Steam Boat Print E-mail
Monday, 24 January 2005

If you ask people ‘Who first used steam to propel a boat?’ there’s a good chance they will answer ‘An American called Robert Fulton.’

They would be wrong!

Claude François Dorothée Jouffroy d’Abbans’ 45 metre steam boat travelled UP France’s river Saône, in 1783.


Jouffroy d’Abbans was born at the family chateau at Roche-sur-Rognon in 1751 and it was always understood that his career would be in the army. To prepare the boy for this, his father sent him to court at the age of 13, to be a page to the Dauphine Marie Josephe de Saxe.

Young d’Abbans had already shown a great interest in anything mechanical and had often been found taking one of the family’s clocks to bits. This mechanical bent was encouraged at the court by Trincano, who was tutor in mathematics and science to the pages. By the time d’Abbans returned home, on the death of Marie Josephe, he had decided that he wanted to be an inventor, not a soldier.

He was encouraged in this by two neighbours, Claude François Joseph d’Auxiron and Charles François Monnin de Follenay, both of whom had studied science at Metz and were keen to develop the use of steam power. D’Abbans begged to be allowed to follow in their footsteps, but his father insisted he joined the army, where it wasn’t long before he had an altercation with his commanding officer, the Conte d’Artois. He was sent to the îles des Lérins, where he was imprisoned at Fort Sainte Marguerite. It was there, whilst looking out of his cell, on vessels being propelled by oar and sail, that he began to think  more and more about using steam engines to power boats.

In the meantime, d’Auxiron had been working on a design for a steam propelled boat and de Follenay, who had many friends in high places, was able to get him a Government promise that he would be the sole operator of steam boats, on French rivers, for 15 years. Of course, there was a condition, d’Auxiron had to satisfy the Academie des Sciences that the invention would be of real value to navigation. De Follenay undertook to arrange the finance for Auxiron’s first boat and a company was formed on May 23, 1772; among the shareholders — who undertook to meet any debts in accordance with their holdings — was the Compte de Jouffroy d’Uxelles, uncle of Jouffroy d’Abbans.

D’Auxiron started building, near the île des Cygnes and immediately ran into hostility from the organisations which operated the horse drawn haulage systems on the rivers and canals. Despite a day and night guard, the boat sank on September 8 1774, just before the official trials were to take place. Investigation showed that a 130 pound counter weight — part of the machinery — had been dislodged and split the bottom of the hull. It was believed that one of d’Auxiron’s own workers had been paid to drop the weight.

Shortly after this Jouffroy d’Abbans was released from prison, on the death of Louis XV, and came to Paris where he met up with his two neighbours. The three were determined to succeed with steam powered boats and, in 1776, d’Abbans tested a 13 metre steam powered boat on the river Doubs. It worked, but the propulsion system, which consisted of articulated blades — rather like robotic oars, was inefficient.

By now, Auxiron’s health was failing, but he wrote to d’Abbans ‘Courage my friend, you are the one with the right ideas.’ and, when he died at the age of 47, his heirs and de Follenay invited d’Abbans to be part of a new company, to fulfill Auxiron’s original aims to build steam boats and obtain exclusive rights to exploit them on the French rivers.

D’Abbans next boat was a far more advanced machine, a 41 metre paddle wheeler of 160 tons. This was the vessel which succeeded in going up the Saône, on July 15, 1783, an event which was witnessed by Lyon dignitaries and duly notarised.

The Revolution of 1789 means that we will never know whether d’Abbans would have gone on to build more boats and these would have been a commercial success. Lack of funding and the terror which spread through France over the next 10 years, put an end to any hope. In 1793, d’Abbans took refuge on the other side of the Rhine and did not return to France until 1801.

In 1796, Robert Fulton arrived in Paris and met up with the American ambassador, who obtained funding for Fulton to have a boat built by the Périer brothers, who had themselves experimented with a steam boat which proved to have insufficient power. On August 9, 1803, Fulton’s 21.7 metre boat went up the Seine and, from that moment on, the French people gave the American the accolade of having brought steam power to navigation.

Fulton himself never made that claim. He always maintained ‘I did not invent the steam boat, that honour goes to the man who was responsible for the experience at Lyon in 1783.’

Even that wasn’t correct, for the real credit should go to Denis Papin, who was deprived of acknowledgement for not just one, but two revolutionary inventions.

Papin was born at Blois, in France, on August 22 1647. He was the first person, in 1687, to put forward the theory of a piston engined machine, operated by steam.

The machine he made was rudimentary, but it worked and was put into service for more than one application. In Germany, for example, it was used to raise water into the Kassel to Karshaven canal. Sadly though, Papin is, popularly, best known for inventing the pressure cooker and Watt is widely credited with inventing the steam engine. Yet, in truth, Watt only perfected what Papin had invented and Von Guericke, Savery and Newcomen had taken further.

Papin might also claim to have been the first to operate a boat on steam power. In 1707, he built a paddle wheeler, powered by one of his engines, with which he intended to travel to England. A few kilometres from Kassel, where the boat was built, he was stopped by members of the Association of Canal Transporters. They dragged the boat onto the bank and, during the night of June 26, took it to pieces.

Papin and d’Abbans have as much in common in death as they did in life. Neither have been fully credited with their achievements and both died in poverty and obscurity.

Jouffroy d’Abbans, having taken refuge in Les Invalides, died of cholera on July 18, 1832. He was buried in the cemetery there but, sadly, in 1859 that cemetery was eliminated and his bones were thrown into the catacombs.

His only memorial is a somewhat crumbling statue in his birth place.

Marian Martin

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 01 February 2005 )
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