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No. 1991:
Inventing an Inventor

Today, inventing an inventor. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Last week I visited the US Capitol. As our group passed through a small rotunda, I glanced at the portraits above us. On one panel was Robert Fulton. Across the room, John Fitch.

We've made Fulton into the canonical inventor of the steamboat and an American icon for school children. Fitch, however, ran a steamboat service between Philadelphia and Trenton seventeen years before Fulton's first steamboat. Fitch's presence on the Capitol wall seriously undercuts the Fulton myth. Later, the looming form of Fulton turned up again -- this time in the statuary hall. 

I walked away wondering what it all meant. It was as though we were being told, "Of course Fulton invented the steamboat, even if we all know about John Fitch. Wink, wink." 

In real life, Fulton and Fitch might've come from different planets. Fitch was an odd duck. He was very bright, but ungainly, with an erratic temper. He drank too much, and keeping his financial backers was always a struggle. In the end, he wasn't able to capitalize on his steamboat success. And he just faded away.

Fulton, on the other hand, was a handsome smooth operator whose friends had deep pockets. When one project failed, he had another ready in the wings. He finally assembled a workable steamboat in 1807 using an off-the-shelf Watt engine. Then he immediately turned around and built a burgeoning steamboat business. 

The fact that Fulton was late in a long line of steamboat makers is beside the point. He represents an acceptable mythological structure: entrepreneurship, success, and fulfillment of the American dream. I wouldn't have said that a year ago. However, a colleague recently pointed out this remarkable statement by French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau:

It is no light undertaking to separate what is original from what is artificial in [our present nature], and to know correctly a state which no longer exists, which perhaps never existed, which probably never will exist, and about which it is nevertheless necessary to have precise notions [if we are] to judge our present state correctly.

In other words, we must live with our myths if we are to have any hope of self-understanding. Our choice of Fulton over Fitch has nothing to do with history. It has everything to do with self-definition. History actually reveals Fulton as something of a scoundrel, and Fitch as the more honorable man. But this is not about the historical invention of steamboats. It is not about history. We all know that, and so do the people who manage art in the Capitol. 

So I walked among portraits of Indians welcoming European conquerors; statues of everyone from Huey Long to Susan B. Anthony. I took in the often willy-nilly search for a national identity. Put the historical record aside for a moment. This was about creating a history that we could wish for. It was about our trying to live up to Rousseau's "state which ... perhaps never existed, [and] which probably never will exist."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The Rousseau statement is included along with a fascinating context, in the Introduction to: L. Brisman, Romantic Origins. (Ithaca: Cornell University press, 1978). I am indebted to James Pipkin, UH English Dept., for calling my attention to the Brisman book and the Rousseau quote.

For more on Fitch and Fulton, see: A. Sutcliffe, Steam: The Untold Story of America's First Great Invention. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and J. T. Flexner, Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1944/1978). Sutcliffe provides many hitherto untold parts of Fitch's story.


Robert Fulton portrait
Portrait of Robert Fulton in the US Capitol


John Fitch portrait
Portrait of John Fitch in the US Capitol


Robert Fulton statue
Statue of Robert Fulton in the US Capitol 


(All photos by John Lienhard)