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.