John Patch

Inventor of the screw propeller

Born: 1781 in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia
Died: 1861 in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia

John Patch was a sailor and fisherman in the Yarmouth area of Nova Scotia. One day, while watching a small boat being manoeuvered with a single oar, he came up with the idea for a device which would allow steamships to travel without need of large, inefficient paddlewheels or wind-dependent sails. It would be thirty years before he would see his idea become reality.

During the winter of 1832-3, Patch developed and built the screw propeller, a wooden shaft with two "fans" at the end. Robert and Nathan Butler, friends of Patch, helped him by building a hand crank and wooden gears to be used with the device. Throughout the summer of 1833, Patch tested his invention in Yarmouth Harbour and, in 1834, Captain Robert Kelley agreed to put it on his 25-ton ship, the Royal George. On a subsequent trip to Saint John, the wind died, leaving other sailing vessels stranded, but the Royal George carried on. The propeller was a success.

In 1840, the British steamship, Archimedes, became the first seagoing vessel to be fitted with the device. In 1845, the Great Britain became the first large steamship to cross the Atlantic, driven by a screw propeller. By the 1850s, this method was determined to be far more efficient than sails and paddlewheels and the screw propeller is still the main form of propulsion for boats today.

There are several versions of how Patch lost the rights to his invention but the end result was that he was never recognized for it and never made any money. In 1858, over 100 citizens of Yarmouth signed a petition, asking the government to provide Patch with a pension as thanks for his work. The petition was presented to the Nova Scotia legislature but eventually rejected and Patch died penniless in a Yarmouth poorhouse.

Additional trivia:

Patch's father, a sea captain, died the year he was born in a shipwreck off Seal Island.

More information:

Vince d'Entremont of Nova Scotia has written a song about John Patch. You can hear a clip on his website.

Ernest Cadegan's photograph of the John Patch, the staff lifeboat at the Maritime Museum in Halifax.

Profile of John Ericsson, the man credited with the invention. His patent was taken out in England in 1836 and in the US a couple of years later.


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Added 22 October 2002.