Where River Cruising Began: A ‘Fire Boat’ On The Saône

18th-century steam engines propelling paddle-wheels gave birth to the river cruise industry. In Europe today, CroisiEurope operates three paddle-wheelers, although they are powered by diesel engines. Pictured here is Loire Princesse paddling along the Loire. The paddle-wheels allow the ship to navigate the notoriously shallow waters of the Loire. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

In 1783, in the city of Lyon, a 32-year-old engineer and inventor did something remarkable: He unwittingly gave birth to river cruising as we know it today.

On what was presumably a warm day in mid-July, thousands of Lyonnaise gathered along the banks of the Saône to watch the Frenchman chug upstream in a boat spanning 150 feet long and 16 feet wide. They were witnessing a spectacle that would change history: the world's first successful voyage by steamboat.

Spewing plumes of smoke from its chimney, the boat must have looked something like a fire-breathing dragon to onlookers. The boat, in fact, was named Pyroscaphe ("fire boat," derived from Greek.)

Pyroscaphe was powered by a two-cylinder engine that turned two paddlewheels, each 15 feet in diameter and capable of pushing the boat upriver against a strong current. With a crew of only three, the boat puffed forward for 15 minutes to cover a distance of nearly four miles, cut short when Pyroscaphe began to break up under the constant pounding of its powerful Newcomen engine. Before anyone ashore could notice, the quick-thinking Frenchman maneuvered the boat ashore and bowed to a cheering crowd.

A steamboat on the Saône in 1783.

Not The First, But The First Successful Steamboat

Propelling a boat by steam engine had been tried before, but always with disappointment. The predominant failure was that the boats sank because of the weight of the engines and their constant pounding, both inconvenient and costly for their developers. One can scarcely imagine the disappointment in seeing your invention slowly descending below water.

In December of 1772, a little more than 10 years before Pyroscaphe chugged upstream in Lyons, French engineer and inventor Claude François Joseph d'Auxiron began work in Paris on a boat that he would equip with a steam boiler installed on a brick foundation. It doesn’t take much imagination to surmise what happened next.

While docked at the Île des Cygnes (Isle of Swans), d'Auxiron's boat sank (incidentally, Robert Fulton would later conduct his steamboat experiments from the same island in 1802-1803).

Though foul play was suspected in the sinking of d'Auxiron's boat, the culprit was that the steam engine and its brick foundation were too heavy for the boat. The loss was devastating for d'Auxiron as it also submerged an agreement he had with the French government for a 15-year license to operate the boat commercially. It was a huge financial blow for d'Auxiron. After three years of lawsuits with stockholders, not yet 47 years old, he suffered a stroke and died.

A decade before d'Auxiron's experiments, across the Atlantic, the American gunsmith William Henry equipped his boat with a steam engine in the "first attempt that had ever made to apply steam to the propelling of boats," wrote Robert Henry Thurston in his biography, "Robert Fulton: His Life And Its Results." On its maiden voyage, the sternwheeler promptly sank in the Conestoga River, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Robert Fulton visited Henry when he was 12 years old and became infatuated with steamboats. Three decades later and after much trial and error, in 1807, Fulton launched the North River Steamboat, which carried passengers between New York City and Albany, a journey of more than 300 miles that took 62 hours.

Fulton is credited with inventing the first steamboat, but the American engineer and inventor graciously acknowledged our Frenchman, proclaiming, "If the glory … belongs to any one man, it belongs to the author of the experiments made on the River Saône at Lyon in 1783".

How Pyroscaphe's inventor ended up in Lyon is an interesting story in itself, with sufficient drama for a PBS Masterpiece production: love, jealousy, imprisonment and the life of a celebrated nobleman ending in bitterness and poverty. For that story, we'll need to wind back the clock 32 years to visit the Doubs river in eastern France. There, in a commune known as Abbans-la-Ville (now known as Abbans-Dessus), a castle stands with the inscription, "Claude Dorothée Marquis de Jouffroy d'Abbans, 1751-1832, Inventa Ici Le Bateau A Vapeur (invented the steamboat here)."

Claude-François-Dorothée, marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans, who successfully steamed up the Saône in 1783.

A Tinkerer In Good Company

In 1751, de Jouffroy was born to a noble family in Roche-sur-Rognon (now Roches-Bettaincourt) in the Champagne region in the east of France. He spent his childhood years more than 100 miles south in the family castle, southwest of Besançon.

Besançon serves as the seat of the regional council of the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region, and for someone with an inventive mind, there was no better place to grow up. He was in good company too. Our ill-fated d'Auxiron was born in Besançon (the poet and novelist Victor Hugo was born here too).

Besançon has been France's watch-making capital since shortly before the French Revolution. The region brims with tinkerers, skilled tradesman and inventors.

The castle were de Jouffroy grew up, Château d’Abbans-Dessus, courtesy of Arnaud 25, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As a boy, de Jouffroy disassembled the castle clocks to solve the mystery of how they worked. Fortunately, he managed to reassemble them in working order. The young de Jouffroy demonstrated an aptitude for engineering, wrote Alfred Prost in the biography, "Le Marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans: Inventeur de l’Application de la Vapeur À La Navigation," published in 1889. He wanted to be an inventor, but his parents had other plans for him: a career solider, a profession that they felt was worthy of the family's aristocratic heritage.

At the age of 13, de Jouffroy began military instruction in the court of Versailles where he served as a page. While at Versailles, he became intrigued with the lessons from a master mathematician, Louis Charles Victoire Trincano, who had penned the ambitiously titled, "Complete Treatise on Arithmetic for the use of the Military School of the Company of the Light Horses of the Ordinary Guard of the King." Slowly but surely, de Jouffroy was acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills that would be required to build his steamboat.

When de Jouffroy returned home to the castle near Besançon, his father found him an assignment in an infantry regiment, a fashionable assignment at the time for nobility. While serving in the regiment as a second lieutenant, de Jouffroy and his commanding officer, Comte d'Artois, an elegant tall blond with black eyes, had their eyes on the same lady. Their love rivalry escalated to the point of an altercation – one not without consequence for de Jouffroy. After multiple alleged infractions and on what appeared to be questionable charges, de Jouffroy was sent to prison in the Lérins Islands. The islands, within sight of the city of Cannes, were home to Fort Ste-Marguerite prison that had held the so-called Man in the Iron Mask during in 17th century.

From his cell overlooking the harbor, de Jouffroy observed the large ships of the royal navy, propelled by sails and galley convicts chained to their benches who rowed the vessels. An idea hatched in de Jouffroy's head: Could there be another means to propel the ships? His steamboat was beginning to take shape.

While in prison for two years, de Jouffroy consumed books about navigation and ruminated on ideas that might result in a successful steamboat. Upon his release in 1773, he returned to the castle near Besançon, but stayed there for only a short while before leaving for Paris to study the Watt steam engine to see if it might have applications for a steamboat.

He Went To Paris Looking For Answers

Paris was the epicenter of French intellect and ingenuity. In 1753, the French Academy of Science had launched a competition aimed at finding ways to supplement sail power. The winner, a Swiss mathematician and physicist named Daniel Bernoulli, failed to explicitly endorse steam as a method but he did not reject it either.

In Paris, de Jouffroy found his way into scientific and engineering circles. There was buzz in those circles of a new hydraulic achievement on Chaillot hill, which faces the Eiffel Tower across the Seine. The Chaillot machine, powered by Watt's engine, was designed to pump water from the Seine to Château de la Muette along Rue de la Pompe, a street named for the "fire pump."

The pump operated on principles put forth by Denis Papin in the late 1600s. Papin had succeeded in developing a piston propelled by steam in a cylinder. In the early 1700s, the English inventor Thomas Newcomen took Papin's concept one step further when he developed an engine that operated by condensing steam drawn into the cylinder to create pressure to push the piston into the cylinder. Newcomen's was the world's first practical device to harness steam to produce mechanical work. Newcomen engines were used throughout Britain and Europe, principally to pump water out of mines. Scottish inventor James Watt improved the performance of the 1712 Newcomen steam engine with his Watt steam engine.

While in Paris, de Jouffroy met with the Perier brothers, who were great builders at the time and had developed the fire pump. They were also looking to build a steamboat but had not yet found the solution. Their fire pump would be too heavy for a steamboat. De Jouffroy had a better idea.

He returned home to continue his work, and while his father showed little interest, his sister was confident that her brother would succeed. On a visit to his sister in Baume-les-Dames, he spotted a beautiful lake and decided to conduct his experiments there, building a steam engine with the help of a local coppersmith.

The engine was installed on a boat, 40 feet long by six feet wide, with an engine that moved oars equipped with hinged flaps modeled on the form of a palm. In June and July of 1776, de Jouffroy experimented with his boat on the Gondé basin, where the Cusancin flows into the Doubs, at Baume-les-Dames. He briefly navigated the boat, but the oars on each side prevented passage through the locks. He considered it a relative failure, but had a better idea: to replace the oars with paddle wheels, adapting James Watt's designs to build a parallel-motion, double-acting steam engine. Instead of the ungainly and inefficient mechanical duck feet, de Jouffroy's new boat was equipped with two large paddle wheels, one on each side of the hull.

Pyroscaphe’s design.

Success In Lyon

That brings us back to Lyon, with de Jouffroy bowing to the crowds on his nearly broken steamboat. The imaginative Frenchman made quick repairs and adjustments to Pyroscaphe, and in August of 1983, his steamboat carried freight and passengers on the Saône.

The marquis continued experimenting on the Saône for 16 months. He applied for a patent and a license to launch a steamboat company in the hopes of recovering his investments. After a long debate and favorable reports about de Jouffroy's invention, the French Academy of Sciences decided what could not be said: Lyon never could have succeeded where Paris had failed. Add to that the jealousy of influential rival inventors, including the Perier brothers, and the prospects of de Jouffroy getting a license vanished. Even in Lyon, not everyone cheered his invention, including the monopoly that operated the towpaths along the river. With self-propelled boats, towpaths would no longer be needed (today, the former towpaths make for wonderful bike paths – see If You’re In Lyon – below).

De Jouffroy had spent a fortune and was unable to muster the financial resources to continue his fight for a patent and a license. It was a time too when the French Revolution was beginning, and work was abandoned on steamboats. With his spirit broken and now impoverished, de Jouffroy retired in 1831 to the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, where he died a year later of cholera. His body is buried in a mass grave.

A century later, in 1884, France recognized the the inventor by erecting a statue of Jouffroy in Besançon.

Next week, we’ll look at how steamboats led to the expansion of the river cruise industry.

Statue of Claude François Jouffroy d’Abbans, Promenade de l’Helvétie on the banks of the Doubs, in Besançon. Courtesy of Arnaud 25, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Today, river cruisers retrace part of the route where de Jouffroy's steamboat chugged upriver as they make their way along the Saône on voyages between Chalon-sur-Saône and Lyon. I wonder how many of those who have stood on the decks admiring the Lyonnaise landscape know it was here that river cruising was born. If you're in Lyon you can walk, or cycle, the route, from quai de l'Archevêché (today quai Romain Rolland) to l'île Barbe. I've cycled along this route several times while visiting Lyon without knowing the story of the "fire boat" on the Saône. Often, Rhône and Saône river cruises will touch on both rivers.


In October of 2021 and again in April 2022, I'll be barging on the Doubs river, and visiting Besançon. Join me for a beautiful voyage through one of the most intriguing parts of France. Learn more at this link.

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