James Rumsey: Blacksmith-Inventor, by David G. Allen for the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association © 2008
A Brief Biography of James Rumsey
James Rumsey was an important pioneer in the development of the steam-powered boat. Although he sought credit for inventing the first steamboat, he never achieved that claim to fame in a formal sense. Rumsey is also overlooked for his many achievements and inventions in water power technology and his mechanical inventions.
James Rumsey was born in Maryland in 1743, but other than his being a blacksmith, little is known of him until 1782 when he was living in Bath, VA. Although Bath is the proper name of the town, it is also known popularly today as Berkeley Springs, WV.
By age forty, Rumsey was an accomplished blacksmith, mechanic, sawyer, miller, millwright and builder. He was by nature a jack of all trades, but his forte’ was building water-powered gristmills.
He built two (and perhaps more) gristmills near Berkeley Springs and operated one of them. He also built a bloomery (iron furnace) at his brother’s farm. And he built and operated a sawmill. From his sawmill, he sold lumber to builders in the growing resort town.
Rumsey was associated with innkeeper Robert Throgmorton at the Sign of the Liberty Pole and Flag inn. Gen. George Washington owned tracts of land in Bath and its surrounds. When a guest at the inn, Gen. Washington met James Rumsey and later hired him to build houses.
In 1785, Washington hired Rumsey to oversee operations of the Patowmack Company. Gen. Washington and several partners had formed the Patowmack Company to build a canal system on the Potomac River from Georgetown to Cumberland, MD.
Rumsey ran the company for a year but found the project much more difficult (if not completely unmanageable) than anyone had anticipated. Although he resigned from the company, he evidently maintained his friendship with George Washington. It was during this time that Rumsey had drawn plans for his first mechanically-powered riverboat and Washington definitely took interest in it.
There was no greater promoter of using the Potomac River for national development than Washington. He foresaw the Potomac River as a viable inland water route to the Ohio River and beyond. But his dream was not to be. By 1850, the Chesapeake & Ohio (Potomac River) canal was just reaching Cumberland. On the other hand, the first trans-Allegheny railroad (Baltimore & Ohio) was preparing to cross the Ohio River at Wheeling about that same year.
When Rumsey arrived in Bath, he began to study waterwheels and gristmills in a scientific manner. No longer was he content just to build a better mill by trial and error. He explored the physics of converting stream flow into horsepower. For example, he began calculating the respective efficiencies of undershot and overshot waterwheels.
The Potomac canal plan piqued his curiosity in river transportation as well. Rumsey’s first riverboat design, however, was clumsy, if you’ll pardon the expression.
The boat used a moving carriage mounted in the hull and parallel to the keel. The cart was fitted with two banks of rods, or poles, that dragged the river bottom. The poles dug in as the carriage traveled backwards, thus ‘poling’ the boat forward. Using machinery, Rumsey tried to emulate the action of men walking on deck and poling the boat against the current.
The mechanism failed when the poles on one side would dig into the riverbed but the poles on the opposite side would either slip or be too short to hit the bottom. This caused the boat to startle to the left or right.
The “pole boat” did not use steam for motive power when Rumsey first proposed it to Washington in 1784-5. However, Rumsey later patented the design using a steam engine. Nonetheless, Gen. Washington’s diary notes indicate his enthusiasm for the pole boat.
Congress (at Washington’s urging) offered Rumsey the promise of a large land grant if he could successfully demonstrate his pole boat on the Ohio River. Rumsey realized his concept of using poles would be impractical in deeper waters than the relatively shallow Potomac.
But this setback proved temporary and beneficial for Rumsey as he began studying propulsion in a scientific manner. The year 1785 proved to be a turning point as Rumsey went from being a craftsman cobbling together different methodologies to a scientist inventing new, and specialized, technology.
In 1785, Benjamin Franklin returned from France after a nine-year stint as America’s ambassador to that country. Ever the inventor himself, Franklin spoke at the American Philosophical Society in December of that year regarding water propulsion. Franklin presented a paper describing Daniel Bernoulli’s thesis of using a water jet as a method to propel a boat. Franklin himself dismissed the paddlewheel as a suitable propeller because it was so similar in operation to an undershot waterwheel and thus, very inefficient in transferring power.
Ben Franklin’s speech may have been the event that led Rumsey to design a waterjet-propelled boat. Two years later, on December 3, 1787, Rumsey successfully demonstrated his steam-powered, waterjet-propelled boat at Shepherdstown, VA (now WV).
Rumsey was not content to just bolt together assemblies as he had done in the past when he set out to build this new boat. For example, Rumsey studied boiler design and found a major inefficiency in existing boilers—the boilers used a central fire tube through the water vessel. Rumsey calculated that, by flowing water through a coiled pipe inside the fire chamber, the additional surface area of the piping would allow for faster heating of the water with less fuel burned. This was the kind of revolutionary discovery that the scientific method of invention yielded.
In March 1788, Rumsey traveled to Philadelphia to seek the help of the American Philosophical Society. He took with him his newly-published pamphlet entitled “A PLAN wherein the power of STEAM is fully shewn, By a new constructed Machine, for propelling Boats or Vessels, of any burthen, against the most rapid streams or rivers, with great velocity”.
Rumsey knew that his experiments in steam and water propulsion had gone as far as they could in the frontier region of a new nation. Although Rumsey’s cousin, William, was a member of the Society, it was Benjamin Franklin who became Rumsey’s primary sponsor.
Franklin convinced members of the Society to form the Rumseian Society, and they then raised funds for Rumsey to travel to England. Once there, he met with James Watt and Mathew Boulton, Watt’s partner in steam engine manufacturing.
Initially, Rumsey was offered a partnership with the Watt-Boulton enterprise. But that relationship never took root. Mutual suspicions and protection of trade secrets most likely doomed the venture.
England was protective of Watt’s engine and forbid the export of the machine and its technology. Rumsey, too, appears in the historical record as a man who jealously guarded his ideas.
The partnership would likely not have matured anyway because James Watt built only low-pressure boilers, the reason centering on fear of explosion. And that was not an unfounded fear because the iron of that age was relatively weak for use in a pressure vessel. Rumsey, though, knew that high (or at least higher) pressure steam engines would be required to produce the power necessary to propel a boat at a reasonable cruising speed.
Boulton was also critical of Rumsey’s lack of testing his designs. Rumsey, Boulton thought, relied far too much on theory. But Rumsey’s approach to invention was understandable as he never had adequate capital to build and test multiple prototypes. Watt and Boulton never faced that problem.
James Rumsey’s creative mind thrived while he was in England. Rumsey received several British patents for his various inventions, both new and past, and for boats, engines, waterwheels, mechanisms, and mills. During this creative period, Rumsey began designing “families” of water-powered mills rather than individual mills, each being a slight improvement over its predecessor. In doing so, Rumsey explained the scientific principles behind each family, which in and of itself was a new way of thinking about technology.
We are fortunate to have the records of Rumsey’s British patents because his American patents went up in smoke in 1836 when the U. S. Patent Office burned. The patent index survived the fire and lists Rumsey’s patents but not the details of each one.
James Rumsey died in London, England in 1792 and is buried there. He was 49. His grave was initially in a pauper’s cemetery, but the cemetery was later annexed by St. Margaret’s Westminster Church. A few decades ago, schoolchildren in Shepherdstown took up a collection for a bronze plaque to announce Rumsey’s burial there.
The Rumsey family of Maryland was considered a prosperous one. James Rumsey’s father, however, was just a poor farmer. In this regard, we must respect James Rumsey, a poor boy of no means, who became one of the brightest minds of the Industrial Revolution and whose inventions continue to simplify our lives today.
Shepherdstown has commemorated James Rumsey’s life with two monuments—a millstone in 1907 and a granite monument in 1915. Rumsey moved from Bath to Shepherdstown in 1785 and lived there until 1788 when he left for London. Shepherdstown is the oldest town in present-day West Virginia and fronts on the Potomac River.