Sunday, November 23, 2008

John Stevens

The Father of American Railroads

Born in 1749 in New York, NY, and educated at Kings College (now Columbia Univ.), John Stevens III was a lawyer, engineer, and inventor. The Patent Act of 1790 is said to have resulted from his petition to Congress requesting their protection for inventors. After serving as a Captain in Washington’s army, John Stevens bought land in New Jersey (now Hoboken), where he established one of the best-equipped machine shops in the union.

Stevens was a pioneering steam engine builder, and is known for making the first successful ocean trip by steamboat in 1809. He couldn’t operate on the Hudson because Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton held a monopoly on steam navigation on all New York State waterways. (This monopoly was fought to the US Supreme Court by Cornelius Vanderbilt and Daniel Webster, where it was declared “repugnant to the Constitution” and voided in 1824.)

Robert Livingston, Chancellor of New York, was married to John Stevens’ sister, and collaborated with Stevens on his earliest steamboat experiments. But in 1798, Livingston secured the monopoly on steam travel on NY waterways for himself. He later met Robert Fulton, financed his work, and obtained their 1803 monopoly. Fulton’s paddle steamer first traveled from New York to Albany in 1807, in a record breaking time of 32 hours, at just under 5 mph.

Although he continued his steamboat work, John Stevens believed that a steam carriage on rails could travel at greater speeds and deliver goods more economically than a steamboat, which must overcome the friction of water. In 1812, Stevens proposed his railroad concept to the Commissioners for the Improvement of Inland Navigation in New York. The Commissioners were not favorable to the idea – not surprising, as they included Livingston and Fulton, and were focusing their efforts on the Erie Canal (constructed 1817-1825).

Stevens published his "Documents Tending to Prove The Superior Advantages Of Rail-Ways And Steam Carriages Over Canal Navigation", and continued seeking government support. In 1815, he received the first railroad charter in the US, for the New Jersey Railroad. He and his sons built a demonstration steam wagon in 1826, which carried passengers on a circular track on their own land, at up to 12mph.

Stevens' Demonstrator remained a prototype, but by 1830, two American-built locomotives were running on rails. Stevens’ sons imported a locomotive from England to start their Camden and Amboy Railroad. The sons were talented inventors as well, and are credited with numerous other railroad innovations, including the T-shaped metal rail.

[Image from Patent No. 2,773, Method of Connecting
the Drive Wheels of Locomotive Steam-Engines
, 1842,
Robert Livingston Stevens, New York, NY]

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