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James Rumsey, the True Inventor of the Steamboat

August 19, 2020

James Rumsey and the invention of the steamboat More than two centuries on, James Rumsey still can't get credit for inventing the steamboat. Check out his Wikipedia entry:

James Rumsey (1743–1792) was an American mechanical engineer chiefly known for exhibiting a boat propelled by machinery in 1787 on the Potomac River at Shepherdstown in present-day West Virginia before a crowd of local notables, including Horatio Gates. A pump driven by steam power ejected a stream of water from the stern of the boat and thereby propelled the boat forward.

Notice that it does not say that Rumsey was, at least by one reputable account, the true inventor of the steamboat. Today, it is Robert Fulton who is known as the inventor of the steamboat, though Rumsey's prototype was shown to be successfully operational a full two decades before Fulton's.

Perhaps it was just that Rumsey himself didn't live quite long enough to defend the title. Rumsey is not listed anywhere in the Oxford Universty's "Short History of Technology" (though to be fair, the volume doesn't touch on steamboats at all, perhaps because it was more of an American pursuit).

That after hundreds of years, this West Virginian is still the victim of some sort of politics, piled under by the sediment of history, a centuries-old victim of cancel culture. And why would anyone care? The Rumsey story, as told by Millard K. Bushong, in his book "History of Jefferson County, West Virginia," is such an improbable ride that you get hooked in, if not for the shady lineage of steamboat, then the sheer improbability of it all.

The story of the steamboat also shows how technology innovation is rarely driven by a single person, but rather by a sort of collective consciousness that can see and try to overcome the next step in making something be. Technology never succeeds for technology's sake, but rather by answering a need.

"History of Jefferson County, West Virginia "
by Millard K. Bushong
Southern Historical Press (1941)

A merchant of what is now called Berkeley Springs and resident of Sleepy Creek West Virginia, Rumsey was a man of many interests. And one of his interests was how to move freight by water. Not yet built was the C&O Canal, which would run alongside the nearby Potomac River, but the river itself was seen as a possible conduit for moving goods alomg, not the least would be the great amounts of coal found in the area.

As it happened, the U.S. President at the time, George Washington, was passing through town, as part of a visit to the region. Somehow, Rumsey had caught the eye of Washington and showed him a model of a boat that, by mechanical means of some sort, would be able to propel itself upstream, with a load of freight. Washington wrote him a letter, a certificate, stating that such a boat would prove immensely valuable to the fledgling country, in terms of aiding "inland navigation."

James Rumsey and the invention of the steamboat

This boat design was not propelled by steam, but by a prime mover of some other mechanical means, a design that has been lost in time. Nonetheless, with Washington's goodwill, Rumsey petitioned the states of Virginia and Maryland for exclusive rights to construct and navigate boats in the state's waterways. This gave him the means to test steamboats, the idea of which overtook his other mechanical design.

Somewhere along the line, however, Rumsey had gotten the idea for to power the boat by way of a steam engine, and began work in 1785, with the help of his brother-in-law. It was slow moving though: Parts were obtained from Frederick and Baltimore. Work had progressed sufficiently such that by December, the craft was moved from Berkeley Springs down to Shepherdstown. The winter had iced over the river, interrupting progress.

The first boiler was faulty, frustrating Rumsey. A subsequent trial on the Potomac showed that a vessel could move against the current of the Potomac, though the boiler was still quite leaky. In parallel, he worked on his mechanical boat as well, which involved poles on each side of the craft to keep it moving along. In a letter to Washington, he admitted it was a failure. For while it was loaded it with a group of people and ballast, it only moved upstream about 200 yards, but was was not steady. One pole would push off but then the other would slip.

Subsequent development was ceased to concentrate on the steam-powered model, which continued through 1786 and into 1787. A new boiler was used, though, with this one, the heat from the steam melted the soft solder. Repairs were made though more time was subsequently lost as the drifting ice that winter "carried the boat away," resulting in considerable damage to the vessel.

Repairs were made and in September 1787, Rumsey was read for another trial. In this trial, the boat was loaded with two tons of cargo, and though it was able to move up the Potomac at two miles an hour, much steam escaped the boiler. Back to the drawing board.

At this point, work was concentrated on making the boiler more efficient. The boiler would hold 20 pints of water, but would be designed such that it could do the work of a 500-gallon model. With this type, six bushels of coal could power a 12 hour run.

Finally, on December 3, 1787, after more than two years of work, Rumsey was finally able to show off his creation, which he did at Shepherdstown. Bushong wrote:

James Rumsey and the invention of the steamboat

On the appointed day a large crowd of townspeople and visitors gathered along the cliffs and shores of the Potomac River. Every class and color in the community was on hand. No doubt many came because of the curiosity, others to cheer the efforts of the persistent inventor, and still others to make sport of "Crazy Rumsey."

Several ladies were invited on board. The steamboat chugged up the river for about a half mile, then turned around and headed back to town, to the witness of the cheering audience. "My God, she moves!" one esteemed visitor proclaimed. It referred to as the "flying boat." Then Rumsey proceeded to go downstream for another two hours before turning around and heading home.

A second trail was conducted on December 11 that was -- despite some holes in the pipes that were cracked from freezing--even more successful. In this voyage, the boat chugged upstream with three tons of cargo, at a handy clip of four miles an hour. To document his success, Rumsey secured from several witnesses oaths certified by Berkeley County judges.

Success in hand, Rumsey took his plans to Philadelphia to find investors, who formed a group to back him, called the Rumseian Society, presided by none other than Benjamin Franklin. They found much interest in Rumsey's diagrams and drafts describing his technology. In boiler, the simple boiler design held much promise, they figured. He took letters of intent with him to London to find further investors. In London he met with the inventors and manufacturers of the steam engine, James Watts and Matthew Boulton. They wanted him to severe ties with the Rumseian Society but he felt loyalty to the Philly crew, who paid for his trip abroad. And thus any business negotiations ended, unsuccessfully.

Instead, as his built a prototype for London, in order to secure a British patent, he sought investors. The first one agreed to the money but went bankrupt. He procured the money from a second group of investors, though soon after Rumsey took the money, the partners got into a disagreement over the British patent rights. The investors demanded the money back, leaving to Rumsey to pay back the money he already spent, borrowing from friends. He narrowly avoided going into debtor's prison, and had to work as a spell supervising the construction of a canal.

Rumsey worked on the steamboat, called the Columbian Maid, through most of 1792. In December of that year, however, he fell sick while giving a lecture, and never recovered. He was buried in the chuchyard of Saint Margaret's Westminster. A few weeks later, his steamboat set off on a trial run, which proved successful, chugging away against the tide at 4 mph.

Even after death, Further troubles bedeviled Rumsey. While in London,he met a young man, Robert Fulton, to talk about the purchase of a torpedo boat. Fulton would go to be recognized as the guy who did invent the steamboat, some 20 years later. Rumsey had his his steamboat from a commercial firm, whereas Rumsey had his built largely from unskilled labor. To what extent Fulton had borrowed ideas from Rumsey is unknown.

If Fulton had competition for the title of 'steamboat inventor' it was not with Rumsey, but rather with another chap, Connecticut-native John Fitch. In interviews, Fitch had stated he had started thinking about steam as a propulsion as early as 1785, yet that was two years after Rumsey started playing with the idea. When, in 1787, Rumsey started circulating pamphlets describing his ideas of the steamboat, Fitch responded with his own literature, though the ideas he presented were just vaguely described. The "war of the pamphlets" continuing. Fitch even visited Shepherdstown to glean some of Rumsey's ideas on jet propulsion, through the local townfolk were suspicious of his actions and ultimately shooed him out of town.

It was not until 1790 that Fitch successfully demonstrated a working steamboat, though only achieved a speed of 6 mph -- in still water! A witness reported that engine for Fitch's boat was over 5 tons, taking up almost the entire craft. In contrast, Rumsey's machinery was a more economical 500 pounds.

Though he is rarely credited as the inventor of the steamboat, Rumsey is know as the inventor of the coil boiler and,most notably, the water-tube boiler, still in use today in turbo generation units.

James Rumsey and the invention of the steamboat

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