John Stevens

Originally researched and written by Neal Trischitta


In the early 19th century the United States lacked the transportation and communication infrastructure necessary for social and economic unity for an industrializing nation. Transportation and communications were at best rudimentary with poorly maintained roads and many areas relying on coastal shipping. Steam powered engines and tools were already emerging and being developed in England as an outgrowth of its mining industry. In the creation of a nation of disjointed, virtually independent republics, there was nothing more critical than the need for intercolonial transportation. This problem was more apparent to Colonel John Stevens who asserted “that efficient transportation, on land and water has been and is the greatest single factor in the progress and prosperity of these United States.” (Turnbull, 4) During the first half of Stevens’s life, there was little intercolonial commerce, only inadequate mail carriage and little exchange of political views across colonial America. Stevens was fortunate to live through the years from 1749 to 1838, which many historians consider the most vital in building an industrialized America. After the American Revolution, he left the Continental Army and became a modest American figure in social, commercial, and scientific arenas. The colonel was considered a genius of steam, as a leading steamboat innovator of the 1800s. Stevens designed crafts that changed the technology of steam navigation. On land he began twenty years ahead of his competitors and single-handedly fought for the recognition of steam power in America.

While drawing attention to the idea of steam power, Stevens faced skepticism and ridicule, yet he engineered and operated the first “steam carriage” to run upon rails in the American hemisphere. In the course of his ninety years, Stevens lived in two states, New Jersey and New York, that border the Hudson River. Some of his inventions came too early for his time, as the United States and other countries were not ready mentally or mechanically to appreciate their value. He regularly appealed to the federal government and various states through proposals encouraging investment in transportation for general use. Among other advantages, Stevens reasoned that a transportation system would strengthen domestic commerce rather than foreign imports. “The expense of transportation through railways would reduce from fifty to five percent. A farmer remotely situated would save four fifths of his present expense in the transportation of his produce to market.” (Stevens, 12) This reveals the difference between a businessman and an engineer trying to resolve real life problems. Many of the inventions and innovations that he designed would be built by his descendants, particularly John Cox Stevens, Robert Livingston Stevens, and Edwin Augustus Stevens. Upon the foundation of his family, he rose among his peers as “Colonel Stevens, of Hoboken.” He was a progressive farmer, ambitious horticulturist, a student of law and politics, an advanced naval architect, and foremost a mechanical engineer. Colonel John Stevens conceived of and contributed to many engineering innovations in steam, transportation, and politics. Subsequently, his talents affected the engineering of America.

Stevens and Steam Engines in Hoboken

On May 1, 1784, the tract of land consisting of what is now the city of Hoboken was awarded to Colonel John Stevens for the amount of £18,340. In the late spring, Stevens employed three men to build a house, kitchen, and barn, which became the Stevens mansion. The growth of his second son Robert sparked Colonel John Stevens’ engineering spirit. “The colonel, finding his own creative imagination reflected brilliantly enlarged in Robert’s, proposed to give the boy a definite training in mathematics and the elements of mechanics, to put paper, pencils and tools into his hands as his fingers were strong enough to hold them.” (Turnbull, 86) In moving family valuables across the Hudson, “it struck the colonel so forcibly that transportation was irregular, slow, and often actually dangerous.” (Turnbull, 86) Stevens determined that it was demeaning to a man to be detained instead of crossing the river at his own will. His instinctive engineering skills emerged when, in the spring of 1788, he improved the family property by sinking a bulkhead in the river, filling in behind it, and building a dock 96 feet long. His early steam experiments focused on boats paralleling those of steamboat pioneer Robert Fulton. In the summer of 1788, he built a marine engine that incorporated the first multitubular steam boiler.

As Stevens attempted to patent his steam boiler, patent battles arose between John Fitch and James Rumsey. Stevens studied Fitch and Rumsey’s boilers and concluded that “Rumsey’s devices would lie in impracticability of obtaining any great degree of velocity if applied to vessels. . .. Lengthening or shortening paddles, a velocity of perhaps fifteen or twenty miles an hour might be acquired.” (Turnbull, 102-3) The colonel focused on what would become the objective of his descendants for the next 100 years, to increase speed. So Stevens petitioned legislators to halt the grant to Fitch and Rumsey of a broad monopoly patent, and instead requested a steam engine-related patent be issued. Since none of the committee members knew anything about steam, or relative mechanical differences, they acted under existing laws granting patents on a first come, first served basis, thereby granting Rumsey a patent. Stevens chose to appeal directly to Congress because he was convinced that his steam engine was sufficiently different from Rumsey’s. He represented the awakening of American interest in science and invention resulting from the framing of the first Patent Law of the United States in April 1790. “Through such omission as this it has escaped the notice of the two groups chiefly concerned engineers and patent lawyers that the colonel, himself barely started as an inventor, had stepped into the position of godfather to all members that honorable if precarious profession.” (Turnbull, 108) He had established himself as an engineer. As soon as the new law became effective the colonel and others applied for protection.

By 1790, the Stevens family grew to six children, each increasing expenses. This influenced the colonel to indulge in lottery tickets. In fact, when John Stevens built the first low-pressure engine, he ordered and paid for the first non-condensing, double-­acting engine built on the American continent. As the owner, builder, and captain of the boat, he traveled from Belleville, New Jersey, to New York City and back again.

In fact, he traveled on his steam boat, the Phoenix, to New York nine years before Robert Fulton put the Clermont on the Hudson. This was the first American-built steamboat to engage in regular commercial transport of freight and passengers and the first to travel on the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, Stevens ran into resistance, legal disputes, and other enterprises seeking a monopoly of steamboat travel on the Hudson. In a letter Fulton addressed to James Madison in Washington and Chancellor Livingston in New York he stated “that the legislation of a state has a right to preclude any patentee from the exercise of his invention in their own particular state…. We will not permit any vessel moved by steam to navigate the waters of the State of New York on any consideration whatsoever.” (Turnbull, 256) Forwarding this message to Stevens, Livingston reminded him that the penalty was forfeit of the boat its engine and £100.

This left the colonel aware that no matter the final outcome, fighting against Fulton’s New York State rights would come at a great expense. Nevertheless, Stevens proceeded with a design of a new craft. To test Fulton and Livingston, he proclaimed that his vessel and engine were nearly complete and asked whether it would be permitted to navigate between New York City and Albany. Stevens signified his recognition of their rights by requesting a license to be granted to him. However, he made it clear that whatever the outcome, he would cruise from Hoboken to Perth Amboy. Fulton replied, “I had hoped that you would have left our rights undisturbed and I am sorry for your sake that you will not since if your boat should succeed (which I confess I greatly doubt)... the waters of this state had been pre occupied, first by Fitch, then by myself for years before you thought of a steam boat.” (quoted in Turnbull, 259) Stevens declared angrily that his craft would run faster than the Clermont and stated that, “he had already obtained the greatest speed possible with Watt’s engine it is 5½ miles an hour.” Believing that his craft was ready for service, he named her Phoenix, since she had risen out of his fiery dispute with the monopolists. Stevens advocated the use of higher boiler pressures, often more than 100 pounds per square inch (psi), seeking to push the limits of each part in the engine. His push for stronger and higher pressure engines ultimately overwhelmed James Watt’s earlier studies that suggested using 3 psi as a practical upper pressure in engines.

Stevens and the Beginning of American Steam-powered Railroads

By 1821 Stevens turned his attention to land transport after turning over operations of his successful steamboat lines to his sons. This eventually exhausted his energies and his wealth. In 1815, the New Jersey legislature proposed to erect a “Rail­Road from the River Delaware, near Trenton, to the River Raritan, at or near New Brunswick.” However, opposition was raised against steam locomotion and opponents argued instead for a canal to be built between the two rivers. Stevens was furious, fearing that the railroad would not be built. He advocated a railroad that would ensure farmers a fair price for what they brought to market. He argued that the canal was useless at the height of the season. "The farmer would spend unnecessary time navigating a canal, losing time, risking spoilage of his crops bringing them to market, and having to sell at reduced prices.

In 1823, Pennsylvania’s legislature enacted a law establishing the “President, Directors and Company of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.” The railroad was to extend from Philadelphia to Columbia, South Carolina, under Stevens’s direction, even though the charter was not issued in New Jersey, since those with the necessary wealth would not invest in its funding. Once again Stevens’s patience and persistence emerged after he received a letter from Dewitt Clinton, the governor of New York, doubting his steam carriages: “until your plan can be tested by actual experiment on a small scale at least, I think it will be at most impracticable to procure an adequate investment of capital on the magnificent scale you have contemplated.” (quoted in Alexander, 6) Colonel Stevens took up the challenge and in 1825 he built what he called “the Steam Waggon.” At the age of 75, he designed and erected a circular track spanning 110 feet in radius and 660 feet in circumference on the lower lawn of his Hoboken estate. With pride he wrote, “railroads have no where yet to been made on this side of the Atlantic. Let the experiment be fairly tried.” (Alexander, 7) He demonstrated to every guest at the Hoboken estate a sample of what he proposed to use at the Pennsylvania Railroad. This would later be called The John Stevens: Steam Waggon, comprised of a wooden flatbed carriage mounted on four wagon wheels, with a vertical tubular boiler and water barrel on the front and two benches for passengers at the rear. A single horizontal steam cylinder rotated a notched wheel that fit a rack resting between two wooden steel­topped rails. Stevens’s steam wagon operated on its circular track until about 1828, when it was moved to a linear section of track near the waterfront of his Hoboken estate. Subsequently, in 1830 the New Jersey legislature chartered the Camden and Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company, after years of the colonel's advocacy for railways. One million dollars of financing was invested in this new venture in only ten minutes. In addition, Stevens’s sons were elected to chief engineer and treasurer of the newly formed company. Among the first order of business, Robert Stevens initated the design of the “T” rail, still used today, as well as the “fish bar” that connects sections of rail together.

Stevens's Legacies

In 1839, at the age of 89 John Stevens died, leaving his vision and inspiration in transportation and steam engines to be expressed through his sons, Robert and Edwin. In 1871 Edwin Stevens carried out one of his father’s final dreams when he founded Stevens Institute of Technology. By then “railroad fever” had taken hold in the United States; in 1869, railroads and steam ferries linked the country between Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, uniting the nation together as John Stevens had foreseen. He understood the need for transportation in the United States even as its overall development in terms of engine design was met with legal resistance. Many historians regard him as the father of the American railroad system and the patent system, since he helped base the patent system on technical differences instead of making patents a monopoly granted on precedence.

Works Cited

1. Turnbull, Archibald Douglas. "John Stevens: An American Record." Internet Archive. n.p., n.d. Web. (Links to an external site.)

2. Alexander, James, Jr. John Stevens, The Man and the Machine. Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. Web. (Links to an external site.)

3. Stevens, John. "Documents Tending to prove the Superior Advantages of Rail­ways and Steam Carriages Over Canal Navigation." Stanford & Swords, 1852. Introduction by Chas. King.