Monday, August 26, 2013

Aug 26 (1791) Happy Bday Steamboat! "Many mistakes were made. Some of them may have been amusing at another time"

John Fitch's sketch and description of piston for steamboat propulsion, ca. 1795.

John Fitch was granted a patent for the steamboat on this day in 1791 (after a long fight with James Rumsey for the rights).

For most of the 19th and early 20th century, trade on the Mississippi River was dominated by paddle-wheel steamboats. Their use propelled the development of economies in port cities; facilitated the growth of agriculture by making it easier to transport to markets; and increased prosperity along the major rivers.

Steamboats were held in such high esteem (ha!) that they became state symbols. The Steamboat Iowa (1838) is incorporated in the Seal of Iowa because it represented speed, power, and progress.

Steamboat traffic--both passenger and freight--grew exponentially in the decades before the Civil War. So too did the economic and human losses inflicted by snags, shoals, boiler explosions, and human error. Not to mention fog, which caused two steamers to collide 200 miles off Sandy Hook in June 1880. Survivors told of the hysteria that ensued to reporters at The Sun, claiming:

"Many mistakes were made. Some of them may have been amusing at another time. One gentleman lost an elegant pair of slippers worked for him by a lady friend, and later found them on the feet of one of the cabin boys..."
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Flannery O'Connor

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.