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

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Gibbons, Thomas (15 December 1757–16 May 1826), planter, lawyer, and steamship owner, was born near Savannah, Georgia, the son of Joseph Gibbons and Hannah Martin, planters. Gibbons was schooled at home and in Charleston, South Carolina, where he also read law. He married Ann Heyword, but the date of the marriage is unknown. They had three children. Throughout his life Gibbons demonstrated a determined spirit. Contemporaries described him as a “high liver,” possessing a “strong mind, strong passions, strong prejudices, and strong self-will” (Halsted, pp. 16–17)....

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King, Richard (10 July 1825–14 April 1885), rancher, the son of unknown Irish immigrants, was born in New York City. Poor relatives apprenticed him at age eight or nine to a jeweler, who abused him. At age eleven King fled, stowing away on a ship bound for Mobile, Alabama, but he was discovered when four days at sea. The captain took pity on the lad, putting him ashore at Mobile, where King found work as a cabin boy on steamers plying the Alabama River. One ship’s master taught him to read and sent him to Connecticut to live with his sisters, where he received eight months’ schooling, all the education he ever acquired....

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Lamar, Gazaway Bugg (20 October 1798–05 October 1874), business entrepreneur, was born near Augusta, in Richmond County, Georgia, the son of Basil Lamar, a landholder, and Rebecca Kelly. Lamar received little formal education, although he had private Latin instruction. By age twenty-three and married to his first wife Jane Meek Creswell, whom he wed in October 1821, Lamar became a commission merchant in Augusta and, by 1823, in Savannah. Lamar’s expanding enterprises included banking and steamboating....

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Longstreet, William (06 October 1759–01 September 1814), inventor, was born near Allentown, Monmouth County, New Jersey, the son of Stoffel Longstreet and Abigail Wooley. Longstreet received some local schooling and at an early age showed mechanical skill and an interest in the increasing talk of steam engines and steamboats. In 1783 he married Hannah Randolph of Allentown, with whom he had six children. She had inherited a sizable sum of money from her father, and sometime before the fall of 1786 the family had settled in Augusta, Georgia, where Longstreet made his living as an inventor of steam engines and steamboats....

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Ogden, Aaron (03 December 1756–19 April 1839), soldier, public official, and entrepreneur, was born in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, the son of Robert Ogden II, a lawyer, and Phebe Hatfield. He attended the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) and graduated with the class of 1773. Over the next three years he taught school, first in Princeton, then in Elizabethtown, but with the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and its American colonies, he was quickly drawn into the revolutionary confrontation....

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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 ...