Steamboats, Who Gets There First & Who Gets the Credit


I was doing some research for a content strategy project this week for the Belle of Louisville. Since I’ve become obsessed with steampunk stuff, working on a project that features the oldest still-operating steam-powered riverboat is PRETTY DARN COOL.

But I digress.

In doing the research, I read something really sad. Robert Fulton is widely believed to have invented the steamboat. He did not. A man named John Fitch did. Fitch not only came up with the design, he built four working steamboats. So why haven’t you heard of John Fitch? Because he couldn’t get any backers. He ended up falling into a deep depression till he died. A decade after he invented the steamboat, Fulton used his design and was able to get investors, launching the riverboat industry.

How weird is that? Go to Kickstarter sometime and see how quickly even totally goofy, unrealistic projects can get thousands of dollars of funding. And poor Fitch, with his four working prototypes of a technology that would revolutionize transportation? Nada. Zip. Zilch.

I think about this, and a couple of  things come to mind.

Being first means nothing. I see a lot of guys in my industry who are so obsessed with being on the bleeding edge of technology and entrepreneurship, it seems almost inevitable that they will run right past that edge and tumble off.  Remember Friendster? The Newton? Lots of times, being first means your invention/startup/idea/creative work is the one that everyone will laugh at, and someone else will learn from, improve, and profit.

Worry about contribution, not credit. Fitch fell into a depression and died. But the thing is, he still invented the steamboat. It still worked. He had an idea, he brought that idea into reality, and eventually that idea spawned an entire industry.  Maybe he was a horrible salesman. Maybe he lacked the right connections. Whatever it was, Fitch had the stuff to create the steamboat, but not convince people of their value.

If you create something amazing, but let yourself get sucked into depression because someone else put some spit and polish on it and got all the credit, well, wah. Life’s unfair. That’s implied. If you’re a person capable of creating amazing things, value that. Focus on that.

Because precious few people can.


  1. ·

    I agree, focusing on that value is important. That knowledge and confidence can propel you forward in many ways. I remember my surprise upon learning about Fulton and Fitch – I imagine there are numerous similar stories throughout history. It’s a sad, but good lesson.

  2. Kat French

    I’d be surprised if there weren’t a lot of similar stories. Typically, truly innovative minds have a hard time relating to others. It’s probably not surprising that they often have a harder time convincing people of the worth of their inventions. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  3. Kat French

    I saw that Oatmeal comic! And also the rebuttal to the Forbes post about it, which was almost funnier. 🙂


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