A Man of Many Firsts: Colonel John Stevens, Patriarch of Stevens' Founding Family
In following his passion, John Stevens left a legacy of innovation that still reverberates today, both in the university his family founded and around the world.
Colonel John Stevens (1749-1838) was a man of many talents: lawyer, inventor and avid proponent of steam power to advance American transportation and industry. He was also an advocate of the protections that still govern the intellectual property of U.S. ideas and inventions.
Stevens’ petition to Congress led to the creation of the Patent Law of 1790, creating the foundation of the U.S. patent system as we know it today and marking the United States as the first nation in the world to provide legal protection of intellectual creations.
Stevens had attained the rank of Colonel in George Washington’s Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, and served for a time as treasurer of New Jersey. A graduate of King’s College (now Columbia University) and member of the New York bar, Stevens could have been a career politician in the new nation. Instead he chose to pursue his love of engineering in service to society.
Stevens did extensive research both at home and in Europe in his quest to establish a system of steam-powered railroads and boats in America. The very first patent he sought in 1790 was for steam-powered boilers and engines, which he believed could become the foundation of a national transportation system.
He was right. In 1804, together with his sons, Stevens built the first screw-driven propeller steamboat (the Phoenix) with a high-pressure boiler engine and navigated it on the Hudson River. That led to advancements in steamboat navigation. In 1811, having already become the first to command a steamship at sea, Stevens launched the world’s first commercial steam-powered passenger and freight ferry system with his steamboat, the Juliana.
That would have been enough for some inventors, but Stevens had more to do.
Next he built a steam locomotive and transported passengers around his estate atop Castle Point — farmland he had purchased at public auction that eventually grew to become the city of Hoboken (and the Stevens campus). Traveling at 12 miles per hour on a circular track, the locomotive was the first steam train to run on a railroad in America. In 1830, he and his family built an overland rail route from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, to Trenton, where passengers switched to a steamboat to continue down the Delaware River to Philadelphia.
For those achievements, and more that followed, Colonel Stevens would eventually become known as one of the finest engineers and naval architects of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The university that bears his family's name would come a bit later, but it also traces back to Colonel John. Stevens and his wife, Rachel, raised 13 children —some who carried on his love of engineering and invention. One of his sons, Edwin A. Stevens, would go on to found Stevens Institute of Technology with a generous bequest.
Today, the university's Office of Research, Innovation & Entrepreneurship (ORIE) continues to ensure that intellectual property generated at Stevens is protected, developed and leveraged.