Sunday, February 19, 2012


Rumsey monument and house where he lived.

If I asked you who invented the steamboat, you would probably respond, Robert Fulton. Most people do. But not if you're from West Virginia. We all know that James Rumsey invented the steamboat. We learned that in grade school in West Virginia history.

So recently when Ward and I visited Shepardstown, WV,  it was my goal to find where Rumsey lived and worked on this engineering feat. We tracked down his home and the monument marking where he launched his first steamboat. Success. How exciting to see my grade school lessons come to life all of these years later.
But wait, there's more.

Who really invented the steamboat?

Like many significant inventions, there were several people working on the same thing at the same time. John Fitch and James Rumsey were two of these people. They both demonstrated a successful steamboat within a few months of each other in 1787. Rumsey demonstrated a less successful design in 1783. There was an an extreme rivalry and a nasty battle* between them for the rights to the first viable boat. The battle included pleas to George Washington, whom they both knew personally, for help. Washington didn't get involved. In the end, they both received federal patents on the same day, August 26, 1791. (But we all know, that before the patent, Rumsey was first.)

Now you may wonder, what about Robert Fulton? Where does he enter into all of this? Robert Fulton was the first one to make the steamboat a successful commercial venture with a route between New York City and Albany, NY, 20 years after Rumsey first demonstrated it. By the way, Fulton met Rumsey in France when all of the steamboat designs were being talked about and demonstrated. Another connection of Rumsey to the invention of the steamboat.

*We saw Wynkoop's Tavern in Shepherdstown where Fitch stayed while he was allegedly was spying on Rumsey.

Shepherdstown Walking Tour Pamphlet

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