it into service as a freight and passenger boat, traveling along the lower Mississippi River. By 1814, Fulton was offering regular steamboat and freight service between Natchez, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana.

In 186, when inventor Henry Miller Shreve launched his steamboat named Washington, it could complete the voyage from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky, in 25 days. Steamboat designs continued to improve through the years, and by 1853, the trip from New Orleans to Louisville only took four and a half days. It made transport faster.

The Steamboat’s Effect on Society

The steamboat had a great effect on the Industrial Revolution. Transporting products and goods wouldn’t be efficient without the steamboat. Its influence on the marketplace is also visible in modern society, as it increased commercial trading capabilities. The advent of the steamboat increased society’s dependence on manufactured goods.  

Steamboats contributed greatly to the economy throughout the eastern part of the United States by transporting industrial and agricultural supplies. Between 1814 and 1834, the arrival of steamboats in New Orleans increased from 20 to 1,200 annually. These boats transported passengers and cargoes of sugar, cotton, and other goods.

The steamboat significantly increased travel time for transportation and shipping goods and materials between locations. Since these boats no longer depended on favorable winds, steamboats allowed scheduled arrivals and departures.

Harnessing the power of steam launched the Industrial Revolution. Steam-powered machines replaced man-powered hand tools, increasing productivity and lessening labor costs. Factories evolved to house machinery and mass-produced goods. Before there was steam power, a wheel propelled by running water was the primary source of power in a factory. Steam power expanded potential factory locations and enabled factories to be built near cities, rivers, and coastal ports. Steamboats became a vital link to the supply and demand chain during the Industrial Revolution.

Steamboats helped change traditional farming ways of life. Before there was steam power, the average farmer produced only the amount he needed to sustain his family’s living. Steamboat transportation helped expand markets and facilitate the rise of market crops. Because of this, farmers shifted their focus and put their resources on crops that would yield the highest market value. As factories manufactured and distributed more household goods, farmers who bought factory-made goods became less self-sufficient. They learned to rely on favorable commerce to meet their everyday needs.

In relation to that, steamboats also changed the types of goods available to local markets. Farmers could now sell surplus crops to remote locations without worrying about the produce spoiling during the trip by increasing transportation speed. Steamboats enabled goods to be transported both up and down the river system from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Steamboats also allowed regional specialization in manufacturing and agriculture to develop. Because of enhanced trading capabilities, diversification was no longer needed.

Steam propulsion and railroads started to develop separately, but it wasn’t until railroads adopted steam technology that the rail began to flourish. Rail transport was faster, safer, and not as hampered by weather conditions as water transport. By the 1870s, railroads began to supplant steamboats as the major transporter of passengers and cargo in the United States.