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As far back as the first century, ancient inventors were experimenting with the power of steam. An Alexandrian Greek may have even fashioned a simple spinning toy, powered by a cauldron of heated water, and unknowingly unlocked the secrets of steam power. Although the ancients did not realize the amazing possibilities offered by their amusing inventions, the field of steam power would eventually become the catalyst that drove the development of much of the modern world. For the most part this was done through transportation, which boasts far more ancient roots.
Mankind has turned to the sea for trade and travel for thousands of years, but by the 4th century, boatwrights in Europe were seriously engaged in developing a more efficient means of propulsion for their vessels. Side and center paddlewheels were long-thought to be the future of ship impulsion, but despite the best efforts of Roman engineers to design an ox-driven craft or Leonardo da Vinci’s hand-cranked conception, a constant and even force was necessary to successfully drive such a vessel. Modern attempts in both Europe and later in America began in earnest in the 16th century, but as before, paddlewheelers proved impractical without a consistent and reliable source of power.
Steam Engine Development
By 1769, James Watt had provided inventors with just such a power source when he patented an improved version of the steam engine. By 1782 he moved beyond simply improving older models when he invented the double-acting steam engine, effectively doubling the machine’s power output. In an age before high-pressure steam, Watt’s invention was a quantum leap forward in engine design. His innovation was rapidly adopted by the numerous different hands at work on the initial steamboat models. Unfortunately for the modern historian, several men were simultaneously at work on designs for a steam-driven paddlewheeler. By the 1770’s and 1780’s, numerous experiments had been carried out in Europe to prove the viability of steam as a power source, but despite these successes, early attempts at steam-powered rivercraft were met with incredulity and viewed as mere curiosities. It was entirely due to the exertions of inventors and promoters like John Fitch, Robert Fulton and others that the steamboat eventually asserted itself as the premier means of conveying passengers and cargo both down and up America’s mighty inland waterways.
The Economic and Industrial Impact of the Steamer
In the early years of the 19th century, America was still recovering from the ravages of war with Britain and, though nominally at peace, international tensions kept the young economy weak. As it struggled to stand under its own power, the country’s fragile finances were given a much-needed boost by the slowly-realized applications and capabilities of the steamboat. Not only could surplus crops be quickly and easily shipped off to market, markets much further away than before, but a whole new industry, centered around the steamboat itself, promptly grew up. With their large hulls, complex machinery, and ravenous fuel consumption, these lumbering machines required many new services and facilities in order to stay afloat. While existing industrial centers vastly expanded and altered their works, machine shops and engineering schools began popping up in many large river cities. In a short time, shipyards and steamboat services became one of the quickest ways to ensure a town’s commercial success and economic growth. Madison joined this bandwagon around 1835 with a small shipyard in the eastern suburb of Fulton,footnote 1 and by the 1850’s and 1860’s had developed a thriving shipbuilding industry with the completion of a newer yard and drydock at the other end of town.
Once the steamboat had firmly established itself on the Ohio River, industrial ports like Madison boomed. From the 1820’s on, wool, cotton, flour, and sawmills made the city an important center of trade, while breweries, foundries, starch factories, and many other businesses grew off the success of the thriving town. Crops and goods flowed into Madison from the state’s interior to be shipped to bigger markets in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, New Orleans, and other towns all along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. In the words of one locally-compiled history, “It is almost impossible to overestimate the benefit the shipyard has been to Madison.”
America Embraces the Steamer
With the steamboat, the founders of America finally had the means of uniting the fledgling nation. Once the innovation had proven itself reliable, packet service was established, whereby individual boats known as “packets” ran on scheduled timetables. This allowed the public to take advantage of a boat’s shipping course to move around the country. With easy trips between ports a reality, the great age of American travel was born.
Next article: John Fitch