Inventor Of The Steamboat

By Hon. Daniel B. Lucas

Few of your readers perhaps are aware of the fact that the inventor of the steamboat was a citizen of Virginia and a resident of Jefferson County, now in West Virginia. His name was James Rumsey. That he was an extraordinary mechanical genius, thoroughly absorbed in inventions and life-plunged in his ideals, is proved by tradition and by his literary remains. That he first applied steam power to the propulsion of vessels is as capable of historical demonstration as is the fact that Columbus discovered America. Notwithstanding this fact, our public teachers, many of them at least, are in the habit of instructing the young of West Virginia that Robert Fulton was the inventor of the steamboat. A notable exception among our teachers is Virgil A. Lewis, who in his School History of West Virginia, gives credit to Rumsey.

I have collected a large amount of material, but in a short article like the present I must be content to state briefly some salient facts. The late Hon. A. R. Boteler, or Shepherdstown, took a profound interest in this subject, and conceived the idea of erecting a monument to the memory of Rumsey at Shepherdstown upon "the rocky cliff which rises for a hundred feet above the right bank of the river," overhanging and overlooking the very spot where Rumsey floated the first steamboat the world had ever seen. I have in his own handwriting the manuscript of Mr. Boteler's lecture when a member of the legislature in 1887. I prepared a joint resolution for an appropriation to the erection of a monument to the memory of Rumsey, but the uproar of the senatorial contest prevented any ordinary legislation from obtaining a hearing.

Among other material collected, I have unearthed, so to speak, the following letter from one James Sharpless to the celebrated doctor, James Mitchell, father of Dr. Weir Mitchell, of Philadelphia, the elder Mitchell was a native of Jefferson County, born near Shepherdstown, where Rumsey resided. No doubt his interest in this matter was excited by his citizenship in common with that of Rumsey.

An Historic Letter

Anecdote of the late Mr. Rumsey and remarks on the steam engine, in a letter from James Sharpless, Esq., to Dr. Mitchell, dated New York, October 3, 1809:

Dear Sir:
As I expressed to you in a desultory conversation on Sunday last, several objections to the applications made by the ingenious Mr. Fulton tor impelling boats by steam, which I presume you did not wholly comprehend, on account of my defective mode of expressing myself, I take the liberty of endeavoring more fully to explain myself and offer my reasons for the preference, I give to the applications of the late Mr. Rumsey, in order that, if my observations should be found correct, some advantages may be thereby derived to society.

The float boards of Mr. Fulton's engine, as near as I can recollect, pass through the water at the rate of seven miles per hour and it is to be presumed that the power of the engine would support this velocity of the float boards, though the boat were at rest. Then this striking force of the boards against the water is seven at the commencement of action, but when the boat has attained its utmost velocity of five miles per hour, its striking force, or resistance to the water is only two; for when the boat has attained this uniform velocity of five miles per hour, and the propelling power is diminished in the same ratio, hence it is evident that two-sevenths of the power of Mr. Fulton's engine would be necessary to sustain the same boat at five miles per hour, provided the apparatus were so constructed as to support a uniform action from the commencement, so that the reacting inert force should be the same with whatever velocity the boat might be sailing at. This property I have always considered Mr. Rumsey's plan to possess, which is extremely simple, ingenious and philosophical. His inventions were carried into effect about twenty years ago upon a small scale, both in America and England; and had he not been injured in his constitution by intense study, and in his pecuniary circumstances by a constant change of his mechanical pursuits, he probably would have enriched himself, and have been considered as one of the greatest ornaments of his country. Drawings of his hydraulic inventions were laid before the society for the encouragement of arts, and a committee appointed to inspect them, and they were considered so ingenious and of such general importance that the society petitioned him to give an explanatory lecture. He appointed an evening; his drawings were spread on the table; at the time appointed the society and a number of visitants interested in mathematical and mechanical subjects were collected; a pause of perfect silence marked the general esteem, as the self-taught philosopher approached. He commenced with modest confidence; but unused to the sound of his own voice in public, and struck with the respectability of the assembly to whom he was acting as preceptor, his extreme sensibility overcame him, and a few sentences that he uttered were his last. He spoke no more, and the tears of general sympathy and regret were increased by the peculiar circumstances of his death."

This letter was published in the "Portfolio." an early Philadelphia magazine, and so far as I know is now republished for the first time.

Fames Ramsey was of English descent, but was born on "Bohemia Manor" in Cecil County, Maryland, in 1743, some writers have it in 1748 and I have not had time to test their accuracy. It is said that he was a millwright, but whatever his occupation he early discovered an inclination and genius for mechanical inventions. It is a circumstance worthy of remark that three or four of America's greatest men took a profound interest in Rumsey's experiments. Among these were Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry and Franklin. At home, however, in Shepherdstown, Rumsey was known as "crazy Rumsey'" Verily, "'a prophet is not without honor save in his own country!"

After the Revolutionary war, Rumsey settled at Rath, Virginia, now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. Washington was in the habit of spending the summer at these springs, then known as '"Hot Springs" or "Warm Springs." and owned and occupied a summer residence there. He fell in with Rumsey and saw in this poor inventor a genius capable or projecting "a discovery of vast importance." He witnessed Rumsey's first experiment by daylight on the Potomac River near the mouth of Sir John's run in Morgan County, Virginia now West Virginia, on the 7th day of September, 1784. Washington thereupon gave Rumsey a certificate as follows:

Washington's certificate. "I have seen the model of Mr. Rumsey's boat, constructed to work against the stream, examined the powers upon which it acts, been the eye witness to an actual experiment in running water of some rapidity and give it as my opinion, although I had but little faith before, that he has discovered the art of working boats by mechanism and small manual assistance against rapid currents: that the discovery is of vast importance: may be of the greatest usefulness in our inland navigation, and if it succeeds, of which I have no doubt, that the value of it is greatly enhanced by the simplicity of the works; which when seen and explained, may be executed by the most common mechanic.

Given under my hand at the Town of Rath, County of Berkeley, in the State of Virginia, this 7th of September, 1784. "George Washington."

This certificate has been misrepresented or misunderstood. It will be observed that Washington does not mention the word ''steam" at all, and this fact has been made use of to the detriment of Rumsey's claim over Fitch for priority in the invention. Washington's failure, however, to describe the character of the ingenious machinery to which he refers is abundantly explained by his subsequent correspondence. For example, a letter on the 31st of January, 1786, and in another on March 15th, 1785 and in still another of December 3rd 1787. Washington's precaution in not using the word "steam" or '"steam power" is plainly elucidated and is attributable to his apprehension that Rumsey's invention would be stolen by parties well known to Washington, as he himself describes them in his letter of December 3rd 1787.

It was this apprehension that induced Rumsey to try his first experiment after night, in the month of October, 1783, on the Potomac at Sir John's run. A few days after he made another nocturnal experiment with much better results and in September, 1784, he made the daylight experiment which was witnessed and testified to by General Washington. These experiments, however, were not with steam, although the use of steam was then conceived, as is proved by the fact that the great inventor applied to the legislature of his native State by petition filed on the 15th of November, 1783, to grant him a monopoly in the use of steamboats for ten years, which grant was at the next session of the Legislature of Maryland, accorded. About the same period the State of Virginia passed a similar act of legislations in favor of Rumsey. These records show conclusively the priority of Rumsey over Fitch in the invention citation of Rumsey's invention to Fitch controversy between these two inventors Fitch dates his own invention in April, 1875 and none of his biographers claim an earlier period. Moreover it is well authenticated that the communication of Rumsey's invention to Fitch was made by Major Michael Bedinger about the time that Rumsey had become somewhat notorious or celebrated in the Valley of Virginia for having applied steam to the propulsion of boats. It can also be substantiated that Fitch visited Rumsey's workshop in Shepherdstown and was warned to desist by the friends of Rumsey under the threat of violence should he refuse to leave the town.

Rumsey met with, many difficulties and obstacles in the perfection of his invention. His first boat was carried away by a freshet and broken all to pieces in the Falls of the Potomac below Shepherdstown. It was not until the end of December, 1787 that he gave a public exhibition on the waters of the Potomac at Shepherdstown.

A large assemblage of his fellow citizens were congregated to witness the experiment, among them some quite distinguished historical characters, such as General Horatio Gates, General Wm. Darke and others. The inventor would not permit anyone but ladies to go on board in this first experimental trip. General Gates, who was in the throng on shore, kept his eye-glass steadily bearing upon the curiously formed new vessel. When she moved out to the middle of die stream and then tacking about commenced her course up stream at the rate of three miles an hour, dates threw up his hat and cried out, "'She moves, my God, she moves!" and the crowd took up the echo with wild cheers. In 1787-88 Rumsey went to Philadelphia and succeeded in interesting Benjamin Franklin and other distinguished public men in his invention. They termed what was called the Rumsian Society of which it is said Franklin was president. Rumsey likewise visited New York and went before the Legislature with a petition for a monopoly such as had been granted by the respective Legislatures of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. It should be remembered that there was at that time no Patent Office or Patent Bureau organized by the Federal Government, and inventors to protect themselves were compelled to apply to the individual states. Before the Legislature of New York a lively contest arose between the rival inventors, Rumsey and Fitch. The Legislature appointed a committee to investigate their respective claims for priority and that committee after full investigation reported in favor of Rumsey and against their own fellow-citizen, John Fitch. This, as it seems to me, ought to set at rest all questions or controversy as to the first inventor of the steamboat. Those who are curious to learn more of the Rumsey-Fitch controversy may consult the Second Volume of the "'Documentary History of the State of New York," where a full account is given of the action taken by the Legislature of that State.

In May, 1788. Rumsey went to London carrying with him letters of introduction from such men as Franklin. Washington, Patrick Henry, and others. While in London he met with Mr. Jefferson and, in the correspondence of that statesman, will be found his hearty approval of the ingenious efforts of Rumsey in the direction of steam navigation.

Rumsey's ill fortune, however, in being very poor followed him in his new field of labor. He built a boat 100 feet long and equipped it with his machinery for steam propulsion. It is said that while on the waters of the Thames the vessel was attached by his creditors. After many efforts, however, he succeeded in interesting a number of ingenious and intelligent mechanics who were organized into a Society of Mechanic Arts. He succeeded in getting an audience at the Hotel Adelphi in the committee room of this "Society of Arts'" on the 20th of December, 1792. While preparing to produce his models and explain his invention he was stricken with a sudden and violent pain in the head and almost immediately fell speechless in a fit of apoplexy. It was in this Hotel Adelphi that, surround by sympathizing friends, a few days later the great inventor breathed his last. A short time afterwards, however, his boat was launched and made a successful trip on the Thames at the rate of four miles an hour.

It may be here mentioned incidentally that Rumsey in his correspondence from London mentions having made the acquaintance of an ingenious youth by the name of Robert Fulton. At that time Fulton was engaged in other mechanical experiments and he never dreamt of a steamboat before his acquaintance and association with Rumsey. It is, therefore, beyond question true that Fulton conceived the idea of applying steam to the propulsion of vessels, only after his acquaintance with Rumsey, and the exhibition of Rumsey great and successful invention.

Charles Town, West Virginia.

Books and Articles ~ AHGP

Source: The West Virginia Historical Magazine Quarterly, Charleston, West Virginia, Volume 1, January, 1901. [From The West Virginia School Journal, by courtesy of Mr. Trotter.]


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