The Overlooked Origins of the Jet-Powered Boat

James Rumsey and the history of the first jet-powered boat.

| February 2014

Look across any fairly large body of water on a warm summer day and you’ll see the high plume of water that marks the passage of someone on a jet ski. (Jet Ski is a registered brand name of Kawasaki Motors, Inc., but seems to have been adopted as a generic name for all personal watercraft.)

Jet boats and Jet Skis are all the rage these days; besides the popular one- or two-passenger Jet Skis, passenger and car ferries, excursion boats, and other small to medium-sized, high-speed boats for myriad uses have been developed. The South African navy has four 3,700-ton jet-propelled frigates, and the amphibious assault vehicle that was being designed for the U.S. Marine Corps a few years ago (and canceled in 2011 by then Defense Secretary Robert Gates as it was too expensive) was to be water jet-propelled while in the water.

Sir William Hamilton is credited (in the 1950s) with developing the jet boat to ply the shallow rivers of his native New Zealand where conventional propellers often struck bottom. However, a modern fun seeker skimming over a lake at high speed on a jet ski would undoubtedly be astonished to learn that the first jet-powered boat was powered by a steam engine. And even more amazingly, it was first launched in 1787!

A chance meeting

In 1783, after the end of America’s Revolutionary War, Gen. George Washington resigned his commission and retired to Mount Vernon and his farm. Washington owned large tracts of land in western Virginia and Kentucky and dreamed of opening a waterway to these lands using the western headwaters of the Potomac River, which, of course, flowed past Mount Vernon’s doorstep. In September 1784, Washington set out on a trip west to explore the possibilities of the upper Potomac.

He stopped at Bath, Va. (now Berkeley Springs, W. Va.), to “take the waters” and stay at the inn operated by 31-year-old James Rumsey. A personable man, Rumsey charmed the general and showed him a working model of a mechanical boat he had devised. The little boat had a paddle wheel in its center that was connected by a crank to a long pole outside each gunwale. Rumsey placed the model into a fast-running little stream and the current spun the wheel, which moved the poles alternately against the stream bottom. Before Washington’s skeptical eyes, the poles pushed the boat upstream against the current using only the power of the stream itself!

Much impressed, the general saw the possibilities of the mechanical boat in Western trade and gave Rumsey a signed testimonial that he later used to extract monopoly rights from Maryland and Virginia, as a federal patent office had not yet been created.