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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.

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

First Strike: Ramsey's Claim

James Rumsey's pamphlet from 1788

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' ..."


Counterpunch: Fitch's Reply

Pamphlet by John Fitch, 1788

In reply to Rumsey, Fitch published, also in 1788, a pamphlet refuting Rumsey's claim to having invented the steamboat: The Original Steam-boat Supported; or, A Reply to Mr. James Rumsey's Pamphlet, Shewing the True Priority of John Fitch, and the False Datings, &c. of James Rumsey (N,387,F545). Fitch opens his reply thus:

"It is the duty of every man not only to avoid the commission of a crime, but so to conduct himself through life as to bear the strictest scrutiny. In a pamphlet published by Mr. James Rumsey and lately circulated in this City, as well as probably in other states, I am charged as the perpetrator of crimes attrocious [sic] in their nature, but of which my conscience fully acquits me. It is an exercise of malevolence in the extreme thus publicly to prefer charges against an innocent person without previously knowing or enquiring for the defence of the supposed offender, and shews an inability in the accuser to support his charges."


Refutation: Joseph Barnes's Remarks

Joseph Barnes's pamphlet from 1788

Joseph Barnes, serving as Rumsey's attorney, countered, also in 1788, with another pamphlet: Remarks on Mr. John Fitch's Reply to Mr. James Rumsey's Pamphlet (N,387,R93), in which he refutes Fitch's claims. Mr. Barnes sums up his remarks by noting:

"It may be necessary now to add that the heavy charges of perjury, falshood [sic], want of memory or candour, which are so illiberally brought by Mr. Fitch ... were made by a man, who not only attempted to bribe a gentleman of character to swear to a falshood [sic], but who actually committed this heinous offence, in order either to avail himself of Mr. Rumsey's invention, or to prevent him from deriving the emoluments due to this ingenuity. How Mr. Fitch can after this instance of flagitious conduct, expect the patronage of any honest man, I am at a loss to determine." – Page xvi

Last Updated: September 20, 2021