By Jeannette Holland Austin
A former silversmith and clockmaker with a vigorous intellect and remarkable powers of perseverance, came to Kentucky from Connecticut in 1778. His name was John Fitch. During the Revolutionary War Fitch had served as a lieutenant from New Jersey but was captured by the Indians and held prisoner for one year. Yet, in 1780, as he gazed upon the beautiful Ohio, he had the first conception of overcoming currents by a new mode of navigation and retired to his surveyor's camp to ponder and recall the work of Watt with steam, concluded that boats could be propelled by the same power. For a long while he was wrought with disappointment. During 1787, 1788 and 1789, Fitch built several boats which traveled from four to seven and one half miles per hour between Philadelphia and Burlington. He petitioned the legislatures of a number of states as well as England, France, and Spain for financing. When he failed to obtain funds, he became discouraged and finally despaired; he died at Bardstown, 1798, where his remains rest. A rather pathetic circumstance connected with his invention is related. He wrote three volumes of manuscript, sealed them, and placed them in the Philadelphia Library to be opened thirty years after his death. When opened, they touchingly related his disappointments, brilliantly foretold the perfection of his plans, and sorrowfully and bitterly said, "The day will come when some more powerful man will get fame and riches from my invention; but nobody will believe that poor John Fitch can do anything worthy of attention." By a coincidence two others, who chose Kentucky as their home, James Rumsey and Edward West, also were pioneers in this work. Both Fitch and Rumsey exhibited their plans in 1784 to General Washington. While Rumsey made his project public first, by means of a model, Fitch successfully plied a boat on the Delaware in 1785 and Rumsey on the Potomac the following year. Fitch claimed that he told Rumsey of his own plans to effect navigation by steam. In 1794, in the presence of hundreds of citizens, a miniature boat invented by Edward West, who had removed from Virginia to Lexington in 1785, proudly moved through the waters of the town branch of the Elkhorn, which had been dammed up near the center of the city. In 1802 Mr. West secured a patent not only for his steamboat invention, but for a gun lock and a nail cutting and heading machine, the first invention of the kind in the world, reputed to cut five thousand three hundred and twenty pounds of nails in twelve hours. The patent of it sold for $10,000 and its operation enabled Lexington to export nails of her own manufacture to Louisville, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. Although Robert Fulton gained honor from his invention in 1807 and brought suit in 1813 to establish his claims as the inventor of steam navigation, he was defeated by a pamphlet of John Fitch, which proved conclusively there were inventions which antedated the Clermont.
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