In my debut column as a Forbes contributor, I celebrate George Washington’s birthday by telling the story of how he championed early American inventor James Rumsey, and in so doing, played a pivotal role in developing the steamboat. As I note in the piece, the steamboat can be called America’s first great invention and “disruptive technology”:
In 1787, two events changed the course of history in America—and the world. And George Washington, who two years later would become the first U.S president, would play an indispensable role in both.
One was, of course, the drafting of the U.S. Constitution to safeguard our liberties and create a federal government checked by separation of powers. The other less well known event concerns a mode of transportation that would not come into fruition until the next century: the steamboat. As we celebrate George Washington’s birthday, his championing of a pivotal inventor gives insight into what made the father of our country so special.
In 1787, two steam-powered vessels invented by two different men sailed short but successful voyages on American rivers. These voyages would spur the race to create a commercially viable passenger and freight steamboat that culminated in Robert Fulton’s celebrated vessels some 20 years later. More importantly, as America’s first great invention, the steamboat ushered in an age of American innovation that continues to this day. But none of this may have happened without a fateful meeting in 1784 of George Washington and James Rumsey, a visionary tinkerer dismissed by many as a crackpot.
Read the full column here.