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Fitch, John (21 January 1743–June or July 1798), inventor and craftsman, was born in Windsor, Connecticut, the son of Joseph Fitch and Sarah Shaler, farmers. His father came from neighboring Hartford and his mother from Bolton. His mother died before he was five; his father married Abigail Church of Hartford two years later. Most of what is known about Fitch comes from an autobiographical sketch written between 1790 and 1792, when he was alone and embittered, convinced that he had been cheated by life. Although he had by then put aside the Calvinistic Presbyterianism of his upbringing and replaced it with a rationalistic deism, he still tended to pass judgment on those he felt had failed him. His memories of childhood were few and unhappy. He described his father as uncaring, even tyrannical. Unjust treatment by an older brother “forbode” his “future rewards,” he reminisced—with the irony intended ( ...

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Robert Fulton. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-102509).

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Fulton, Robert (14 November 1765–23 February 1815), artist, engineer, and entrepreneur, was born on a farm in Little Britain (later Fulton) Township, south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the son of Robert Fulton, a Scotch-Irish tailor and tradesman, and Mary Smith. Fulton’s father had left the prosperous market town of Lancaster to establish his family on the land, but like so many others with the same goal, he failed. The farm and the dwelling were sold at sheriff’s sale in 1772, and he took his family back to Lancaster. He died two years later....

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Herreshoff, Nathanael Greene (18 March 1848–02 June 1938), steam engineer and yacht designer, was born in Bristol, Rhode Island, the seventh of nine children of Charles Frederick Herreshoff (pronounced Herr-es-off, with the stress on the first syllable), a gentleman farmer whose paternal grandfather had emigrated to Rhode Island from Prussia in 1787, and Julia Ann Lewis. Herreshoff escaped the disease that early blinded five of his siblings. But when his consumingly ambitious older brother John Brown Herreshoff became blind at age fourteen, Herreshoff was compelled to assist him in his sailing and boat-building endeavors. By twelve he was a proficient draftsman and boat modeler as well as a skilled yacht racing helmsman and navigator. By the time he graduated from high school (1865), he was playing an important role in the design of small craft being built at his brother’s newly formed Herreshoff & Stone boat works....

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Isherwood, Benjamin Franklin (06 October 1822–19 June 1915), marine engineer, was born in New York City, the son of Benjamin Isherwood, a physician, and Eliza Hicks. His father died soon after the boy was born, and his mother married a civil engineer, John Green, in 1824. In 1831 Isherwood enrolled in Albany Academy, an exacting preparatory school that emphasized “mechanical pursuits” (Sloan, p. 6). At age fourteen, in his final school year, Isherwood was expelled for unspecified “serious misconduct.”...

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Loring, Charles Harding (26 December 1828–05 February 1907), naval officer and engineer, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of William Price Loring and Elizabeth Harding. Charles had an elementary public school education and began working as a machine shop apprentice. However, he finished first among fourteen on competitive examinations and joined the navy on 26 February 1851. As the U.S. Navy became increasingly dependent on steam-propelled warships and with the American Civil War on the horizon, his engineering experience was a valuable asset. In 1852 he married Ruth Malbon; the couple had one daughter....

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Roosevelt, Nicholas J. (27 December 1767–30 July 1854), engineer and inventor, was born in New York City, the son of Jacobus Roosevelt, a shopkeeper, and Annetje Bogard. Nicholas’s brother Jacobus was the great-grandfather of Theodore Roosevelt. As a boy Roosevelt developed a great love for mechanics and built a model boat propelled by paddle wheels turned by springs and a cord. This experiment proved to be the start of his career in manufacturing steam engines and building some of the earliest steamboats. He persuaded friends to purchase land in what is now Belleville, New Jersey, and erect a metal foundry and shop. It was called Soho after the famous works of Boulton and Watt in Birmingham, England. Managing the enterprise alone, with several skilled mechanics imported from England, at first he had some success, building an engine for the Philadelphia waterworks and winning a federal contract to establish a rolling mill for copper to be used in the construction of warships. Unfortunately, the ships were never built, causing him a great financial loss....

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Stevens, John (1749–06 March 1838), engineer and inventor, was born in New York City, the son of John Stevens, a shipowner and merchant, and Elizabeth Alexander. In later years Stevens’s father entered politics, serving as treasurer of New Jersey and as president of the New Jersey convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution. In 1766 Stevens entered King’s College, now Columbia, and graduated in 1768. He studied law for three years but never practiced it; instead, he joined his father in New Jersey politics and served as a special aide to Governor ...