Nicholas Roosevelt was a distant cousin of the two Roosevelts who later became presidents of the United States. As a group they were all descendants of an ancestor who first came to New Netherland in the seventeenth century. Nicholas was the son of Isaac Roosevelt who was a member of the New York Provincial Congress and later the New York Legislature. Isaac also served as a member of the New York City Council and was the President of the Bank of New York.
Nicholas was an inventor and was involved in the manufacture of mechanical devices. He became interested in the propulsion of river boats, then the major method of people and goods transportation. He invented the vertical wheel which later became known as the paddle wheel. After much experimentation, he introduced the vertical wheel in 1798, and tried to get others, and in particular Robert Livingston, interested in utilizing it in river boat construction.
In 1802, Livingston told Robert Fulton about Roosevelt’s vertical wheel. It should be mentioned that at that time there were a number of others also experimenting with steamboat propulsion. In 1803, Livingston and Fulton launched a boat utilizing Roosevelt’s vertical wheel. To be sure the steamboat propulsion problem was still in the experimental state. The trio of Livingston, the financier, Roosevelt, the vertical wheel inventor, and Fulton, the steamboat specialist, made a great combination to speed up the development of the steam powered river boat.
The trio of Livingston, Fulton and Roosevelt, in 1811, built an improved and more efficient version of the paddle wheeler, named it the “New Orleans”, and tried it out on a Pittsburg to New Orleans run. The run was completed in a record setting 14 days, and the scene was set for the Mississippi paddle wheeler, a design that would dominate Mississippi shipping for the next century and longer.
In 1814, Roosevelt applied for and was granted a United States patent for the vertical [paddle] wheel. But in those days the federal patent office apparently was not the enforcer of patents. And there were apparent infringements of Roosevelt’s patent. In response to the infringements Roosevelt applied to the New Jersey Legislature for protection of his patent of the vertical wheel. Unfortunately, there is little information on what effect the complaint had.
To this day, Fulton is commonly viewed as the inventor and developer of the steam ship. But there were many others involved who never received much if any credit for their contributions. Nicholas Roosevelt was one of those.
John H. B. Latrobe wrote a book, published in Baltimore, Maryland in 1971, about Roosevelt and his work on steamboat development. Much of the material in this bio is based on the information in Latrobe’s book. Even Fulton is quoted as stating, ”I have no pretensions to be the first inventor of the steamboat.” But Fulton apparently was the developer of the steamboat to the point where it became an efficient machine for the transportation of people and goods over lengthy river and salt water distances. It is also interesting to know that the steamboat era was considered to have begun in 1787, when John Fitch [1743-1798] made the first successful trial of a 45 foot steamboat on the Delaware River.
Both Roosevelt and Fulton were contemporaries. Fulton was born in 1765, two years before Roosevelt. However, Fulton died in 1811, when he was only 46 years old. Roosevelt on the other hand lived until the ripe old age of 86.
For detailed Roosevelt family relationships see the appendix at the end of President Theodore Roosevelt's bio profile.
Nicholas Roosevelt, http://famousamericans.net/nicholasjroosevelt/
The History of Steamboats, http://inventors.about.com
John H. B. Latrobe, “Lost Chapter in the History of the Steamboat”: Baltimore, Maryland, 1871.
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