Steamboats Come True (Review)

Steamboats Come True (Review)

ound this in our little corner bookshop, an old textbook which i stained with coffee and Tabasco as I read it over many mornings at Juniors. But it’s a fascinating and very detailed account of the development of the steamboat. And if you think that Robert Fulton did it all alone in some sort of vacuum of engineering, no, he didn’t.

When you think about it, the steamboat was one of the most technologically amazing crafts men of the time could envision. Think about it – America had just gotten through its revolution. The wilderness still besieged the coastal seaboards. The rivers were fast and not conducive to towpaths. The only way to crack the western emptiness (and to bring crops to markets and goods to the settlers) were steamboats.

The book follows all the developers (since many, many more people than Fulton worked the issue). Aside from various aristocrats having their men mount a small boiler on a flat raft in a mill pond and attempting to chug about, the two primary combatants were John Finch (the threadbare, half-crazed inventor who failed seemingly more than he succeeded) and James Rumsey (the well-to-do gambler/financier who gained much better funding yet floundered about England, trying to procure an engine). And combatants these two literally were, slandering each other on social media (self-published pamphlets) and building their boats that were capable (on a good day and in calm waters) of four to six miles per hour – astounding! In that joust, Finch was the victor, actually building a steamer that plied eastern rivers on a maintained schedule (sort of), but was too small and fearsomly new to garner profits.

No, it was only when Robert Fulton (failed painter yet visionary) entered the lists that things got serious. A lot of the book follows Fulton’s life (including his invention of the submarine, the Nautilus, which he’d developed to destroy the navies of the world and grant free trade to all (sound familiar to some famous character of fiction?)). But I read with interest Fulton’s gradual change from inventor/revolutionary to developer/capitalist. Very very good reading.

Author James Thomas Flexner really nailed it with this one. Originally written in 1944 and republished in the 70s (which is still a half-century away, gads!), the book is a perfect example of history – a study of the people moving about a living landscape of the times, attempting to bring about a change so monumental that people along the riverbanks viewed it as witchcraft. Fascinating stuff; another example of how deep history is and how little we all know of it.