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Stevens, John - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: John Stevens

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John Stevens was one of America’s early inventors and engineers. A pioneer of steam-powered transportation and of patent laws, John Stevens devised efficient innovations for steam engines and helped popularize their use in ships and locomotives.

Personal Life

John Stevens was born into a wealthy family in New York City in 1749. Stevens was born more than 25 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and more than 30 years before the United States existed as a sovereign state. His father was a ship owner and merchant and provided handsomely for his family. When John was a boy, the Stevens family moved to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where he attended Kenersley’s College. The family moved back to New York City and there John attended King’s College, which today is Columbia University. He graduated in 1768.

John Stevens became a lawyer and was admitted to the bar in 1771. His attention quickly turned to politics. During the revolution, he served as treasurer of New Jersey during the years 1776 to 1779 and surveyor general of eastern New Jersey from 1782 until 1783. He achieved the rank of colonel for his services in the revolution.

Stevens had three sons: John Cox, Robert Livingston, and Edwin Augustus. All three worked with their father during his career as an engineer and inventor. In 1784, John Stevens bought a huge estate on the west side of the Hudson River for his growing family. The estate comprised most of present-day Hoboken, New Jersey.

Career Details

After his brief career in law and politics, Stevens turned his attention to steam navigation. He was truly a pioneer of this science, as it was then only in an experimental stage. His political connections came in handy later, however. In order to protect his inventions, Stevens petitioned Congress for patent laws to prevent others from unjustly appropriating proprietary inventions. The first American patent law was passed in April 1790. Its form was essentially what Stevens had outlined to Congress, and the new law allowed Stevens to claim his first patent in 1791.

Stevens’ early work produced improved steam boilers and steam engines. Stevens teamed up with his brother-in-law and college friend, Robert R. Livingston, to attempt to build a steamboat. After a few years of unsuccessful experiments, Stevens and Livingston teamed up with mechanic Nicholas Roosevelt.

Robert Livingston purchased an exclusive charter for steamships on the Hudson River. Soon thereafter, he went to France to serve as the U.S. minister. During his tenure there, he convinced Robert Fulton, the man credited with the invention of the steamboat, to produce his 5-mile-per-hour steamship in America.

One of Stevens’ most important inventions came in 1802, still early in his steam experimentation. He designed the screw propeller, which was a great advance in steamship operation. The screw propeller was a large screw with four blades on it, driven by the steam engine. In 1803, Stevens used this technology in building the Little Juliana . It was powered by a multitubular boiler, which Stevens had patented. Using a new high-pressure steam engine and two screw propellers, the Little Juliana crossed the Hudson river in 1804.

Upon Livingston’s return to the United States, he met with Stevens to discuss their steamship plans. He was unimpressed, however, with the Little Juliana . The ship failed to meet the speed requirements of his Hudson River charter. He offered Stevens a partnership in Fulton’s future steamboat. Stevens declined this proposal, feeling betrayed by Livingston. From then on, there was fierce competition between Stevens and the Livingston-Fulton team.

Next, John Stevens designed an engine for a paddle-wheel steamboat. His hope was to establish a ferry service between New Jersey and Manhattan and another between New York City and Albany. Unfortunately for him, Livingston fulfilled his charter when Fulton’s Clermont made its first successful voyage from New York City to Albany, New York, in 1807. Fulfilling the charter gave Livingston-Fulton monopolistic rights to steam navigation on the Hudson.

Just one year later in 1808, Stevens launched his 100-foot Phoenix . Since Stevens’ ship could not sail the Hudson, the Phoenix took a trial run to Philadelphia by sea in June 1809. With that maiden voyage, captained by John Stevens’ son Robert Livingston Stevens, the Phoenix became the world’s first ocean-traveling steamboat. Stevens used the Phoenix to set up steam-powered ferry service on the Delaware river. In 1811, Stevens’ built another steamship, the Juliana which was used as a ferry on Long Island Sound.

After building and launching the Juliana , John Stevens turned his attention to using steam locomotion for land travel. Again, his political past facilitated his endeavor. He argued the advantages of rail transportation over canals in Congress. His efforts resulted in the passage of the first American railways act. In 1815, Stevens received the first railroad charter in America from the state of New Jersey. The charter granted him rail rights from the Delaware River, near Trenton, to the Raritan River in New Brunswick. He was granted a similar charter in 1823 from the Pennsylvania state legislature. With that, he and partners Horace Binney and Stephen Girard established the Pennsylvania Railroad. The rails ran from Philadelphia to Columbia, Pennsylvania, but soon failed financially.

John Stevens constructed the first steam locomotive in the United States in 1825, when he was over 75 years old. He operated the train on a circular track on his Hoboken estate. In 1830, he formed the Camden & Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company, his first successful rail company. Before his death in 1838, Stevens also designed a bridge and underwater tunnel to run from Hoboken to New York City and an elevated railroad system for New York City.

Two of Stevens’ sons, Edwin and Robert, worked closely with their father on his steam-powered transportation projects. Both are respected inventors in American history. Robert assisted his father in the construction of Little Juliana , the small screw-propeller steamboat that crossed the Hudson in 1804. In 1809 he captained their Phoenix on its maiden voyage to Philadelphia. After this trip, Robert Stevens piloted the Phoenix as a ferry along the Delaware River. The War of 1812 led him to the idea of developing metal-clad ships with his brother Edwin, but navy officials showed no interest in the project until the 1840s. Stevens was unable to construct one before his death. In 1830, he joined his father’s rail company and went to England to study locomotives. As a result, he designed the T-shaped type of rail which is still used. He also discovered that iron rails over wooden cross ties over a gravel bed—as is used today—provided a safer, more comfortable ride than others of that day. Robert Livingston Stevens was named president and chief engineer of the Camden & Amboy Railroad Company that year. Steam railroad service in New Jersey began in 1831. The English locomotive used on the John Bull line was later preserved at the Smithsonian Institute. Stevens developed a two-wheeled guide called a pilot that he attached to the front of the locomotive. This important innovation reduced derailments on sharp curves. In 1844, Stevens returned to his naval roots and designed Maria , a yacht recognized as the world’s fastest sailing ship for the next twenty years.

Also an inventor, Edwin Augustus Stevens was the businessman of the family. He managed his father’s estate and oversaw the family’s commercial ventures. He invented a plow in 1821 with his brother that came into wide use. He initiated construction of the Union Railroad between Philadelphia and New York City in 1825 as its manager. By 1827, the Stevens family owned the Union Railroad and later merged it with the Camden & Amboy Railroad Company. Edwin Stevens served as manager and treasurer of the Camden & Amboy Railroad Company for 35 years. He worked with his brother on the design of metal-clad ships. Congressional approval of the project was won in 1842, but construction did not begin until 1854. Robert’s death in 1856 ended the brothers’ efforts in producing armored ships for the navy.

Social and Economic Impact

The ability of entrepreneurs to protect their inventions can be traced back to John Stevens. Stevens outlined a patent law and is credited with convincing Congress to pass it. He was also among the first to be granted a patent under that law.

Stevens patented several important inventions in steamboat engine design. Stevens, in competition with Fulton, Livingston, and Roosevelt, was among the first to introduce commercially successful steamboats. Stevens’ oceangoing steamboat offered new possibilities for ferrying people and for trading between cities. A dedicated inventor, Stevens did not stop experimenting and learning once the steamboat had been invented. Instead, he used his knowledge to promote something he strongly believed in, rail travel by steam locomotive.

Stevens’ impact on the world continued long after his death. His promotion of rail travel and invention of the steam locomotive changed trade, travel, and expansion in the United States in ways that he did not see during his lifetime. His children’s contributions to steamboats, railways, naval ships, and plows are attributed in part to him because they worked with him during most of his career.

Chronology: John Stevens

1749: Born.

1771: Admitted to the Bar Association.

1776: Became treasurer of New Jersey.

1790: Presented patent law to Congress.

1791: Received first patent for first multitubular boiler.

1804: Little Juliana crossed the Hudson River.

1809: Phoenix made the world’s first sea voyage by a steam vessel.

1815: Received first U.S. railroad charter.

1825: Constructed first steam locomotive in the United States.

1838: Died.

Models of Stevens work can be found at the Smithsonian Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, is named for the Stevens family. The Stevens Institute was endowed with land and money by Edwin Augustus Stevens on his death.

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