The era of the steamboat began in America in 1787 when John Fitch made the first successful trial of a forty-five-foot steamboat on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787, in the presence of members of the Constitutional Convention. Fitch later built a larger vessel that carried passengers and freight between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey.
John Fitch was granted his first United States patent for a steamboat on August 26, 1791. However, he was granted his patent only after a battle with James Rumsey over claims to the same invention. Both men had similar designs.
John Fitch constructed four different steamboats between 1785 and 1796 that successfully plied rivers and lakes and demonstrated, in part, the feasibility of using steam for water locomotion. His models utilized various combinations of propulsive force, including ranked paddles (patterned after Indian war canoes), paddle wheels, and screw propellers. While his boats were mechanically successful, Fitch failed to pay sufficient attention to construction and operating costs and was unable to justify the economic benefits of steam navigation. Robert Fulton built his first boat after Fitch’s death, and it was Fulton who became known as the “father of steam navigation.”
In 1811, the “New Orleans” was built at Pittsburgh, designed by Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston. The New Orleans had a passenger and freight route on the lower Mississippi River. By 1814, Robert Fulton together with Edward Livingston (the brother of Robert Livingston), were offering regular steamboat and freight service between New Orleans, Louisiana and Natchez, Mississippi. Their boats traveled at the rates of eight miles per hour downstream and three miles per hour upstream.
There is a museum dedicated to preserving the story of John Fitch and his steamboat in Horsham, PA.