Steamboat | United States (Early 19th c)


The Great Mississippi Steamboat Race: from New Orleans to St Louis published by Currier & Ives, retrieved from

By Conor Drake

A constant characteristic in the rise of the Anthropocene is mankind’s ability to technologically evolve in order to maximize our use and productivity.  This trend starts with early agriculture innovation and the use of irrigation systems to the mastery of nuclear power and alternative energy methods today.  Out of all of these technological advancements, the steam engine is perhaps one of the most consequential of early technological innovations.  While the steam engine itself was an important invention, the various machines that they powered were equally as important. The steamboat was one such machine that harnessed the power of the steam engine and was critical in the growth of America through more than half of the 19th century.  Thus, I have selected the steamboat and its use of the steam engine as my object to define the Anthropocene.  Specifically, looking at the invention of the American steamboat by Robert Fulton in the early 1800’s and how the steamboat boosted the American industrial revolution and economy, encouraged population dispersion and serves as a representation for man’s conquest of nature.

Before engaging in how the steamboat shaped America in the 1800’s it is necessary to analyze the object itself to understand why it’s invention was so monumental.  The earliest step was James Watt’s innovation of an efficient steam engine in 1765.  Watt’s engine was revolutionary for his inclusion of a separate condensation chamber which helped reduce the amount of heat and energy lost when the steam condensed.  This meant that less coal was burnt to produce the same amount of power as earlier steam engines, a cost effective update.  From there it was a matter of harnessing the power of that engine in a way that could propel a boat with no human aid.  While a number of engineers and inventors collaborated in the creation of the steamboat, Robert Fulton, an American, was the first to make a commercially successful vessel.  By directing the power of the engine pistons through a crankshaft to two large paddled wheels on either side of the boat, Fulton was able to create consistent and easy forward propulsion.  His first steamboat, The Clermont, was launched in 1807 to much skepticism over the safety and practicality of such a boat.  Her maiden voyage took her up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany, a distance of 150 miles, in just over 30 hours (Gessler & Kotar, 2009, p.10).  Besides the flying of a few sparks and the groan of the engine, the voyage was an unequivocal success.  Less than 30 years later America would be in the midst of “the steamboat era”.

The most obvious way to measure the impact of the steamboat on the Anthropocene is to examine its effect on the American industrial revolution and the Capitalocene.  For reference, the Capitalocene is the period in history where capitalist markets emerged and capital, not humans, became the main driver of the Anthropocene.  To begin, the steamboat was an invention that greatly improved the transportation of goods and products across the United States.  Prior to the steamboat’s use of an engine for propulsion, ships had to rely on the flow of the river or the strength of the wind in order to travel efficiently.  The steam engine greatly reduced the time it took to deliver goods without being dependent on the forces of nature.  For example, a trip from Newport, NJ to New York City was reduced from several days to just over 25 hours.  Besides quicker travel being cost effective, it also helped the delocalization of markets.  Farmers could now sell surplus crops to a much wider market without fear that they would spoil on a long nautical voyage.  This in turn allowed communities to specialize in the growing of one crop while using surplus sales to buy whatever goods they may have needed.  This phenomenon helped spark a larger and more interconnected American market and encouraged early American capitalism, key attributes of the Capitalocene.  Additionally, steamboats created their own industry.  With the popularity of steamboats increasing for both industrial and commercial use, factories began to build and assemble steamboats.  Cities on large rivers across America such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville and New Orleans all flourished due to the additional jobs and capital created from being major ports and builders of steamboats.  These examples show how instrumental the steam engine was in powering the American Capitalocene in the early 1800’s.  The industry of the steamboat helped increase the productivity of water transport, encourage delocalized but interdependent markets and further industrial development across America.  Thus, we can see the impact the steamboat had on the human constructed Capitalocene and in broader context, the Anthropocene.

While the American steamboat had a direct impact on the Anthropocene at the time of it’s creation, it also serves as a way to determine who were the key players of the Anthropocene.  This is most easily done by examining the trends in population dispersion after the emergence of the steamboat.  One of the main issues with moving westward across the United States and settling was the degree in difficulty it took to move safely.  However, after the creation of the steamboat settlers and common people were able to move across the country for cheaper and much less dangerously.  This helps explain how the population of the former Wisconsin Territory (Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota) increased from 22,000 to over half a million in just 14 years from 1836 to 1850.  While the promise of new land and opportunity attracted settlers West, it was the steamboat that provided them a way to get there.  As roads and railroads in the region were undeveloped at this point.  Sadly, just as the steamboat encouraged the arrival of settlers to new areas of the Unites States, it was also utilized for the removal of others.  Steamboats were used to both fight Native American who refused to leave land that the United States had claimed and transport Native Americans further West to reservations.  Thus we can see a sharp contrast in who is helped and hurt by the steamboat.  In this case the American settlers are the beneficiaries of the steamboat and the key players of the Anthropocene.  While they did not build or operate the steamboat, they were the primary users who depended on the steamboat.  This population movement also encourages a Eurocentric narrative where “the wilderness” is settled despite Native Americans currently living there.  Then using advanced technology, like the steamboat, to “tame” and remove them is equally on par with the classic Eurocentric narrative.  Overall the steamboat acted as a vessel for the population of the United States to disperse while also fueling a seemingly Eurocentric narrative.

Lastly, the steamboat stands as a symbol for man’s overwhelming crusade to overcome nature.  As previously mentioned, the steamboat was a marvel because it could fight the obstacles that sail powered ships could not.  A lack of wind nor a river’s current could stop the steamboat from traversing up or down a river and reaching its destination faster than any other form of transportation.  In this context, the steamboat is a successful attempt of man made innovation thwarting nature and the elements.  The same could be said for the canals and locks that were built specifically to accommodate the size of the new steamboats.  Rivers like the Hudson, Ohio and Mississippi had these new canals and locks built for the fluent travel of the steamboat across America’s waterways (Flexner, 1944).  Through the use of technology and human innovation, Americans of the time reshaped the landscape in order to increase human productivity and fiscal gain.  When considering the development and impact of the steamboat it becomes clear that this object is an embodiment of human exceptionalism.  At this point in history the steamboat was the most innovative technology in America.  Building upon boats and technologies of the past, the steamboat became an object impervious to nature’s obstacles due to human ingenuity.  This theme of human technology continually evolving to stay one step ahead of nature leads me to believe that the Anthropocene is best described by a post-nature narrative.  While every step we have taken in the past 200 years has lead us to great technological advancement, we have let nature suffer for it.  Even today we look for new ways technology can help us solve the issues with fossil fuels and carbon polluting in the present Anthropocene.  The steamboat was but one step in the process of man outsmarting the forces of nature and putting us on the path to a post-nature narrative.

Upon viewing a historical steamboat today, it will seem unimpressive.  Dwarfed by the cargo ships of today, constructed primarily out of now decaying wood and moved ever so slowly by rotating wheels it truly is an antique.  A far cry from their glory days less than 200 years earlier.  However, even the remnants of these once great ships serves as a lesson.  Man and technology are always changing and most likely always will be.  The steamboat is but one item in a long line of technological advancements that has lead us to this juncture in the Anthropocene.  So even though the steamboats impact on American industry, the Capitalocene and population dispersion were temporary blips in the Anthropocene, it’s status as a symbol for human exceptionalism will always remain true.  This is why the American steamboat is a perfect object to represent the Anthropocene.


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