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August 11, 2011

Historians to celebrate steam engine innovator Saturday

Event to include tour of home’s grounds, panel discussion

JEFFERSONVILLE — The Jeffersonville Public Library will host an exhibit of original documents pertaining to the family of Daniel French — early developers of steamboat technology and operators of one of the first local shipyards.  

The free exhibit opened Monday and runs through October.  

Collectively, the documents on display seek to trace the early history of Clark County, from President James Madison and the founding fathers to the first class at Jeffersonville High School. Saturday will focus on the French family, who were figures of local and national significance during the early 1800s. A tour of the grounds of the French home, 217 High St. in Jeffersonville, will be led by homeowner Pam Smith. The tour will not go inside the home.

Later that day, a panel discussion on the French family’s contributions, featuring local historians, will be 1:30 p.m. at the Jeffersonville Township Public Library, 211 E. Court Ave.

Daniel French was a one-time apprentice and later competitor of Robert Fulton. Fulton used low-pressure, vertically mounted steam engines brought from England to propel “side-wheeler” boats.

 This year and next is the bicentennial of the steamboat New Orleans, which was the first to travel from Pittsburgh to New Orleans between 1811 and 1812, said Jack Custer, of Steamboat Masters & Associates Inc. He’s among those on Saturday’s panel.

The bicentennial mainly celebrates Fulton, he admits. However, more recent historical discoveries show that French was building better boats.

“He had some radical improvements over the early boats and was apparently a radical innovator,” Custer said.

French moved the paddlewheel to the stern, where it was protected from driftwood and snags.

The slimmer profile allowed French’s boats to navigate narrower channels. To turn the paddlewheel, French built a high-pressure steam engine and mounted it horizontally, allowing for a more direct and efficient connection between the piston rod and the paddlewheel crank. Besides being more powerful, durable and efficient, the new design was also less expensive to manufacture.

He lived in Jeffersonville and his family operated a shipyard for decades in town.

Custer said French’s take on the steam engine was largely undocumented at the time but paved the way for later steam engines, such as those used in the Belle of Louisville.

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