A Family Quarrel, Steamboats, and US Patent Law

John Stevens, Delaware River steamboat, iron hull, built 1844.

If all family disagreements resulted in innovation and progress, then, well… the world would be a far better place! A particular quarrel between Colonel John Stevens and Robert Livingston led directly to the establishment of steamboat operations on the Hudson River as well as the creation of US patent law.

Colonel Stevens, the founder of Hoboken and a man of many talents, was related by marriage to Robert Livingston, a lawyer, politician, diplomat, and one of the Founding Fathers. Yet their familial ties did not inspire any fruitful collaborations – in fact, quite the opposite.

Since the late 1780s, John Stevens and a rival engineer named Robert Fulton were both busy developing cutting-edge steamboat technology. Following a quarrel between Stevens and Livingston, whose financial and legal support was instrumental, the latter chose to back Fulton. In 1798 Livingston obtained a monopoly granting Fulton’s steamboats the exclusive right to navigate on the Hudson.

Despite that setback, Stevens continued redesigning and improving his steamboats. But since Stevens was legally prohibited from operating on the Hudson, Fulton’s steamboat Clermont got all the glory. In 1907 the Clermont made a highly publicized first commercial trip from New York City to Albany in just 32 hours, enshrining Fulton’s place in history as the designer of the first successful commercial steamboat. 

Robert Fulton’s Clermont – Illustration from an 1870 book

Stevens obviously protested by challenging the Livingston-Fulton monopoly in courts. But his attempt to secure the right to operate in the Hudson River failed, forcing him to navigate elsewhere. In 1809 Stevens’ vessel Phoenix made history by becoming the first steamboat to sail the open ocean. Despite the prevailing notion that steamboats were only safe in calm waters, the Phoenix defiantly set out into the Atlantic Ocean and made a thirteen-day trip to Philadelphia via the Delaware River. Another important bragging point for Colonel Stevens was that the Phoenix’s design and construction took place entirely in America, unlike Fulton’s Clermont, which used a British steam engine acquired in Europe.

While unsuccessfully battling for the legal rights to navigate on the Hudson, Colonel Stevens, a lawyer by education, victoriously persuaded Congress to pass America’s first patent law. After petitioning Congress for a bill that would protect American inventors, Stevens saw his bill become a law in 1790 officially legalizing a patent system in the United States.

Steamboat Juliana – the first commercial steam ferry in the world. 

Fulton and Livingston’s monopoly was declared unconstitutional after their deaths, making it possible for the Stevens family to operate ferryboats between New York and Hoboken. This transportation link between the two cities defined the future of Hoboken as a functioning part of the booming metropolis on the eastern side of the Hudson.

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