Steamboats and Teaching Tech

steamboat-imageSteamboats are ready for a comeback. A pedagogical one, that is. While in all likelihood the steamboat’s time as a common form of transportation in the United States is finished, over the past several weeks I’ve noticed subtle mentions in a seminar paper, a museum display, comments during last month’s PEAES conference, and only once, I should add, did I bring them up! This may be in part due to my increasing interest in them as a pivotal subject in the history of Anglo-American intellectual property. Yet I don’t think this is entirely an instance of frequency illusion but rather indicates that while steamboats are no longer an effective mode of movement, they are very effective as an illustrative one, particularly when trying to flesh out broader themes in the political economy of the Early Republic.

Not teaching this year has inadvertently provided me with time to think a fair amount about teaching, and in particular, how to link our research interests to the classroom.[1] Steamboats are a great case study because they illustrate the intersecting stories of the porous boundaries between art and science, competing understandings of intellectual property, and its relationship with centralized governance in the early national period. In the scholarship of the nineteenth century, Robert Fulton’s steamboat and its place in the transformations of the nineteenth century are well documented.[2] Less frequently discussed however is the steamboat’s earlier moment outside the Constitutional Convention, and the public feud it inspired. [3]

John Fitch, like several other inventors at that time, began his career as a land surveyor and speculator. In the mid 1780s, he began designing an American version of the steam engine used in England and France. Under the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress had no power to authorize any type of limited exclusivity grant, whether that was the monopoly Fitch initially asked for or the patent he ultimately received. While there had been some national efforts, and substantial state level action, surrounding intellectual property, copyright and patents were not formally introduced at the Convention until August 18th, mere days before Fitch’s demonstration. On August 22, 1787, Fitch had a unique opportunity to present his work to several delegates, the model of which you can see in the image below, located at the American Philosophical Society. Used as an explanatory artifact—then and now—Fitch’s model was designed to further substantiate the full size demonstration. Yet it was also a significant artistic contribution in its own right, indicative of the creative links between replica and application. Fitch’s model was a teaching tool with high stakes: like so many other artists and inventors, if Fitch could not gain some type of government support for his work, the alternative was poverty. Or put another way, Fitch’s model was a patent application, one used to instruct and persuade the representatives that his work was useful enough to warrant their intervention.

Although my research on the model is in its early stages, it seems that it also served an even more personal purpose. There was no international intellectual property protection in the eighteenth century, and lawyers like Alexander Hamilton could simultaneously encourage the pirating of British technology while defending the copyright of American authors against British pirates without batting an eye. An American inventor against another American inventor, however, was more complicated. Making books and making technology in the 1780s and 1790s were inherently bound up with the making of the nation, as Fitch well knew. When James Rumsey, a protégé of Washington, debuted his engine further south in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in December of the same year, a heated debate began in the press as to who exactly could claim the credit.[4]

Assigning credit in the Fitch/Rumsey feud in many respects points to the heart of what IP was, and what it was not, in the confederal and federal periods. Neither one of them had pirated the other: like so many inventions, notably the telegraph, each developed their contributions to steam propulsion simultaneously and with little knowledge of what the other was doing. As previously mentioned, under the Articles, there was no power to regulate national commerce, so it was up to individual states to set the terms of how intellectual work would be compensated. Before the Convention, Fitch had successfully obtained several monopolies on space, meaning that his steamboat was the only one allowed in a given waterway. This, however, was pointedly different than a patent, which was recognition of the technological work itself.

The tension between Fitch and Rumsey, as recorded in their pamphlet attacks on each other, was about patents, not monopolies, and what those patents meant for their individual reputations and those of the nation as a whole. To be “secure in the use of the invention by the law,” was the crux of the issue.[5] If Fitch or Rumsey could get a monopoly on water access—and they both seemingly tried—that would certainly be a boon for their business (in Fitch’s case, an essential one) but what was pointedly the concern in their particular dispute was image, essentially one of originality. This did not necessarily mean the first person to think of an idea, but rather who initiated the enterprise first in a collective way, specifically with government officials, and for maximum social benefit. You did not need originality for a monopoly, only cache and connections. But you needed proof of authentic labor for a patent.

Boats, like books or other technological inventions, moved across water and water was not always limited to state boundaries. The challenges of competing jurisdictions, a major concern of the Convention as a whole, were particularly evident in requests for copyright, patents, and monopolies. Fitch’s steamboat model rendered these concerns tangible and accessible to contemporaries and, I believe, to students. Intellectual property is an incredibly complex and relevant current issue, especially for those who rely heavily on new media and digital information access. The saga of Fitch’s steamboat, visualized in his model, reflects the broader debates about how to regulate and encourage technological innovation, and can open up a conversation about how we as educators can use technology to innovate in the classroom as well.[6]


[1] Teaching United States History also has an ongoing series on this subject.

[2] There is an expanding literature on the relevance of steamboats to slavery, discussed in Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Many thanks to Eric Herschthal for the suggestion.

[3] There are informative and insightful discussions of John Fitch and his feud with James Rumsey in Brian Murphy’s Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic, Doron Ben Atar’s Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power, and Oren Bracha’s essay on the Constitutional Convention at Primary Sources on Copyright. Bracha and Ben Atar note that the lack of surviving written documentation on Fitch’s role in the convention leaves much to speculation. Andrea Sutcliffe’s invaluable Steam: The Untold Story of Americas First Great Invention is, from my understanding, the only full-length narrative on Fitch’s experiences. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but in general, there has been limited attention paid to the political dimensions of intellectual property disputes in the Early Republic.

[4] Also, a thank you to Roy Rogers for his reference to the presentation location.

[5] John Fitch, The Original Steamboat Supported; Or , a Reply to Mr. James Rumsey’s Pamphlet Shewing the True Priority of John Fitch, and the False Datings, &c of James Rumsey (Philadelphia: Printed by Zachariah Poulson, 1788), 13. You can find copies of these pamphlets at the Library Company of Philadelphia and the New-York Historical Society.

[6] And a final note of thanks to the McNeil Center Austenthusiasms for their feedback.

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