America’s Inventors

Three Centuries of Challenges

Today’s inventors are often surprised by the challenges they face in commercializing even the best, most effective, most marketable ideas. Yet from the founding of our country, America’s inventors have needed to overcome similar challenges, especially the struggle to find funding for the development of their ideas. From Robert Fulton, who made the steamboat a reality and revolutionized transportation in the early nineteenth century, to Ruth Handler, who created the Barbie doll, which is still in production after one billion have been sold, great inventors have usually spent years overcoming disbelief and seeking financial support before eventually achieving success. Their examples teach an important lesson, which is even more true today: Perseverance gets it done.

The First Successful Steamboat

Before Fulton succeeded in building the Clermont, another American inventor, John Fitch, built a steam-powered vessel that could travel up the Delaware River at a relatively high rate of speed. This achievement is even more impressive considering that Fitch was from a poor family and had been put to work on a farm at age 10. Later he worked as a sailor, a clockmaker, a foundry worker, a silversmith, and a lieutenant in the Continental Army.

After the Revolutionary War, Fitch traded with settlers in the Ohio River valley. He and a small group of other traders were rowing a small boat on the river when they were attacked by a Delaware Indian war canoe paddled by thirty Indians. Fitch’s party managed to escape, but from then on he was determined to build a boat that could travel faster than human or wind power could move it. The government of England, where James Watt had invented the steam engine, banned the export of new technology, however, so Fitch invented his own version.

To pay for development, Fitch sold shares in The Steamship Company on the streets of Philadelphia for $20 each, but he managed to raise only $300. With this amount he built a successful model, whose engine had a three-inch cylinder. A full-size boat, with three paddles on each side – like a Delaware Indian war canoe – would require a 12-inch cylinder. Fitch finally raised the cash from friends to build his steamboat and demonstrated it successfully before many of the delegates to the 1786 Constitutional Convention. These government leaders were deeply impressed with this success – but would provide no financial support.

Ultimately Fitch raised enough money by cleaning clocks to design and build one more vessel, which achieved an amazing speed of seven miles per hour. He received one of the country’s first patents, in 1791, but not a license limiting competition from others with similar patents. As a result, The Steamboat Company’s financial backers left the company, and it failed.

Unlike Fitch, Robert Fulton had received some formal education, but he probably learned most by spending time observing the work done in a Revolutionary War-era gun shop. The American portrait painter Benjamin West invited him to come live in England, where Fulton failed as a painter but began to create an amazing series of inventions, none of which received funding. For example, Fulton received a patent – but no financing – from the king of England for a canal system, complete with digging machines, mechanisms for moving small canal boats over hills on wheels, and prefabricated aqueducts.

The Submarine and Torpedo

Failing in these endeavors, Fulton went to France, which then was at war with England. He invented a human-powered submarine and a torpedo to attach to the wooden hull of a British warship. To demonstrate the viability of this war machine, he blew up an abandoned ship, but the end of the French Revolution forced a change in Fulton’s plans. Napoleon Bonaparte came to power and rejected his ideas.

In France, Fulton met Robert Livingstone, who was there negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, which would double the size of the United States. Livingstone was also an inventor, and wealthy. He and Fulton joined forces and built a steamboat, which blew up and sank in the Seine River. Fulton worked furiously to bring the heavy engine back to the shore and built another boat, which achieved a speed of three miles per hour while towing two other boats (demonstrating its ability to move cargo). The French still refused to fund the project.

An English spy then recruited Fulton to return to London and further develop his torpedo and submarine, this time to attack French warships. After the English made many promises to Fulton, the Battle of Trafalgar ended the war, in England’s favor. No longer interested in developing naval vessels, the government gave Fulton a financial settlement and allowed him to take an English steam engine back to America.

“Fulton’s Folly”

Fulton and Livingstone then shared the cost of developing a proper steam-powered vessel; no one else would invest in it. Fulton worked down in the hull with the craftsmen, who admired him for his enthusiasm, interest in their ideas, and ability to redesign a part on the spot if necessary. Meanwhile, onlookers made fun of the entire process, calling the boat “Fulton’s Folly.” Later, Fulton wrote, “Never did a single encouraging remark, a bright hope or a warm good wish cross my path.”

One hour after the new steamboat was launched for the first trial, the vessel stopped dead in the water. Fulton announced to the passengers and the crowd on the shore that he would find and fix the problem. This brilliant inventor, engineer and mechanic raced below decks into the engine room, made a slight mechanical adjustment, and got the boat moving again.

Fulton experienced years of frustration, patent conflicts, and searches for funding before developing not only the steamboat but an entire system of transportation to make these vessels commercially successful. It would be two decades after Fitch’s achievements that Fulton achieved commercial success with a steamboat, building not only the Clermont, for which he is famous, but 20 other steam-powered vessels operating on the Hudson, Delaware, Potomac, James, Ohio and Mississippi rivers, as well as on Chesapeake Bay.

A Billion Barbies

A mid-twentieth-century inventor, Ruth Handler, created a series of successful products in a completely different industry but, like Fulton, struggled for years to find financing. In 1936, the depths of the Great Depression, she and her husband, Elliot, rented an abandoned Chinese laundry for $10 a month and began making small products that Ruth energetically sold wherever she could. By the end of the war, the company that became Mattel had created many successful toys but was always starved for working capital. To fund each new product Ruth had to borrow from members of her family.

Even after selling $100,000 of doll furniture – made by Elliot from scraps of lumber – at the 1944 New York toy fair, Mattel lacked the money to grow. Risking the entire net worth of the company on an advertising program with the Mickey Mouse Club television show was the key. Yet naysayers almost caused Ruth to give up on her biggest insight: that little girls wanted to play, not just at being mommies with baby dolls, but at being adult women, using adult dolls that could take on many different roles as they changed their outfits (sold separately). More than a billion Barbies have been sold, and two are manufactured each second, over fifty years after their introduction.

The lives and efforts of these three inventors are radically different, yet their experiences are instructive. John Fitch did not – or could not – persevere far enough to achieve lasting success, even though his steamship carried a few paying passengers for a brief time. Robert Fulton spent decades with essentially the same goal and, through times of both war and peace, built not only an effective steam-powered boat but an entire transportation system. Ruth Handler had, perhaps, a less significant goal: to create toys with wide acceptance in the marketplace. Yet in terms of the profits her company earned – again, after decades of persistent effort – she far outstripped those of all but a few entrepreneurs. The common theme is perseverance.

[The information in this article is drawn from They Made America by Harold Evans. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2004 and the Wikipedia article on Robert Fulton.]

Vall Iliev is the president and CEO of Vallmar Co, Stow, Ohio,, a product development and management company founded in 1984. Vallmar works with inventors to design, plan, develop, and validate ideas so they may be patented and brought to market. Vallmar clients range from individual inventors to large manufacturers and nationwide retailers.

This entry was posted in Invention Ideas. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply