George Washington Papers

To George Washington from James Rumsey, 17 December 1787

From James Rumsey

Annapolis Decr 17th 1787


Inclosed you have Coppies of two Certificates of what the Boat performed at Sum tryals we have been making I have a number more but as they are the Same in Substance I thought it not nessasary to Coppy them, we Enhibeted under many disadvantages and Should not have Come forth publicly untill Spring if it had not been for Mr Fitches Stealing a march on me in Virgine1 I have Sent Down a number of certificates to the asemblely of the first Days performance the Second was not then made2 I also Inclose you a Contrast Drew by Capt Bedinger Between Mr Fitches Boat and mine.3 I met with Govenor Johnson He toald me of a Letter he had wrote you respecting Sum Conversation that him and me had about my applying Steam to work the Boat4 as well as I Rembar it happened in octer 1785, when I Informd him of my Entention of applying Steam and Spoke to him for to Cast Cillinders for me, he Said that from what Little he Could gather on the Subject he Suposed it to be quite an other kind of a machine I toald him that the modle which I Showed to you was, he then Said he thought I had used you—the[n] I Toald him I beleived not for that I had Informed you of my Intention, to try Steam, I Can Recolect no more that was Said upon that Subject But it Seems that govenor Johnson has taken Up a Rong Idiea of the matter and Supposed that I had Informed you, of my Intention to apply Steam at the time I obtained your Certifycate5 nor did I know untill now that he Veiwed my Information in that Light, nor did I Ever Conceive that I had gave you any information Respecting it only that I had Such a thing in Ideia, untill the Letter that I wrote you on the 10th of march 1785,6 nor had I before near about that time Reduced it To any form Sufisantly promising to determin me to make the Tryal I was then det[e]rmened, as I wrote you as follows—“I have taken the greatest pains to afect an other kind of Boat, upon the principles I was mentioning to you at Richmond I have the plasure to Inform you That I have broght it to great perfection it is true it will Cost Sum more than the other way but when done is more mannageable and Can be worked by as few hands the power is amence and I have quite Convinced myself that Boats of pasage may be made to go against the Corrent of missippa or ohio River or in the gulf Stream from the Leward to the windward Isllands from Sixty to one hundred miles per day[”]—this was Certainly an Information And was what I aluded to when I toald govenor Johnson that I had Informed you of it, a Little farther on in the Same Letter is the following paragraff—“the plan I intend to persue is to build the Boat with boath the powers on Board on a Large Scale[”]—As you did not make anny objection to the plann proposed when you wrote me an answer to that Letter7 I Considered myself at Liberty to go on upon the Steam plan Conected with the other nor did I Drop the Idea of Doing So untill Long after I had the Honor of Seeing [you] Last But not Being able to accomplish the Building of an Other Boat and finding by the Little Experiments I made that one Boat would not do alone I was at a great Loss to know how to act and if it had not been on account of your Certificate I Would then have Quit it, being under To many Embarrasments and nearly a new mecheine to be made before any thing Could be done as my new Constructed Boiler made Such hot Steam as to melt all the Soft Solder and news Comeing frequently that Mr Fitch would Soon Come forth,8 ad to this that the Ice Carryed away my Boat and Broke thirty feet out of Her middle, a Large family to Support no Business going On, In debted, and what Little money I Could Rake together Expended, a gentleman has Since assisted me to whome I have Mortgaged a few family negroes which must Soon go if I do not Rais the money for him before Long. my present plan is So Simple Cheap and powerfull that I think it would be Rong to attemt the former plan, I would wish to Say Sumthing to the public about it, on your account.9 But doubt my own Abelityes to give that Satisfaction I would wish. It has gave me much uneaseyness Especially as I have By a train of unforeseen Events So often apeared to you as a person acting Inconsistantly and I Can Say in truth hower unfortunate I have been in the attempt that my greatest ambetion is & has been to Deserve your Esteem—I intend to philidelphia Before my Return, and in January I will (if in my power) go to South Carelino & gergia—your Letter to govenor Johnson prevented Mr Fitch from geting an act here10 You have Sir my Sincerest thank for the many favors you Conferred on me—I am your much Obliged Hbe hbe Servt

James Rumsey

P.S. the original papers from which These are Coppyed was acknowledged bef⟨ore⟩ Magestretes and the County Seal affixe⟨d to⟩ them, which I Did not think nessesary to Copy I am with great Esteem—J. Rumsey


1The first of the two certificates, both copies made by Rumsey, is that of Horatio Gates, “Late Majr General of the Continental army,” who gives an account of the first experiment: “On Monday December the 3d 1787 I was Requested to See an Experiment on potomack River made by—James Rumseys Steam Boat and had no Small pleasure to See her g⟨e⟩t on her way with near half her Burthen on Board and move against the Current at the Rate of three miles per hour by the force of Steam without any External applycation whatever, I am well Informed and Verily believe that the Mechine at present is Very Imperfect and by no meanes Capeble of performing what it would Do if Compleated. I have not the Least Doubt but it may be broght Into Common Use and be of great advantage to navegation, as the Mechine Is Simple, Light, and Cheap, and will be Exceedingly Durable, and Does not occupy a Space of more than four feet by two and a half” (DLC:GW). The account of the second experiment, with the names of Charles Morrow, the Rev. Robert Stubbs, Henry Bedinger, the lawyer Thomas White, and Abraham Shepherd affixed, reads: “Being Requested to See an Experiment made by—James Rumseys Steam Boat on potomack River on Tuesday the 11th of December 1787 it was with great pleasure that we Saw her get on her way with upwards of three tons on board And move against the Current at the Rate of about four miles an hour by the force of Steam, without any External application whatever. we are well Informed and beleive That the Mecheinery is at present Very Imperfect and by no meanes Capeble of performing what it would Do if Compleated. We are perswaded that it may be broght Into Common Use, and be of great advantage to navegation; as the mecheinery is Simple, Light, and Cheap, and Does not Occupy a Space of more than four f⟨oo⟩t by two and a half” (DLC:GW).

A public notice, dated 16 Dec. 1787, of the trial of Rumsey’s boat made on 11 Dec. 1787 appeared in the Virginia Gazette, and Winchester Advertiser on 11 Jan. 1788: “On the eleventh day of this month, Mr. Rumsey’s steam boat, with more than half her loading (which was upwards of three tons) and a number of people on board, made a progress of four miles in one hour against the current of the Potomac river, by the force of steam, without any external application whatsoever, impelled by a machine that will not cost more than twenty guineas for a ten-ton boat, and that will not consume more than four bushels of coals, or the equivalent of wood, in twelve hours. It is thought that if some pipes of the machine had not been ruptured by the freezing of the water, which had been left in them a night or two before, and which ruptures were only secured by rags tied round them, that the boat’s way would have been at the rate of seven or eight miles in an hour. As this invention is easily applied to boats or ships of all dimensions, to smooth, shallow and rapid rivers, or the deepest and roughest seas, freightage of all kinds will be reduced to one-third of its present expense” (quoted in Beltzhoover, Rumsey, description begins George M. Beltzhoover, Jr. James Rumsey, the Inventor of the Steamboat. Charleston, W.Va., 1900. description ends 19).

According to an account given many years later by Maj. Henry Bedinger, Rumsey’s brother-in-law took the helm and Dr. James McMechen was aboard to help Rumsey with the machinery when the boat moved up the river as the inhabitants of Shepherdstown watched from the Potomac’s banks. “After going for a half mile or more,” Bedinger is quoted as saying, “to a point opposite what is known as Swearingen’s Spring, she rounded to and returned, going for some little distance. . . . Thus she continued to go to and fro, up and down the river, for about the space of two hours, in full view of many hundreds of spectators” (ibid., 18).

2The Virginia Assembly took no notice of Rumsey’s certificates before its session ended on 8 Jan. 1788.

3The statement by Henry Bedinger has not been found.

4See Thomas Johnson’s letter to GW of 16 Nov. in which he reports that Rumsey had claimed that he had informed him of giving up his original efforts to use the force of the river’s current to move his boat and was attempting instead to harness steam for that purpose.

5GW’s certificate stating that he had witnessed James Rumsey’s boat moving upstream propelled by mechanical means is dated 7 Sept. 1784.

8See, for example, GW’s letter of 31 Jan. 1786 urging Rumsey to get on with the development of his mechanical boat. GW wrote after learning of John Fitch’s plans to develop a steam-driven boat.

9In a pamphlet that he published in 1788 after he had gone to Philadelphia (see Rumsey to GW, 24 Mar. 1788, n.1), Rumsey wrote: “My machine with all its misfortunes upon its head, is abundantly sufficient to prove my position, which was that a boat might be so constructed as to be propelled through the water at the rate of ten miles an hour, by the force of steam, and that the machinery employed for that purpose might be so simple and cheap as to reduce the price of freight at least one-half in common navigation;—likewise that it might be forced by the same machinery, with considerable velocity, against the constant stream of long and rapid rivers. Such machinery I promised to prepare, and such a boat to exhibit; this I have now so far performed in the presence of so many witnesses, and to the satisfaction of so many disinterested gentlemen, as to convince the unprejudiced, and to deprive even the sceptic of his doubts, &c.” (quoted in Beltzhoover, Rumsey, description begins George M. Beltzhoover, Jr. James Rumsey, the Inventor of the Steamboat. Charleston, W.Va., 1900. description ends 20).

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