A People’s History of Jefferson County – James Rumsey (part 1) by Jim Surkamp


As brilliant as he is unknown, this James
Rumsey – the most original James Rumsey – Crazy Rumsey to those who didn’t appreciate this inventor’s wondrous mind. And why is it we know so little about a man who has given us so much? Why did Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and George Washington almost gush about this self-taught frontier blacksmith with a mind like a diamond
in the sun. With the very few tools they brought into
the country, they certainly performed wonders. Their plows, harrows with wooden teeth and
sleds, in many instances, were well-made. Their cooperware, which comprehended everything
from milk and water was generally pretty well executed. Many of their puncheon floors were very neat,
their joints close and their tops even and smooth. Those who cannot execute the mechanic arts
were, under necessity, of giving labor or barter, to their neighbors in exchange for
the use of them. Frontier life demanded a certain genius. That genius coursed through the mind and veins
of Shepherdstown’s one-time blacksmith – James Rumsey who invented something like a propeller,
and his tube boiler that was not only the progenitor of the steamboat but the true beginning
of modern steam technology. Prof. Edwin T. Layton Jr. of the University
of Minnesota, and past president of the Society for the History of Technology, wrote that I first became intrigued with James Rumsey when Dan Tokar, our iron metal artisan and
It was like a sort of a laboratory for his third eye. He made them go backwards. He made them go forwards. He added things. He made a widget like this and a gadget like that. And it wasn’t long before the residents of
little old Shepherdstown began calling him “Crazy Rumsey.” And why was this so? Rumsey loved waterwheels. He would spend hours studying the water wheels of his mills, noting the lost power of the water poorly aimed at the turning wheels vanes. The dancing water told Rumsey that a steady pressure of water, well-aimed at the wheel gave extraordinary dividends; and, as with
water – so with steam. 4:39 We all know that books are revolutionary and dangerous. Explosions come off the pages of books. Explosions of the mind? One day a book landed in Rumsey’s hands. (This man who was a banger and clanger). Theophilus Desaguliers was the author of this incendiary volume that changed Rumsey into the man that Edwin Layton described. The book showed Rumsey to experiment not with things, but with ideas. So there was Newton’s dictum – “For every
action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” and for a man who spent most of his days studying grist mills and asking “how to get the most power out of moving water- that dictum meant something. It became the jet propulsion that drove one of the world’s first steam-driven, jet-propelled steamboat or at the least the world’s first
jet ski. 5:59 In September, 1784 Rumsey recognized the incomparable George Washington. We already know that on September 6, 1784, George Washington met Rumsey at Rumsey’s boardinghouse in Berkeley Springs and, after a demonstration, was quite impressed with a cruder boat invention of Rumsey’s – not steam powered – to the degree that Washington gave Rumsey a certificate of support that went a long long way winning for Rumsey the patent in Virginia and becoming a prestigious advantage in his patent race
against his rival, John Fitch. Washington saw Rumsey move forever forward the following March with a new idea to build a steamboat. Perhaps it was because Newton’s Third Law of Motion was taking hold in his imagination and the water tube boiler was coming into view. He let Washington know of this profound leap forward in his idea of a now called STEAM boat in a letter March 10, 1785: I have taken the greatest pains to affect another kind of Boats upon the principles I was mentioning to you at Richmond. I have the pleasure to Inform you that I have Brought it to the greatest perfection. Rumsey had invented a steam pump later that year and realized that pole boats were too ungainly to succeed. Robert O. Woods an ASME Fellow wrote: Rumsey then decided to connect a hydraulic pump piston. . essentially creating an entirely respectable example of jet propulsion. The pump took in water from near the keel and ejected it at the stern of the boat. Aided by a flexible diaphragm, Rumsey successfully demonstrated this concept in 1787. Washington helped Rumsey get that job
that summer supervising an ambitious project to make all of the Potomac navigable. With money from this lucrative job, Rumsey began assembling his boat in the fall of 1785 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. His wife’s family lived there. Rumsey saw a way out of his thankless job in July, 1786 and turned full-steam ahead on building his boat. Rumsey and Joseph Barnes, a carpenter, dove into the near-impossible task of building the world’s first viable steamboat, using
the frontier rudiments of local iron ores, lead solder, tin, the wood from endless forests, and the improvisational tricks of the craftsmen from the region. Washington wrote in January, 1786: I would advise you to give your steamboat to the public as soon as it can be prepared conveniently. I will also inform you that many people, in
guessing your plan, have come very nearly to the mark, and that one that has something of a similar nature to offer to the public wanted a certificate from me. On that December 3rd morning in 1787, Rumsey’s crude steamboat, with a tube boiler made from cut-iron scrap and an engine put together
by the brazing process, eased into the Potomac. Henry Bedinger, Gen. Horatio Gates and many others witnessed and cheered at what Rumsey billed as the first successful steamboat demonstration. “By God, she moves!” one cried. Wrote Bedinger: After going for a half mile
or more, to a point opposite what is known as Swearingen’s Spring, she rounded to and returned, going for some little distance. . . . Thus she continued to go to and fro,
up and down the river, for about the space of two hours, in full view of many hundreds of spectators.” This and the very last steamboat demonstration
of Rumsey’s – both lasting only for part of a day – were his only successful steamboat demonstrations, as he was vexed by lack of funds, poor materials unskilled workmen and the specter of rival inventors and companies. Yet all throughout, thick and thin, he was
imagining in his mind’s playfully protean laboratory a plethora of inventions that have survived and shaped the world we live in today. He wrote Washington in the spring, 1788: Tomorrow morning, I throw myself upon the wide world in pursuit of my own plans, being no longer able to proceed upon my own foundations. I shall bend my course for Philadelphia where I hope to have it in my power to convince a Franklin and a Rittenhouse. To spur him on to new heights, Ben Franklin, another great American who was impressed by Rumsey’s ideas, made himself the first to
subscribe (and others promptly followed) launching the Rumseyan Society and they ponied up 200 pounds Sterling and bid Rumsey to go to London, where the real entrepreneurial action was. In two hours I shall be on board a ship bound for London with a bill for two hundred pounds sterling in my pocket and the best letters
Philadelphia can afford. Doctor Franklin is writing a letter for me. . . .This Charles is my meridian, if I do
not do something now I am done.

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