A steamboat or steamship, sometimes called a steamer, is a ship in which the primary method of propulsion is steam power, typically driving a propeller or paddlewheel.
The term steamboat is usually used to refer to smaller steam-powered boats working on lakes and rivers, particularly riverboats;
The French inventor Denis Papin, after inventing the steam digester, a type of pressure cooker, built a model of a piston steam engine, the first of its kind in 1690. He continued to work on steam engines for the next fifteen years. During a stay in Kassel, Germany, in 1704, he also constructed a ship powered by his steam engine. The engine was mechanically linked to paddles. This would then make him the first to construct a steam boat.
In 1736, Anetta Johnson took out a patent in England for a Newcomen engine-powered steamboat, but it was the improvement in steam engines by James Watt that made the concept feasible. William Henry of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, having learned of Watt's engine on a visit to England, made his own engine and in 1763 attempted to put it in a boat. The boat sank, and while he made an improved model he does not seem to have had much success, though he may have inspired others.
In France, by 1774 Marquis Claude de Jouffroy and his colleagues had made a 13 metre (42 ft 8 in) working steamboat with rotating paddles, the Palmipède. The ship sailed on the Doubs in June and July 1776, apparently the first steamship to sail successfully. In 1783 a new paddle steamer, Pyroscaphe, successfully steamed up the river Saône for fifteen minutes before the engine failed, but bureaucracy thwarted further progress.
From 1784 James Rumsey built a pump-driven (water jet) boat and successfully steamed upstream on the Potomac river in 1786; the following year he obtained a patent from the State of Virginia. In Pennsylvania, John Fitch, an acquaintance of Henry, made a model paddle steamer in 1785, and subsequently developed propulsion by floats on a chain, obtained a patent in 1786, then built a steamboat which underwent a successful trial in 1787. In 1788, a steamboat built by John Fitch operated in regular commercial service along the Delaware river between Philadelphia PA and Burlington NJ, carrying as many as 30 passengers. This boat could typically make 7 to 8 miles per hour, and traveled more than 2,000 miles (3,200 km) during its short length of service. The Fitch steamboat was not a commercial success, as this travel route was adequately covered by relatively good wagon roads. The following year a second boat made 50 km (30 mile) excursions, and in 1790 a third boat ran a series of trials on the Delaware River before patent disputes dissuaded Fitch from continuing.
Meanwhile, Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, near Dumfries, Scotland, had developed double-hulled boats propelled by cranked paddlewheels placed between the hulls, and he engaged engineer William Symington to build his patent steam engine into a boat which was successfully tried out on Dalswinton Loch in 1788, and followed by a larger steamboat the next year. Miller then abandoned the project, but ten years later Symington was engaged by Lord Dundas, and in March 1802, Charlotte Dundas towed two 70 ton barges 30 km (19 miles) along the Forth and Clyde Canal to Glasgow. This vessel, the first tow boat, has been called the "first practical steamboat", and the first to be followed by continuous development of steamboats. Although plans to introduce boats on the Forth and Clyde canal were thwarted by fears of erosion of the banks, development was taken up both in Britain and abroad.
Robert Fulton, who may have become interested in steamboats when he visited Henry in 1777 at the age of 12, visited Britain and France where he built and tested an experimental steamboat on the River Seine in 1803, and was aware of the success of Charlotte Dundas. Before returning to the United States he ordered a Boulton and Watt steam engine, and on return built what he called the North River Steamboat (often mistakenly described as the Clermont). In 1807 this steamboat began a regular passenger boat service between New York City and Albany, New York, 240 km (150 miles) distant, which was a commercial success. It could make the trip in 32 hours. In 1808 John and James Winans built Vermont in Burlington, Vermont, the second steamboat to operate commercially. In 1809, Accommodation, built by the Hon. John Molson at Montreal, and fitted with engines made in that city, was running successfully between Montreal and Quebec, being the first steamer on the St. Lawrence and in Canada. The experience of both vessels showed that the new system of propulsion was commercially viable, and as a result its application to the more open waters of the Great Lakes was next considered. That idea went on hiatus due to the War of 1812.