Cover image for Steam : the untold story of America's first great invention
Steam : the untold story of America's first great invention
Sutcliffe, Andrea J.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Palgrave Macmillan, [2004]

Physical Description:
xiv, 272 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
VM140.F5 S88 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
VM140.F5 S88 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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In 1807, Robert Fulton, using an English mail-order steam engine, chugged four miles an hour up the Hudson River, passing into popular folklore as the inventor of the steamboat. However, the true first passenger steamboat in America, and the world, was built from scratch, and plied the Delaware River in 1790, almost two decades earlier. Its inventor, John Fitch, never attained Fulton's riches, and was rewarded with ridicule and poverty. Considering there was not a single working steam engine in America in the early 1780s, Fitch's steamboat's development was nothing short of remarkable. But he faced competition from the start, and he and several other inventors fought a string of bitter battles, legal and otherwise. Steam tells the dramatic story of Fitch and his adversaries, weaving their lives into a fascinating tale including the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. It is the story behind America's first important venture in technology, the persevering and colorful men that made it happen, and the great invention that moved a new nation westward.

Author Notes

Andrea Sutcliffe is a writer and editor who lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Although schoolchildren are taught that Robert Fulton invented the steamboat in 1807, the reality is far more complex. Sutcliff (editor of Mighty Rough Times I Tell You) demonstrates that Fulton was a latecomer to the effort to build a commercially viable steamship. A full two decades before the Clermont carried passengers between New York City and Albany, the largely forgotten Virginian James Rumsey and Connecticut-born John Fitch battled each other to be the first to launch a steam-powered boat and for potentially lucrative waterway monopolies. Fitch was partially successful, running a steamboat commuter service between Philadelphia and Trenton during the summer of 1790, but couldn't compete with stagecoaches. Sutcliff illuminates the importance of the steamboat to the developing United States, explaining how boats that could bring goods upriver would unite the western portion of the country with the east, increasing trade dramatically and permitting greater development of the frontier. Sutcliff's story is one of political intrigue, involving virtually all of the nation's founding fathers, mixed with scientific acumen and a sense of business ethics so low that even in today's climate many of the principals' actions would sound an alarm. Sutcliff offers intriguing material in an extremely readable volume, though she doesn't provide any new insight into the personalities of the protagonists. 16 pages of b&w illus. Agent, Ed Knappman at New England Publishing Associates. (July 4) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

"Steam" here refers to early US attempts, between 1780 and 1810, to develop a commercially viable steamboat. Using both primary and secondary sources, Sutcliffe gives a detailed account of the two major US contenders for the title of "inventor of the steamboat," John Fitch and James Rumsey; their ultimately unsuccessful economic, social and political (as well as, in less detail, technological) struggles; and the ultimate success of Robert Fulton 15 years later. The story is convoluted and the characters are memorable. However, the book's subtitle is misleading. This is not an "untold story"; essentially the same story was published in 1944 and revised in 1978 as Steamboats Come True, by James Thomas Flexner, a book still available in paperback. Flexner provides a slightly broader, more analytical study, with somewhat more emphasis on why, despite its severe economic and technical disadvantages, the US was the birthplace of the steamboat. Sutcliffe provides additional relevant material on the birth of the US patent system, and an alternative analysis of the death of Fitch. Even if a library already has Flexner, Sutcliffe is worthwhile because it offers a slightly different slant on the story. Either is a good choice. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. General readers; lower- and upper-division undergraduates. G. E. Herrick Maine Maritime Academy

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
1. Stream-boats and Steamboatsp. 1
2. A Ridiculous Ideap. 17
3. Brother Saintmakersp. 35
4. The War of the Pamphletsp. 53
5. The Columbian Maidp. 71
6. Lord High Admirals of the Delawarep. 89
7. The First and True Inventorp. 101
8. "All Further Progress Is in Vain"p. 119
9. Leeches and Sharksp. 133
10. Mother Clayp. 147
11. The French Connectionp. 161
12. Steamboat Collisionsp. 179
13. John Fitch's Ghostp. 201
Epiloguep. 219
Chronologyp. 227
Notesp. 231
Bibliographyp. 253
Indexp. 261