James Rumsey Biography (1743-1792)


James Rumsey, a self-taught Virginia blacksmith and builder, held patents fora jet-propelled steamboat, as well as improvements to the steam boiler, thegrist mill, the saw mill, and the steam pump. Although his ideas received little recognition during his lifetime, they provided a basis for future inventors.

After the American Revolution, in which he fought as a patriot, Rumsey helpedbuild George Washington 's house in Virginia. His ideas about mechanically-propelled boats captured Washington's imagination, and the nation's new leaderhelped Rumsey secure a monopoly on that type of sea craft in the state of Virginia. However, Rumsey was unable to interest other inventors in the projectand had to direct his efforts elsewhere.

His interest remained in the area of water transport, and he was inspired bythe work of John Fitch on steamboat technology. In 1787, after several yearsof work, Rumsey introduced the world's first jet-propelled boat. The vessel was equipped with a steam engine to power a pump that took water in at the helm and expelled it from the stern in a jet stream, thus moving the boat forward. Although the design was highly advanced, it needed a more powerful engineto provide the speed necessary to appeal to potential investors.

In 1788, as he continued to pursue support, Rumsey presented his ideas to theAmerican Philosophical Society. To his delight, a group of its members responded enthusiastically to his presentation and formed the Rumsian Society to back him. They funded his trip to England where he was able to obtain patentsfor his boat and other inventions. While he was there, Rumsey met English inventor and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton who proposed that they enter into a partnership. Rumsey declined out of loyalty to his American supporters.

When he returned to the United States, Rumsey hoped investors would be more interested in his projects because he had obtained patents for them. Instead he met with disappointment again, losing even the support of the Rumsian Society. He died in 1792, before the completion of his second boat, the Columbia Maid.

The role played by Benjamin Franklin in Rumsey's choice of jet propulsion over paddle wheels is not known by many. While Franklin was in France, he had the opportunity to observe some disappointing experiments by the French with paddle wheels, and concluded that they were in no way the best way to use steampower to propel a boat. Upon his return to the United States, Franklin's opinion became known among those interested, and it was Franklin's disenchantment with paddle wheels that led Rumsey to build a boat that moved forward by reaction as water was forced out of its stern (the jet propulsion principle).

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