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The Story of ‘Charlotte Dundas’ (1) : The invention of the steamboat was a formidable challenge not just of engineering, but of politics and finance.
The Story of ‘Charlotte Dundas’
Part one

With acknowledgements to Grace’s Guide.

Steam power came to rivers and lakes even before it came to railways. Exactly who was ‘first’ is often debated, but the short answer is that a Frenchman was the first to try it, a Scotsman was the first to make it work, and an American was the first to make a profit from it.

THE world’s first steam-powered vessel was demonstrated by the Marquis Claude de Jouffroy, navigating the Doubs river between Besançon and Montbéliard in 1776.* Over in America, John Fitch demonstrated a second on the Delaware to members of the Constitutional Convention, meeting at Philadelphia in 1787.*

Brilliant though these innovations were, they were blind alleys both scientifically and commercially. The Marquis used an engine derived from the historic steam engine invented by Devonshire engineer Thomas Newcomen in 1712, which had already been superseded by James Watt’s revolutionary designs. Fitch had a better engine, but his mechanical oars were clumsier than Jouffroy’s paddle-wheel.

Politics and money also got in the way. The French monarchy’s Academy of Sciences snubbed the Marquis in favour of a rival, and the science-loving French Revolutionaries drove him into exile and poverty. Fitch patented his invention, but hopes of a government monopoly were dashed, and his financial backers deserted him in favour of enterprising competitors.

* A replica model of the boat, named ‘Perseverance’, is kept in Berlin’s Science Museum, and can be seen at Wikimedia Commons.

With acknowledgements to Grace’s Guide.

‘Waverley’ in the Clyde

Below is some video footage of ‘Waverley’, the world’s only surviving ocean-going paddle steamer, on the River Clyde in 2016. The video includes shots from the shore and also footage of the engine room.

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Picture: By D. M. Duggan Thacker, via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
The steam tugboat PS Ben More was built in 1855, and can be seen here plying the River Thames about thirty years later. The design has changed very little from Symington’s boat of 1803, leading some to regard him as the pioneer of the modern steamboat, though he did not invent them and American Robert Fulton was more influential in developing them for commercial use.

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