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The confusion and disagreements of the early days of steamboat experimentation are nowhere more clearly seen than in the unfortunate life of John Fitch.
Working feverishly in his Philadelphia workshop from the mid 1780’s to the early 1790’s, Fitch developed the first practical American steamer just before his rival, James Rumsey. This lead to a court battle for the patent rights from which Fitch eventually emerged victorious in 1791. Despite this success, and his accomplishment in establishing the first regular packet steamer in the United States in 1790, Fitch never truly succeeded in the steamboat business. Few people recognized the value of his passenger steamer, despite its successful packet career, which ultimately covered thousands of miles in short, timely, and comfortable trips. Though he went on to develop several different kinds of steam-powered vessels, experimenting with various styles of drive mechanisms, Fitch was weakly funded and in the end he was unable to convince either the public or the industrial business community to regard his invention as anything other than a curiosity.
In 1798, just seven years after he had patented America’s first steamboat and unknowingly launched a revolution in transportation and commerce that was to radically shape the course of American history, John Fitch, despairing at a life full of failure and sorrow, committed suicide. In the years to come, Fitch’s innovations inspired other engineers to modify and perfect the design of the steamboat, and sadly, the success of these models helped to eventually eclipse the memory of his achievements altogether.