Games Learning Resources Visit the Museum
America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Patent model for Harvey Fowler's canal-boat propulsion device

Enlarge Image
Patent model for Harvey Fowler's canal-boat propulsion device
Photo by Hugh Talman, Negative #: 2006-23079


This object appears in the following sections:

Marine Patent Models — Complete Catalog: 1870-1875

Marine Patent Models — Who's Inventing?

Marine Patent Models — Moving Forward

Patent drawing for Harvey Fowler's canal-boat propulsion device
Patent drawing for Harvey Fowler's canal-boat propulsion device

Device for propelling canal boats
Catalog #: 1999.0086.02, Accession #: 1999.0086
In collection
From the Smithsonian Collection

This model represents Harvey Fowler's 1871 "Hand Propeller for Canal Boats," wherein a pronged foot below the boat is brought into repeated contact with the bottom of a canal through the action of a complex assembly of weighted levers, elastic bands, and hinged connecting arms.

Physical Description
Fowler's patent model comprises a wooden base surmounted by an elaborate mechanism of wire arms, sheet-metal brackets, and lead weights. One weighted pendulum was detached over time, and other connecting rods are now missing. Nails protruding off either side of the wooden base once held model breaking levers. Overall, the model is approximately 17" L x 11 1/2" H x 5" D.
Date Made:
Dist of Columbia
Purchase from the Farmer's Museum

In September 1870, Harvey Fowler, a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Statistics, patented a "Mechanical Hand-Motor," an arrangement of weighted pendulums and coiled springs meant to give "motion to machinery, or to the driving-wheels of a car or carriage." In December 1871, Fowler received a patent for a marine application of his motor, the "Hand Propeller for Canal Boats."

Fowler continued to think about the use of weights and levers to generate mechanical motion over the next decade. In May 1880 he took out a want ad in the Washington Post. "Perpetual motion machine now in operation...partner wanted," it read. A curious reporter showed up at Fowler's workshop, 633 F Street, N.W., to investigate, and his visit gives us an unusual portrait of the inventor. He "was evidently an old man, although a fresh, unwrinkled, almost boyish face gave him a youthful appearance, while the old-fashioned, broad-brimmed hat and the black clothes shining with age imparted a Quaker-like air of honesty and respectability. His voice, mild and gentle, confirmed these impressions and when he talked he fumbled in a tremulous fashion among the tools and scraps on his work table." The advertised perpetual-motion machine was "a mass of jointed sticks running in all directions....Here and there is a wheel and then two pieces connected by rubber bands." It was not working during the reporter's visit. Fowler "briefly explained how it would work when it was right and the possibility seemed to give him as genuine satisfaction as if it was running smoothly at that very minute, and the applause of the world was already his."

Fowler's inventing came to an end the next year when he was committed to the Government Hospital for the Insane. "His mind has become deranged," the Post reported, "through his efforts to produce a perpetual motion machine."


Harvey Fowler, Propulsion of Canal-Boats, patent no. 121,714, Dec. 12, 1871.

Boyd's Directory of Washington, 1869 and 1871.

Boyd's Directory of the District of Columbia, 1880 and 1881.

Wanted ads, Washington Post, May 13, 1880, 2.

"Seeking Perpetual Motion," Washington Post, May 16, 1880, 8.

"Crazed by Perpetual Motion," Washington Post, Nov. 21, 1881, 1.

National Museum of American History About This Site | Sponsors | E-mail Signup | Credits