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Connecticut State Flag

John Fitch

Born: January 21, 1743
Place: Windsor, Connecticut
Died: July 2, 1798
Place: Bardstown, Kentucky

John Fitch John Fitch was born in Windsor, Connecticut on January 21, 1743. His mother died when he was very young, and he was raised by his father on their small farm. There was little money in the household, and he was not able to spend any significant time in school. When he was 17 he left to go to sea. When he returned, he tried his hand at several trades, including silversmithing, working in a brass foundry, and clockmaking. When the American Revolution started, he enlisted as a gunsmith for the troops. Later, he took up surveying and map-making as he traveled through portions of America's western frontier. On one of these ventures he was captured by Indians and held prisoner. He managed to escape his captivity and returned East to Pennsylvania.

While in Pennsylvania, Fitch toyed with the idea of creating a powered water vessel. He sketched plans, and made models of his ideas, deciding that it would be feasible to build a steam-powered craft. He had a difficult time getting his plans implemented, however. He petitioned the Continental Congress for financial assistance, but was turned down. He finally did manage to get some backing from private financiers, and he succeeded in constructing a 45-foot steamboat. The ship completed a trial run on the Delaware River in Philadelphia on August 22, 1787. In the next few years he constructed several larger vessels, and tried to run them as passenger ferries. They were never commercially successful, and he eventually lost all his financial backing. He took his ideas to France to see if he could make a go of his steamboat plans overseas, but he fared no better abroad. He returned to America, penniless and discouraged. John Fitch died in Bardstown, Kentucky in 1798.

The image of John Fitch that we display on this page is detail from a painting by Italian artist Constantino Brumidi. It hangs in the U.S. Capitol in the Brumidi Corridor that honors American genius and technology.

Author Thomas Boyd wrote a biography of John Fitch titled Poor John Fitch: Inventor of the Steamboat that can be special-ordered through Amazon.com.


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