Two paddle wheel steamboats race each other down the Mississippi. A common sight throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, steamboats were an efficient way to transport goods and people. In addition, the ships were often used for entertainment, such as the showboats that put on theater productions up and down the river.
The first fuel-powered ships were centuries in the making. French physicist Denis Papin envisioned a steamship as early as 1685, but nearly 100 years passed before Marquis Claude de Joffroy d'Abbans built and operated a steamship. In 1783 his vessel, Pyroscaphe, steamed up the Saone River in France for nearly 15 minutes. Three years later American John Fitch powered a vessel on the Delaware River with a steam engine that moved vertical oars. Fitch went on to found a passenger and freight service between New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but the venture failed.
Early steamships were unreliable and posed little competition to the graceful, highly advanced sailing vessels of the day. Until well into the 20th century, sailing vessels and steamships coexisted. Gradually, fuel-powered ships grew faster and their schedules became more predictable than those of sailing vessels.