Before cars, trains, buses, and airplanes existed, rivers were used for travel. River travel was often very slow. It depended on wind, river currents, and manpower. That all changed with the invention of steampowered boats in the late 1700s. Steam powered boats traveled at the astonishing speed of up to five miles per hour! They soon changed river travel and trade. Before long, more steamboats worked the rivers than the old flatboats. But steamboat travel was dangerous. Sinkings, explosions, attacks by Indians, and steamboat races captured the imagination of the country.
In 1769, a Scotsman, named James Watt, invented an engine run by steam. Other inventors learned about the steam engine. They began to experiment with using it to run boats. John Fitch built the first steamboat in the United States. In 1787, Fitch built a 45-foot steamboat that he sailed down the Delaware River. Members of the Constitutional Convention watched. John Fitch built four more steamboats, but they were expensive to build and to operate. Because they were so expensive, his steamboats were unsuccessful. Robert Fulton built the first successful steamboat: The Clermont in 1807.
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