FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Col. John Stevens impacted steamboats, railroads, patents and more

Stevens' rudimentary steam-powered locomotive. (Image: Stevens Institute of Technology)FreightWaves Classics profiles Col. John Stevens III, who invented steam-powered boilers that powered steamboats and locomotives.

Stevens' rudimentary steam-powered locomotive. (Image: Stevens Institute of Technology)

The anniversary of the death of Col. John Stevens, III was yesterday, March 6. He was one of the earliest advocates of steam-powered transportation and railroad construction in the United States. 

Stevens was an American lawyer, engineer and inventor who built the first U.S. steam locomotive and first steam-powered ferryboat, and began the first commercial ferry service in the United States from his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey. In addition, he was a key proponent of the creation of U.S. patent law.

The seal of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. (Image: SCOTUSblog)
The seal of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. (Image: SCOTUSblog)

Heritage

Born on June 26, 1749, in New York City, Stevens was the only son of John Stevens, Jr., a prominent state politician who served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and Elizabeth Alexander. His maternal grandparents were James Alexander, the Attorney General of New Jersey, and Mary Alexander, a prominent New York City merchant. 

Career

Stevens graduated from King’s College (which became Columbia University) in May 1768.

After graduation he studied law and was admitted to the New York City bar in 1771. He practiced law in New York but lived across the river in New Jersey. He bought an estate at auction that had been confiscated from a Tory landowner. The extensive estate is now the city of Hoboken. Stevens built his estate at Castle Point, on land that would later become the site of Stevens Institute of Technology.

In 1776, Stevens was appointed a captain in the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War. During the war, he was promoted to colonel and also became Treasurer of New Jersey, serving from 1776 to 1779. Stevens easily could have become a career politician in the new nation. Instead, he chose to pursue engineering in service to society.

Protecting patents

Shortly after the U.S. Constitution was ratified and the new nation was founded, Stevens petitioned Congress to create a law protecting inventors. Members of Congress agreed, and the Patent Law of 1790 was passed, which created the foundation of the U.S. patent system. Through Stevens’ efforts, the U.S. became the first nation in the world to provide legal protection for intellectual creations; the patent system became the basis for patent law.

John Stevens' first steam-propelled ships. 
(Photo: Hoboken Historical Museum)
John Stevens’ first steam-propelled ships.
(Photo: Hoboken Historical Museum)

The steamboat

Stevens did extensive research in both the United States and in Europe in order to establish a system of steam-powered boats and railroads. The first patent he sought after the Patent Law went into effect was for “steam-powered boilers and engines,” which Stevens thought “could become the foundation of a national transportation system.” He was certainly correct. 

Stevens began experimenting with steamboats in the 1790s. With help from his sons, Stevens built the first screw-driven propeller steamboat with a high-pressure boiler engine in 1802. In 1804 he successfully operated the steamboat – just a few weeks after Robert Fulton’s pioneering trials on the Hudson River. Stevens made several other advancements in steamboat navigation; he built the “Phoenix” and became the first person to command a steamship at sea when he sailed it from Hoboken to Philadelphia in 1809. Stevens launched the world’s first commercial steam-powered passenger and freight ferry system with his steamboat, the Juliana, in October 1811. The Juliana operated between New York City and Hoboken.

Stevens' locomotive makes another run. (Photo: Hoboken Historical Museum)
Stevens’ locomotive makes another run. (Photo: Hoboken Historical Museum)

Railroad

Stevens then sought a charter to build and operate a railroad in New Jersey from the state legislature in 1811. While waiting for the charter, Stevens learned of the proposal to build a canal linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie in New York. He wrote and published a pamphlet in 1812 that outlined the superiority of railroads over canals.

The charter was finally approved for the New Jersey Railroad in 1815. The charter gave Stevens and his partners, through the Camden & Amboy Railroad, a monopoly on railroads in the state.

The circular railroad on the Stevens estate. (Image: Hoboken Historical Museum)
The circular railroad on the Stevens estate. (Image: Hoboken Historical Museum)

​Despite his success with steamboats, Stevens encountered difficulties obtaining financial backing for his railroad. Skeptics pointed out that railroads were impractical (because at that time there were no steam-powered railroads in the nation). Therefore, in 1825 Stevens built and operated a miniature steam-powered railway on a circular track at his Hoboken estate. The “steam wagon” was the first locomotive to run on rails in the U.S. 

​Then in 1830, Stevens and his family built a railroad from Perth Amboy to Trenton, New Jersey. Passengers on the railroad transferred to a steamboat in Trenton to continue down the Delaware River to Philadelphia.

Personal life

Stevens married Rachel Cox on October 17, 1782. She was a descendant of the family that originally settled New Brunswick, New Jersey. John and Rachel Stevens had 13 children.

Stevens died 184 years ago yesterday (March 6, 1838) at his estate in Hoboken.

Col. John Stevens. (National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution)
Col. John Stevens. (National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution)

Legacy

Col. John Stevens was a man of many talents – a lawyer, soldier, inventor and proponent of steam power for the advancement of American transportation and industry. In addition, every U.S. inventor since 1790 owes him a debt of gratitude for his work to bring about the U.S. patent system and the laws that protect intellectual property and patents. 

Stevens and his experiments led to steamboats and steam-powered railroads. Moreover, they initiated the tradition of technological self-reliance in the new nation. Although the first steam-powered railroad was built in England, the growth of the U.S. railroad system was “separate from and fundamentally uninfluenced by the British system.”

A Stevens' steamboat. (Image: Hoboken Historical Museum)
A Stevens’ steamboat. (Image: Hoboken Historical Museum)

For the achievements outlined in this article – and more that followed – Stevens became known as “one of the finest engineers and naval architects of the 18th and 19th centuries.”

The Stevens Institute of Technology that bears the Stevens family name is now over 150 years old. It was founded on February 15, 1870 due to a bequest by Edwin A. Stevens, one of John Stevens’ sons. 

 A view of part of the campus of Stevens Institute of Technology. (Photo: stevens.edu)
A view of part of the campus of Stevens Institute of Technology. (Photo: stevens.edu)