John Stevens Biography (1749-1838)


John Stevens provided the impetus for the steamboat industry that revolutionized the United States. The son of a merchant and ship owner and member of a very wealthy family, Stevens was born in New York City and graduated from King's College in 1768. Though he became an attorney three years later, he neverwent into practice and instead followed his father into politics, becoming treasurer of New Jersey during the Revolutionary War, obtaining the rank of colonel. He later used his political connections in Congress to petition for thepassage of the first U.S. patent laws in 1790.

In 1784, Stevens bought a huge estate on the west side of the Hudson River (most of which is now Hoboken, New Jersey) and later, bought the ferry servicebetween Hoboken and New York. His interest in improving the service with steam-driven boats was inspired by the work of John Fitch and James Rumsey.

After patenting an improved steam boiler and steam engine, Stevens interestedRobert Livingston (1746-1813), his college friend and brother-in-law, in building a steamboat. Together, they joined with mechanic Nicholas Roosevelt and, after several experimental models, Stevens produced the Little Juliana. The boat used a new high-pressure steam engine and two screw propellers to cross the Hudson in 1804.

Livingston, who had purchased a temporary exclusive charter for steamboats onthe Hudson river, meanwhile was in France convincing American inventor Robert Fulton to produce his five-mile-an-hour steamboat in America. On his return, to the U.S., Livingston was not impressed with the Little Juliana, which failed to meet the contract's speed requirements. He offered Stevens a partnership in Fulton's future steamboat, but Stevens refused, feeling that Livingston had broken his word.

Livingston fulfilled the charter when Fulton's Clermont made its successful first voyage from New York to Albany in 1807. A short time later, Stevens launched his 100-foot (30 m) Phoenix, the first ocean-going steamboat. He used the steamer to set up a steam-powered ferry service on the Delaware river while the Livingston-Fulton line ran on the Hudson.

About 1810, Stevens focused his attention on adapting steam technology to therailroad and argued the advantages of rail transportation over canals in Congress. His efforts resulted in the passage of the first American railway act,which created a company to build a railroad from the Delaware to the Raritanriver. In 1825, he constructed the first steam locomotive in the United States, operating it on a track on his estate grounds. Before his death, he designed a bridge and underwater tunnel from Hoboken to New York, as well as an elevated railroad system for New York City.

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