It was in the Memoirs of the Jesuit Fathers in Peking published in Paris in 1782 that a vessel propelled by a rotary paddle was first seen in operation in China. Using steam as a propulsive agent was made in 1629 in an adaptation of Hero’s ‘Aeolipile’, which blew a jet of steam on a series of vanes arranged on the rim of a wheel. Frenchman, Dr Dennis Papin (1647-1714, a Fellow of the Royal Society) described a cylinder ﬁtted with a piston in 1690.
Newcomen’s development of the first “atmospheric” engine“ in 1705 opened the way to harnessing steam to drive machinery. Dr John Allen obtained a patent in 1729 to force water through the stern of a vessel using steam from two Newcomen engines. In 1699 a proposal for a steam-powered tugboat was made by Jonathan Hulls, a clock repairer, who claimed to be the inventor of the steam-powered vessel and in 1736 submitted a patent for a ‘new invented machine’. Papin and Hulls suffered disappointment due to malice and lack of enthusiasm. Comte d’Auxiron held trials of his craft in 1774 a vessel ﬁtted with a two-cylinder atmospheric engine. It sank, and the project abandoned. So J. C. Perier, in 1775 on the River Seine, was the ﬁrst to construct a vessel with steam power, but the power was so small the boat could not breast the current.
The Marquis Claude de Jouffroy d’Abbans was the first pioneer of the use of steam to power boats. He built a wooden paddle boat, the Pyroscaphe, but it could not generate steam for extended periods. The American inventor, John Fitch, built a series of boats operated by steam driven oars on the Delaware River at Philadelphia culminating in the Experiment, a passenger carrying steamboat in 1790.But the business was closed the same year.
Across the Atlantic, Patrick Miller, a Scottish banker, became interested in powered vessels and collaborated with William Symington (1734-1861) to build a steam driven paddle steamer at Dalswinton, near Dumfries in Scotland. On 14th October 1788 it steamed across Dalswinton Loch with Robert Burns among others on board. Symington eventually became the builder of the engine of the first practical steamboat when Alexander Hart was commissioned by Lord Dundas of Kerse to build a boat to tow barges on the Forth and Clyde Canal, of which Dundas was a director. The result was the Charlotte Dundas which in 1802 towed two 70-ton canal boats on the canal for 20 miles.
The American, Robert Fulton (1765-1815) was one of the great steamboat pioneers, he started experimenting with paddle wheels. In 1794 he approached Boulton, Watt and Co., of Birmingham, England about a rotative steam engine suitable to power a boat. After taking a trip on the Charlotte Dundas in Scotland he went to Paris, where he received considerable ﬁnancial support from the American Ambassador, Robert R. Livingston (1746-1813), to construct his ﬁrst steamboat. The plans are preserved in the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris.
When completed and ﬁtted out it lay moored in the River Seine when a violent storm arose and she sank. Fulton rescued the machinery and built another hull of heavier construction and on 9th August 1803 he achieved success. For 90 minutes the vessel towed two other boats at 3 mph, against the current.
Although Charlotte Dundas was the first steamboat capable of useful service and did what was expected of her, the canal owners objected to the wash that faster-than-horse towage developed which eroded the banks so the boat was eventually broken up in 1861 having lain in a creek for years.
Thus the ﬁrst commercially successful steamboat was, in 1807, the P.S. Clermont, built from the collaboration of Robert Fulton and Messrs Boulton, Watt and Co. Built by Charles Browne, of Corlears Hook, New York. At 133 ft. in length, a beam of 13 ft. a draught of 2 ft. her displacement was 100 tons. The engine, of 20 nominal hp with one cylinder of 2 ft. diameter and 4 ft. stroke, was built by Boulton, Watt and Co., and was the third of their engines to be exported from England. The two 15 ft. diameter side-mounted paddle wheels, ﬁtted with eight radial ﬂoats, were driven by a combination of bell-cranks, ﬂywheel, and spur gearing designed by Fulton. Steam was provided by an externally ﬁred copper boiler, mounted on a brick support, built by Messrs Cave and Son.
Clermont made her ﬁrst successful trip on 17th August 1807, on the River Hudson between New York and Albany and, with modification, continued to run on the Hudson for seven years.
The P.S. Phoenix of 1808 built by Colonel John Stevens and his son, at Hoboken, New York was another early example. With Captain Moses Rogers (later to command the Savannah) she steamed from the Hudson in June 1808 to Philadelphia and became the ﬁrst steamer ever to venture into the open sea. She was wrecked at Trenton in 1814.