James Rumsey was born in Calvert Co Maryland, at the top of the Chesapeake Bay, in 1743,  and  his family moved to Berkeley Co. Virginia, now West Virginia,  likely about fifteen years later.  He became a millwright, a builder of water mills. After finding a book on Newtonian physics he was inspired to leave the old craftsman’s methods of trial and error and rules of thumb for the modern ones of calculation, testing and verification. Before his untimely death in 1792, he built two of the earliest steamboats, designed the first true water turbine and envisioned the entire field of power hydraulics. He was America’s first engineer.

The Rumseian Society was founded in 1788 to develop Rumsey’s inventions.  It was disbanded at his death, but  recreated in 1903 to build the Rumsey Monument in Shepherdstown, WV.  To mark the bicentennial of his steamboat demonstration on Dec. 3, 1787, the Society built a working replica of his steamboat, the Rumseian Experiment,  from 1984-87.  This is now in the Rumsey Boathouse Museum in Shepherdstown.

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  • Dan Guzy

    I am interested in Rumsey’s mechanical pole boat (aka, his “streamboat” not steamboat.)
    Did anyone make a practical version of the mechanical pole boat?
    Has anyone written a detailed study of this boat?

    Rumsey built a working model of it, possibly in 1782 when his then-associate James McMechen was trying to shop the thing to the Continental Congress ( which told him to come back when he had an actual working boat…but didn’t have any money, anyway). It was that model that Washington saw in September of 1784, when he came through Bath ( now Berkeley Springs). When Rumsey found himself employed by the Potowmack Company in 1785, he decided to install both steam propulsion and the paddlewheel-powered mechanism, and would work on both into the spring of 1786. He would only state that the poleboat mechanism was hindered by the crew and the passengers moving around in the boat. But likely the system was just too dependent on the boat maintaining perfect alignment to the current: any deviation , angling of the paddlewheel to the current, took away power. Worse, an angled paddlewheel added drag, which would make aligning the boat even harder.

    However, when Rumsey got into the pamphlet war with John Fitch he minimized the work done on the poleboat mechanism. Fitch claimed Rumsey had originally gotten rights to the poleboat, had been working on that, and had not come to steam until later. Rumsey was able to bring forward witnesses to show that he had indeed been working with steam: but evasive as to when he had stopped working on the poleboat, and even less willing to describe it. However, after Rumsey moved to England, along with other devices in his 1790 patent he included one for a presumably-improved “streamboat”, with two wheels holding a chain of paddles. Like most everything in those patents it was never built. However, it shows the paddlewheels mounted at the bow, ahead of the poles.

    I will be updating the website in the next few months, and a section on the poleboat would be a good idea.

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