Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action

Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action

Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action

Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action


First published in 1944 to unanimous praise, James Thomas Flexner's Steamboats Come True has indeed done more than stand the test of time. It remains a splendidly myth - debunking but celebratory account of "the first American invention of world-shattering importance" - the steamboat.


When I began the research that eventuated in this book, I did not have any intention of devoting a volume to the invention of the steamboat. I thought I was continuing a series of books quite different.

During my middle twenties, I had conceived the idea of writing short biographies of the men who had been pioneers in various aspects of American culture. My first published book, Doctors on Horseback, contained six lives, linked by theme and sometimes overlapping, that depicted the characters and achievements of America's first medical scientists. Then came America's Old Masters, biographies of the four painters who first gave American art stature in the world. After these volumes had been gratifyingly received, I looked around for a new subject for short biographies. Invention, the typical expression of American genius, seemed the obvious answer.

For me to move in this direction might well have been considered rash, because I had never been particularly interested in machines. If an automobile I was driving gave out on the road, and I had made sure that I had not (as was so often the case) forgotten to fill the gas tank, my only panacea was to give the engine several smart kicks. Should this not suffice, I would call up a garage.

However, I had no intention of making my book a mechanical treatise. I was concerned with what I understood better: the behavior of people and the growth of ideas. I assumed that with hard study I could master the relevant mechanical principles, and I had, as a neighbor and friend, Sidney Withington, the chief electrical engineer of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, who was historically minded and proved an invaluable . . .

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