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Battle of the Booklets, Part 1: James Rumsey vs. John Fitch

In the late-1780s James Rumsey and John Fitch appealed to the various state legislatures for monopolies to operate steamboats on the rivers, bays and lakes of those states. In 1787 Fitch received from New York State a 14-year monopoly to operate steamboats. (Laws of 1787, Chapter 57) The law was passed “in order to promote and encourage so useful an improvement and discovery [as the steamboat], and as a reward for his ingenuity, application and diligence.”

Since both men were seeking the same goal, their efforts eventually erupted into an argument over who had invented the steamboat and, thus, who had a right to those monopolies – and the wealth they might acquire with such a monopoly.

Cover of Rumsey's booklet
Cover of Rumsey's booklet

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In those days before radio and television talk shows, arguments took the form of pamphlets.

Rumsey vs. Fitch: First Strike
Rumsey's Claim

In a pamphlet entitled A Plan Wherein the Power of Steam Is Fully Shewn, by a New Constructed Machine, for Propelling Boats or Vessels, of Any Burthen, Against the Most Rapid Streams or Rivers, with Great Velocity. Also, a Machine, Constructed on Similar Philosophical Principles, by Which Water May Be Raised for Grist or Saw-Mills, Watering of Meadows, &c. &c., (N,387,F545,1445897) published in January 1788, Rumsey wrote: “...

Mr. Fitch’s endeavouring to procure patents for his boat ... and having actually procured an exclusive right from two respectable Assemblies (who had granted me the same in the year 1784) ... I have been unavoidably led ... to prove my prior right to the steam invention, and I should have said no more, but let experience determine whose principles are soundest, had not Mr. Fitch, equally void of decency and truth, asserted ‘I got what small knowledge I have of steam boats from him’ ...”