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Longstreet actually invented steamboat

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Things often aren't what they seem.

Using steam to propel boats on the Savannah River started in the late 1790s, with the help of Augusta inventor William Longstreet.   File
File
Using steam to propel boats on the Savannah River started in the late 1790s, with the help of Augusta inventor William Longstreet.

Take Robert Fulton, the man they say invented the steamboat.

Make no mistake, Fulton was one of the most notable names in our country's early years because he revolutionized transportation with the famous 1807 voyage of his steamboat Clermont up the Hudson River.

Fulton was still a famous name in 1853, because the Georgia Legislature put it on a new county -- one of the first not named for a war hero or a politician. It is now the county that contains Atlanta, the state capital.

But some might have wondered what those legislators were thinking.

Among them was historian Salem Dutcher, who proclaimed Augusta's William Longstreet as the steamboat's true inventor. He pointed out that the Georgia General Assembly acknowledged as much in 1788 when it granted Longstreet rights to steamboat travel.

By most accounts, it appears Longstreet did have a steamboat plying the Savannah River near Augusta at least a year before Fulton made a more-noticed voyage in New York.

In an article for The Augusta Chronicle more than a century ago, Dutcher confidently wrote it was true.

If Longstreet was first, why isn't he famous?

Dutcher suggested Fulton cheated. He believed that Longstreet's years of experimentation and public demonstration had put forth ideas that Fulton successfully copied and used for his own. Fulton had superior financial backing and what we today would call better marketing.

Longstreet's steamboat probably worked, but probably not so well, and is suspected of costing too much to operate.

That's what most historians now believe.

They also point out Robert Fulton didn't really "invent" the steamboat. He was just more successful at taking the ideas of others and then putting them into practice.

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