History, History Column

Steamboats: Rumsey and Fulton

Steamboats: Rumsey and Fulton

By Sarah Becker © 2017

Robert Fulton
Robert Fulton

The discovery of the Mariner’s Compass Gave Commerce to the World…and the Introduction of the Creative System of Canals…will Give an Agricultural Polish To every Acre of America,” artist turned inventor Robert Fulton wrote President George Washington in 1796. Fulton, born in Pennsylvania, moved to London in 1787 to study painting with artist Benjamin West then relocated to England’s industrial center to learn engineering.

In June 1794 Robert Fulton “received royal patent number 1988 for ‘a machine or engine for conveying boats and vessels and their cargoes to and from different levels…without the assistance of locks.’” Cotton manufacturer, later utopian reformer Robert Owen was a co-partner. Owen, whose third son also studied with artist Benjamin West, owned and operated England’s first steam powered mills.

Fulton transitioned to engineer with the 1796 London publication of his Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation. His dilemma: “How to Raise a Sum in the different States” for “the Specific System for America.” Fulton wanted President Washington’s financial support, as well as the aid of selected Pennsylvania officials.

Benjamin West, Fulton’s “firm friend’ and fellow Pennsylvanian, was also asked for funding. West declined favoring former Potomac River Company employee and Virginia (West Virginia) inventor James Rumsey. Rumsey began experimenting with steam in 1774; demonstrated a mechanical Model of a Boat to Washington in September 1784, then a water jet propulsion steam boat in December 1787. He preferred “not business but mechanical invention.”

“Remained at Bath, Virginia (now Berkley Springs, West Virginia) all day and was shewed the Model of a Boat constructed by the ingenious Mr. Rumsey, for ascending rapid currents by mechanism,” Washington noted on September 6, 1784. “The principles of this were not only shewn, & fully explained to me, but to my very great satisfaction, exhibited in practice in private, under the injunction of Secrecy, until he saw the effect of a [patent] application he was about to make to the assembly of this State, for a reward.” Prior to the Patent Act of 1790 inventors’ rights were granted by the states.

“The model, & its operation upon the water…convinced me…that it might be turned to the greatest possible utility in inland Navigation; and in rapid currents; that are shallow,” Washington continued. “And what adds vastly to the value of the discovery, is the simplicity of its works; as they may be made by a common boat builder or carpenter, and kept in order as easy as a plow, or any common implement of husbandry on a farm.” Washington gave Rumsey “a certificate [of witness] attesting to the potential value of the invention” prior to leaving Bath.

“To describe the usefulness of water transportation would be a mere waste of time,” Washington wrote in October 1784. “Every man who has considered the difference of expense between it, & land transportation…requires no argument in proof of it…I consider Rumsey’s discovery for working Boats against the stream, by mechanical powers principally, as not only a very fortunate invention for States in general, but also the Peltry & Fur Trade….”

Washington’s Potomac River Company was established in Alexandria in 1785. Coincidentally, in 1785, a respiratory infection probably tuberculosis brought Fulton to Bath for warm springs’ treatments. Additionally, competing Pennsylvania inventor John Fitch visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon to discuss his steam driven boat; to ask if PRC employee Rumsey “was also experimenting with steam power.”

James Rumsey
James Rumsey

Fitch demonstrated his steam boat—propelled by twelve steam-powered oars—in August 1787, and received his first U.S. patent, No.28X a “steam engine applied to navigation” on August 26, 1791. Rumsey’s 1787 launch was delayed due to construction problems associated with of the Company’s Potomac Canal. He showed his water jet propulsion steam boat four months later. Rumsey also received a U.S. patent on August 26, 1791, No. 27X for “application of steam to propel boats or vessels.”

On December 11, 1787—the second of two trials—“Mr. Rumsey’s steam boat, with more than half her loading (which was upwards of three tons) and a number of people on board, made a progress of four miles in one hour against the current of the Potomac river, by the force of steam, without any external application whatsoever, impelled by a machine that will not cost more than twenty guineas for a ten-ton boat, and that will not consume more than four bushels of coals, or the equivalent of wood, in twelve hours,” the Virginia Gazette and Winchester Advertiser reported. “As this invention is applied to boats and ships of all dimensions, to smooth, shallow and rapid rivers, or the deepest and roughest seas, freightage of all kinds will be reduced to one-third of its present expense.” The steam boat traveled the Potomac River between Shepherdstown and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia [West Virginia].


“I [now] throw myself upon the wide world In persuit of my plans, being no longer able to proceed upon my own Foundation,” Rumsey wrote Washington from Shepherdstown in 1788. Rumsey, with the support of Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society, departed for London soon after.

“After struggling through the greatest difficulties & obstacles conceivable…Mr. Rumsey is on the point of succeeding,” David Humphreys told Washington in 1790. Rumsey died in London in 1792 while aggressively promoting his invention.

Did James Rumsey meet artist Robert Fulton when Rumsey visited Benjamin West’s London studio? Did inventor Robert Fulton borrow any of James Rumsey’s steam boat assembly? Rumsey did sit for a West portrait however Fulton’s coal-fired steam engine was built by the British firm of Matthew Boulton and James Watt.

Fulton returned to the United States in 1806 and introduced his Hudson River steam boat on August 17-21, 1807. Twenty years after James Rumsey’s successful trial. Fulton had a viable steamer; partner Robert R. Livingston New York’s exclusive operating rights. Livingston, the patriot who administered Washington’s 1789 Presidential oath of office, was U.S. Minister to France as of 1801 and the two men teamed in 1802 while living in Europe.

The U.S. Patent Office gave Fulton his patent in 1809, No. 995X for “improvement in steam boats.” By 1813, at Livingston’s death the duo operated steam boats on the Delaware, Hudson, James, Mississippi, Ohio and Potomac Rivers as well as the Chesapeake Bay. Irvington, Virginia’s award-winning Steamboat Era Museum—www.steamboateramuseum.org—interprets the time period 1813 to 1937.

As for Rumsey—the man “who first successfully applied steam to the purposes of navigation”—the West Virginia legislature appropriated funds in 1906 to erect a monument “on the bluff near Shepherdstown overlooking the Potomac River.”



Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.


Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com



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