An early steamboat experiment
Throughout history for every inventor credited for creating something, there are unsung inventors in their shadows who lacked the money or failed to file a patent to make their work official.
Who ever heard of a steamboat in Manhattan’s long-buried Collect Pond that predated Robert Fulton’s boat by a decade?
For telephone pioneer Alexander Graham Bell there was Antonio Meucci, an impoverished Italian immigrant who was finally recognized in 2002 by the United States Congress as the telephone’s true inventor. There’s the airship by Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin who may have purchased the patent from inventor David Schwartz.
Across the United States, schoolchildren learn that Robert Fulton invented the steamboat, specifically his 1807 ship Clermont.
The true story is a complicated tale of competing patents and personal ambitions. The Clermont is a misnomer originating from Cadwallader David Colden’s 1817 biography of Fulton that gave the boat this name. It was officially known as North River Steamboat. As far as its historical value, it was the first commercially profitable steamboat. Since his death in 1816, numerous counties, towns, roads and schools were named after Fulton. Fittingly, Manhattan’s Fulton Street was linked to Brooklyn’s Fulton Street by a Fulton Ferry. Also in Brooklyn, he is memorialized by a park and monument:
In 1796, the Hudson River certainly had much more charm than Collect Pond, but it was at Collect Pond where John Fitch allegedly launched his experimental paddlewheel steamboat, six years before Fulton tested his first steamboat on the Seine River in France. Trained as a clockmaker and silversmith, Fitch led a colorful life as a participant in the Revolutionary War and as a captive of Native Americans in Ohio before conceiving of a boat with steam-powered paddles. His first successful launch took place in Philadelphia in 1787 as the Constitutional Convention took place in the city.
In contrast to Fulton’s much documented boat launch, Fitch’s alleged experiment at Collect Pond received little press and the most documented account of it dates to 1846 in a colorful poster designed by Brooklyn resident John Hutchings. Pleading for the recognition of Fitch as the true inventor of the steamboat, Fitch’s broadside, titled “Honor to Whom Honor is Due” features eyewitness accounts, a rendering of Fitch aboard his boat together with Fulton and revolutionary politician Robert R. Livingston, and a map of Collect Pond with the street grid superimposed on it.
In the broadside, Fitch claims that he was a “lad” at the time of the experiment, hired by Fitch as an assistant in steering the boat. Hutchings described the boat’s dimensions and the materials from which it was constructed. Following the experiments, the boat was abandoned and “left to decay on the muddy shore of Collect Pond and was carried away piece by piece by the children of the neighbourhood for fuel.” By 1811, the historic pond had been filled.
Hutchings’ broadside included approbations from prominent local individuals and shorter eyewitness accounts attesting to Mr. Fitch’s steamboat. The broadside was submitted by Hutchings to Congress, which recognized Fitch’s invention that year. Nevertheless, Fulton remains a household name while Hutchings’ broadside rests deep in the archives of the Southern District Court of New York, to which Congress forwarded the document.
To hear more about Collect Pond’s history, meet me tonight at the NYPL Mid-Manhattan Library at 6:30 p. m. where will be delivering a lecture on Manhattan’s hidden waterways. Signed books will be on hand.