US Stamps

John Fitch, Robert Fulton and the creation of a working steamboat

Jun 18, 2018, 6 AM

U.S. Stamp Notes – By John M. Hotchner

Robert Fulton (1765-1815) made the steamboat a commercial success and deserves credit for that, but the idea behind it was conceived by others, including American inventor and entrepreneur John Fitch (1743-98).

Fitch and another American, James Rumsey (1743-92), both demonstrated working models of steamboats in 1787.

However, Fitch was first by a couple of months. Both received patents, but neither had financial success.

Apparently, Fitch lent his drawings and papers to Robert Fulton, who built the Clermont with the backing of Robert Livingston, the United States minister to France at the time.

In 1807, Clermont carried passengers on the Hudson River from New York City to Albany and back. The round trip of 300 miles took 62 hours. The cost was $7.

Fulton’s first appearance on a United States stamp, in the form of his name, was on the 1909 2¢ Hudson-Fulton Celebration issue. The stamp commemorated two anniversaries: 300 years of Henry Hudson’s navigation of the river that later would be named for him, the Hudson River; and the 100th anniversary of Fulton’s Clermont.

Fulton is much more prominent on the 5¢ stamp issued in 1965 for the 200th anniversary of his birth (Scott 1270). The 1978 Wespnex cover shown nearby features the 1965 stamp in the cachet and is also franked with it, plus the 10¢ Contemplation of Justice stamp.

It is fair to say that Fulton developed the first commercially successful steamboat. However, it is not fair to leave an impression that he was the inventor of the steamboat and that is what the Post Office Department did with its 1909 and 1965 issues.

Fitch has been all but ignored, and is but a footnote to history. One of his steamboats, the Experiment, is pictured on a 25¢ stamp in the 1989 Steamboats booklet (Scott 2405), but he is not named on the stamp.

In the 1989 Linn’s U.S. Stamp Yearbook, George Amick wrote: “The first stamp [in the Steamboats booklet] showed one of the steam vessels built and operated by silversmith-inventor John Fitch on the Delaware River two decades before Robert Fulton launched the Clermont.”

He continued: “Later Fitch and clockmaker Henry Voight built a vessel propelled by paddles at the stern. The boat — labeled Experiment in at least one contemporary drawing — made scheduled trips with passengers and freight between Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey, in 1790, but was a financial failure and ceased operations the next year. That ended commercial steamboating until the Clermont was launched on the Hudson River in 1807.”

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Hudson-Fulton imperfs

Many collectors don’t understand why the 1909 Hudson-Fulton issue and the contemporary Lincoln and Alaska-Yukon 2¢ issues, were released in imperforate form.

The reason is that the imperfs were to be used in stamp-vending machines. The examples shown nearby represent two different separation methods produced by two different companies: Mail-o-Meter and U.S. Automatic Vending Machine Co.

An initial order of 250,000 imperforate Hudson-Fulton stamps was made, but only 216,400 were sold, compared to 72.6 million examples of the perforated version.