John Stevens

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See also Wikipedia's article about "John Stevens (inventor)".

John Stevens KC 1768 was a notable early American inventor who pioneered designs of the steamboat, built the first working railroad locomotive in the U.S., and helped develop U.S. patent law.

Family and early life

Stevens' father was prominent in public life, and, beyond setting the border between New Jersey and New York State, was a delegate to the Continental Congress. His sister was married to King's alum and Founding Father Robert Livingston. After graduating from King's College, Stevens himself was admitted to the New York bar in 1771, although his loyalties remained across the Hudson. It's unclear what he did during the Revolutionary War, but it allowed him to buy a fled Tory's estate at bargain prices, and Stevens came to own the entirely of what is now the city of Hoboken.

Inventions and enterprises

After the war, he served as Treasurer of New Jersey as well as a colonel in the army. He successfully petitioned for the creation of the U.S.' first patent law in 1790. Afterward, he turned to inventing, comlpeting his first steamboat in 1798 with the help of Livingston, Robert Fulton, and Nicholas Roosevelt (ancestor of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt). But by the early 19th century, Fulton had secured a monopoly over steamboat operations on the Hudson, so Stevens set loose his newest boat on the open ocean, becoming the first to do so, and began operations on the Delaware. In 1811, he was operating the world's first steam ferry between New York and Hoboken.

By 1815, he had become captivated by the possibilities of railroads instead, and obtained the first rail charter in the U.S. In 1826, he built the first steam locomotive that actually pulled a train on track in America.

Stevens openly mocked the construction of the Erie Canal, saying a railroad would be a better investment. The prognostication turned out to be a bit ahead of its time, and was ignored by Governor DeWitt Clinton, Gouverneur Morris, and even Livingston, although it was widely circulated in later years.


Stevens had eleven children, four of whom (John Cox, 1803; James Alexander, 1808; Richard, 1810; and Francis Bowes, 1810) later graduated from Columbia. Several of his other children went on to become notable inventors in their own right - although none of the Columbia graduates did. John Cox is remembered for being the first commodore of the New York Yacht Club.

His Hoboken estate later became the campus of the Stevens Institute of Technology, founded by his son Edwin Augustus.