Steamboat was an important transportation technique of industrial revolution the 18th century. The history of steamboats can be traced back to the invention of steam engine by inventor James Watt, that was successfully tested in 1769. The machine made by Watt was a steam run-railway engine, that was used to pull railway carriages. Watt's engine gradually evolved into the steam engine and forms the basis of modern mechanical locomotion. Inventors had been toying with Watt's idea, and experiments to use it in different modes of transport were in process.
The first steamboat appeared in United States of America in 1787, when inventor John Fitch made a prototype steamboat that was forty-five feet long and was based on Watt's design to use steam as power. The prototype was tested on 22nd August, 1787 on Delaware river. Members of Constitutional Convention of United States were present to witness this historic event. After a successful test of the prototype, a commercial steamboat was built by Fitch. This boat was used as a medium of transport, for the journey between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey. A patent was handed over by United States government to Fitch for the invention on 26th August 1791. Another inventor, James Rumsey, also claimed the rights to the patent. Between 1785 to 1796, Fitch built four kinds of steamboats. All four boats had different designs. The first and second one used ranked paddles, third one paddle wheels and the fourth boat used screw propellers. These innovations in steamboat, have remained the basis for manufacturing ships and boats, that are powered by steam and diesel. Though the models were scientific successes, they were not suitable for commercial production.
In 1807, Inventor Robert Fulton was the first person to build a commercially successful steamboat. It traveled from New York to Albany on its maiden voyage. The journey took 32 hours and covered a distance of 150 miles.
Commercial use of steamboat as a medium of transport began in 1811, when Fulton and Robert Livingstone built the famous steamboat, 'New Orleans'. The passenger transport that was provided by the boat in lower Mississippi was such a huge success that by the end of 1814, Fulton and Edward Livingstone, Robert Livingstone's brother, had started transportation services in Louisiana, Natchez, and New Orleans. Average speed of these boats were about 8 miles an hour downstream, and 3 miles an hour upstream. The service provided a very comfortable journey to passengers and also enabled them to carry a good amount of luggage. Land travel at that time had to be undertaken with the help of horses and wagons which were rather uncomfortable as compared to steamboats.
Promotion of usage of steamboats began in 1816, when Henry Miller Shreve launched a new steamboat known as 'Washington', that traveled from New Orleans to Kentucky in 25 days. By the end of 1853, travel by steamboat had become so fast and comfortable that the same journey took only about four to five days.
Steamboats were used in United States so widely, that by end of mid 1850s there were as many as 1200 boats sailing in New Orleans alone. The importance of steamboat as a freight carrier died out in 1870's, after more modernized steam railway engines arrived. The development of road transport and diesel engines reduced commercial importance of steamboats.
The steamboat is used even today in the United States, though in very small numbers. It has been a part of the early American culture and has been closely related to the Mississippi river. Like the river, the steamboat has been a part of delightful stories of Mark Twain.