James Madison Papers

Bill for Granting James Rumsey a Patent for Ship Construction, [11 November] 1784

Bill for Granting James Rumsey a
Patent for Ship Construction

Editorial Note

James Rumsey (1743–1792) had been experimenting with a mechanical pole boat when good fortune brought General Washington to his vicinity. In September 1784 (at Bath in Berkeley County, Virginia) Washington witnessed a trial run of a model and became an enthusiast for Rumsey’s invention. Since Rumsey’s model gave promise of being a handmaiden to the general’s favorite Potomac canal scheme, it was natural that he should give Rumsey a testimonial, and when in Richmond that fall to promote Rumsey’s ideas in conversations with public men (Pa. Gazette, 29 Sept. 1784; Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XXVII, 468, 480, 484). As JM explained to Jefferson, Rumsey had petitioned the General Assembly at the May 1784 session for a patent on his model but the “extravagance of his pretensions brought a ridicule upon them, and nothing was done” (JM to Jefferson, 9 Jan. 1785). With Washington as his chief promoter, the climate of opinion changed. JM apparently concerned himself with preparing legislation that would protect the invention. JM actually knew little about Rumsey’s boat, which operated by the force of river current against a paddlewheel that pushed poles against the river bed—an ingenious device which steam power soon proved impracticable. But JM was interested in a means whereby inventors and authors received recognition and reward, and as Brant remarks, JM looked upon this act “as a model in its protection of the public against the evils of a monopoly” (Madison, II, 370).

[11] November 1784

Whereas it is represented to this present General Assembly that James Rumsey hath invented Boats which are constructed upon a model that will greatly facilitate navigation against the current of rapid Rivers, whereby great advantages may be derived to the Citizens of this State: And whereas the said James Rumsey hath made application for the sole and exclusive right and privilege of constructing and navigating such Boats for the term of ten years as a recompense for this invention:

Be it therefore enacted that the said James Rumsey his heirs, Executors and Assigns shall have the sole and exclusive right and Privilege of constructing and navigating Boats upon his model in each & every River, Creek, Bay, Inlet or Harbour within this Commonwealth for and during the said term of ten years, to be computed from the first day of January one thousand seven hundred and eighty five. If any person, other than the said James Rumsey his heirs, Executors or Assigns, shall during the term aforesaid either directly or indirectly, construct navigate, employ or use any Boat or Boats upon the model of that invented by the said James Rumsey or upon the model of any future improvement which the said Rumsey may make thereon, he or they for every Boat so constructed, navigated, employed or used, shall forfeit and pay for every such offence the sum of ⟨five hundred pounds⟩ to be recovered with costs by action of debt, to be founded on this Act, in any Court of Record ⟨one half⟩ to the use of the party who will sue for the same⟨, and the other half to the use of the said James Rumsey⟩.

Provided always that the exclusive right and privilege hereby granted may, at any time during the said term of ten years, be abolished by the Legislature upon paying to the said James Rumsey his heirs, Executors or Assigns the sum of ten thousand Pounds current money in gold or silver ⟨of Virginia⟩:1

Ms (Vi). In the hand of Edmund Pendleton, Jr. Docketed by a clerk. The words within angle brackets appear to have been added, and those in italics deleted, in the Senate before final passage. The approved act is titled: “An act giving James Rumsey the exclusive right of constructing and navigating certain boats for a limited time” (Hening, Statutes description begins William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (13 vols.; Richmond and Philadelphia, 1819–23). description ends , XI, 502).

1JM’s authorship is indicated by his assignment to carry the engrossed bill to the Senate, after its passage by the House of Delegates on 15 Nov. (JHDV description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia; Begun and Held at the Capitol, in the City of Williamsburg. Beginning in 1780, the portion after the semicolon reads, Begun and Held in the Town of Richmond. In the County of Henrico. The journal for each session has its own title page and is individually paginated. The edition used is the one in which the journals for 1777–1786 are brought together in two volumes, with each journal published in Richmond in either 1827 or 1828 and often called the “Thomas W. White reprint.” description ends , Oct. 1784, p. 23). The importance of this act lay in the principle it established, not in its practical workings. As it developed, the pole boat was soon discarded for a more efficient vessel Rumsey devised using a jet propulsion principle (Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America, 1735–1789 [Chapel Hill, 1956], pp. 374–76; John W. Oliver, History of American Technology [New York, 1956], p. 138). Hindle noted that Rumsey “died in England without ever having run a boat at a high enough speed to be useful.”

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