Steamboats on the Hudson: An American Saga

Two Bobs, Three Johns, Three Jims , a Nick, an Aaron, a Tom and a Boat

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On August 17, 1807, Robert Fulton fired up his steamboat in the North (Hudson) River, ushering in a more comfortable, enjoyable, efficient and reliable mode of transportation between Albany and New York City.

In New York State, this trip was the culmination of a 20-year effort by inventors and entrepreneurs to achieve a monopoly on operating steamboats on the Hudson River. These men had used newspapers, booklets, the New York State Legislature and the courts to either sway public opinion or to solidify their positions.

In the beginning...

October 1781. The war – known here as the American Revolution – was over. In the new United States of America men could devote themselves once again to reading, to thinking about ways to make life easier, and to dabbling in the sciences of chemistry and physics and the like.

By the mid-1780s the idea of using steam to propel boats on bodies of water had moved from being a dream of visionaries to being a means of making money.

The Prize: Fortune and fame coming from having the monopoly to operate steamboats.

Obtaining the right to exclusively sell a product or service (aka having a monopoly)

Inventors are encouraged to invent, in part, if they can make some money from their inventions. A patent gives an individual the right to exclusively profit from his invention for a certain number of years, allowing him to recoup his investment and make some money.

Why didn't Fulton just apply for a patent?

The first United States patent act was not enacted until 1790. To obtain the exclusive right to profit from an invention before 1790, inventors had to apply to each state legislature for a monopoly in that state.

About this Exhibit

The New York State Library mounted this exhibit of materials from its collections that document the history of the development of steamboats in 2007, to mark the 200th anniversary of Fulton's trip to Albany and back. This exhibit makes use of several collections at the New York State Library:

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