A family quarrel, steamboats and US patent law

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

If all family disagreements resulted in innovations and progress, the world would be a far better place. A quarrel between Colonel Stevens and Robert Livingston resulted in the establishment of steamboat operations on the Hudson as well as in the creation of US patent law.

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

Nobody knows what the quarrel was about, but it resulted in Robert Livingston throwing his support behind Stevens’ rival – Robert Fulton.

Both John Stevens and Robert Fulton were developing cutting edge steamboat technology. Robert Livingston, whose financial and legal support in the matter was instrumental, chose to back Robert Fulton. In 1798 Livingston obtained a monopoly allowing Fulton’s steamboats to navigate in the Hudson exclusively. 

Stevens was designing and improving on his steamboats since 1798. However, since they were not legally allowed to operate in the Hudson, it was Fulton’s Clermont that got all the glory. In 1907 Clermont made the first highly publicized commercial trip from New York City to Albany in 32 hours, establishing Fulton’s place in history as the designer of the first successful steamboat. 


Robert Fulton’s Clermont – Illustration from an 1870 book

Stevens obviously protested and challenged Livingston-Fulton’s monopoly in courts. His attempt to secure the right to operate in the Hudson failed, forcing him to stay away from navigating there. Instead, in 1809 Stevens’ steamboat Phoenix made history by completing the first-ever ocean voyage. At a time when it was thought steamboats were only safe in calm waters, the Phoenix went out into the Atlantic Ocean to make a thirteen-day trip to Philadelphia via the Delaware River.

An important bragging point for Colonel Stevens was that his Phoenix was designed and built 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 in the Hudson, Colonel Stevens, a lawyer by education, was victorious in persuading Congress to pass the first American patent law. In 1790, Stevens petitioned Congress for a bill that would protect American inventors. His bill became a law and introduced the patent system as law in the United States.

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

After both Fulton and Livingston died their monopoly was declared unconstitutional, making it possible for the Stevens family to operate ferryboats between New York and Hoboken. This first transportation link from New York to Hoboken defined the future of Hoboken as a functioning part of the metropolis on the other side of the Hudson.

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