Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Delanceyplace.com 11/20/07-Steamboats

In today's excerpt--Cornelius Vanderbilt encounters the steamboat--the invention through which he will amass his early wealth, which in turn will lead to the greatest personal fortune in history. During the eighty-three years of Vanderbilt's life, the population of the U.S. will grow explosively, creating an enormous need for transportation, and an enormous opportunity for risk-takers to build fortunes:

"The economists Louis D. Johnston and Samuel H. Williamson estimate the gross domestic product of the United States in 1794--the year of [Vanderbilt's] birth--at $309,960,000 or $70 nominal GDP per capita for a population of 4,428,000. The same economists estimate the gross domestic product of the United States in 1877--the year of Vanderbilt's death--at $8,249,675,000 (or $175 nominal GDP per capita for 47,141,000 inhabitants). In other words, Vanderbilt was to see the net worth of the United States grow more than 26.6 times in his lifetime, while the U.S. population would only grow 10.6 times in the same period. ...

"[In 1815, at age twenty-one], the days in Vanderbilt's work week numbered seven, and the sailing vessels in his fleet numbered five. ... Personally, he became omnipresent throughout the waters around Manhattan, and especially on the Hudson River. ... [Among the sailing ships on the Hudson] were a few stray steamboats, just about three among hundreds of sloops and schooners, but nevertheless loudly present. Each one of the steamers were either owned or controlled by the inventor Robert Fulton and his benefactor Robert R. Livingston, to whom the New York Legislature had granted the exclusive license for 'navigating all boats that might be propelled by steam, on all waters within the territory and jurisdiction of the State.' ...

"Belching flames and smoke, those first steamers--boats such as the Car of Neptune (1809) and the Paragon (1810), both of them roughly 160 feet long and 50 feet wide amidships, with capacity for about a hundred paying passengers--did look and sound ridiculous. By day, their coarse mechanical clanking could be heard echoing through the normally tranquil Hudson Highlands long before they were sighted rounding river bends. By night, still just as loud, they looked like nautical hobgoblins lighted by their own vomit of live cinders as they pushed across dark waters ... their flames accompanied by sparks shooting considerably higher than the limits of the engine's short smoke pipe. ... Male passengers complained about the noise. Female passengers complained about the soot. And Hudson River sailors, in moments when the wind and tide combined to allow them to dash past the clamoring steamers, waved their hats in condescension. They sometimes also turned their backs, bent down, and revealed their bare ends to the dignified ladies and gentlemen who had paid lofty prices to flirt with the future. Cornelius sometimes made such a salute."

Edward J. Renehan Jr., Commodore, Basic Books, Copyright 2007 by Edward J. Renehan Jr., pp. 23, 45- 46.


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