Steamboats were the antebellum era’s Internet. (Now that’s what the kids down in the copy room call a lede — well, maybe not.) I mention this because, on this day in 1809, Robert Fulton patented his design for a steam-powered watercraft. Fulton, renowned as one of the great inventors of his age, then turned his attention to his real passion: becoming fabulously wealthy.

Robert Fulton neither invented nor perfected the steamboat. The former story is one marked by industrial espionage and fierce international competition, and so remains somewhat shrouded by secrecy. The latter tale is even murkier, a narrative so diffuse as to defy comprehension. Western entrepreneurs spent years improving steamboats, trying to wrest more profitability — through increased speed and cargo capacity — from them while attending to their unfortunate tendency to explode without warning. Despite their best efforts, though, the region’s lay engineers never worked out the lingering design kinks. The boats blew up, scattering burning merchandise and broken bodies into the rivers they plied, until they largely fell into disservice at the end of the nineteenth century. Not, incidentally, because of their combustibility, but because other transportation technologies, especially railroads, supplanted them.

But all of that wanders too far afield from our precious lede. Fulton, when he sought his patent, had tested his steamboat, the Clermont, on the Hudson River, in New York. But he believed that his invention would prove most useful on the 15,000 navigable miles of the Mississippi River system, a web of waterways stretching from the Rockies to the Appalachians. Two years later, with partners Robert Livingston (of Louisiana Purchase fame) and Nicholas Roosevelt (Teddy’s grand-uncle), Fulton brought another steamboat prototype to the Mississippi River, making the trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. The era of steam had begun in the West. Sort of.

The era was slow out of the gate because the Fulton group had, in 1811, secured a monopoly of use on the Mississippi River from the Orleans territorial legislature. Such a thing, an exclusive right to navigate a huge river’s waters, sounds absurd to our ears. We believe that monopolies create unfair advantages for a privileged few, infringe on the public’s rights, and tamper with the workings of an ostensibly free market. But in the Early Republic, government at all levels, cash-poor but craving development, often turned to the private sector to construct public works. In exchange for their initial outlay of capital, corporations received monopolies.

For the Orleans legislators, then, the grant to the Fulton group made sense. By 1811, boosters had long viewed New Orleans’s commanding situation near the Mississippi’s mouth as evidence that “Nature” had chosen the city for greatness. This myth dictated that the river would sweep trade downstream from throughout the city’s vast hinterland. But, the Mississippi’s current also clouded these visions of commercial empire by raising questions about access to the river valley’s upper reaches.

Skeptics wondered how New Orleans could succeed so long as upstream navigation proved so difficult. And with good reason, because struggling with the river was an annual rite for traders who floated produce downriver to market, and then faced a grueling journey home: using a combination of wind power, poling, rowing, or the cordelle, a heavy rope, fastened to the bow of a riverboat, which allowed a crew to play a months-long game of tug-of-war with the Mississippi’s current. Dangerous and unpredictable, the trip upstream could take “three or four, and sometimes nine months.” Because of the voyage’s length and difficulty, valley traders typically made only one trip to market at New Orleans per year. Consequently, the river’s current captivated New Orleanians who pondered the Mississippi’s power, confident that business would boom in their city if people could somehow overcome its flow.

The Fulton group guaranteed that it would do exactly that. The partners offered the Orleans territorial government hope that places that had been removed from the city by thousands of miles and the river’s current would be within easy reach after steamboats tamed the Mississippi. In short, they promised to control nature.

But if the territorial legislators had hoped to spur economic growth, they instead forestalled it. With the Fulton group enjoying the “sole privilege of using Steam Boats” in Orleans Territory, other vessels avoided the region for six years. Until, finally, in 1817, Henry Shreve (for whom Shreveport is named) sued to open the river and won. In the year after that, fourteen new steamboats began working the lower Mississippi. By 1827, there were more than 100 steamboats afloat on the river. And by 1859, in excess of 250 steamboats made more than 3,500 stops at New Orleans’s waterfront, accounting for well over $100 million in receipts there.

Even in retrospect, the numbers boggle the mind, but observers at the Port of New Orleans were more impressed by the gathering together of goods and people from the distant reaches of the continent. Whiskey from Kentucky distilleries, apples from western New York orchards, corn from central Illinois farms, furs from the Canadian backcountry, cotton from upper Louisiana’s alluvial soil, cheese from Wisconsin’s dairyland, as well as starched visitors from London, Creole traders hawking wares, African-American firemen cleaning soot from their faces, so-called “Kaintucks” napping beside battered flatboats, genteel couples ambling arm-in-arm and taking in the sights — all these mingled on the banks of the Mississippi at New Orleans.

Today, we’ve become used to multicultural crowds. And we take for granted grocery stores stocked with goods from around the world. Refrigeration, vacuum packing, airplanes, freight trains, interstate trucking, and other technologies allow us to buy bagged Florida oranges in the produce aisle, plastic-wrapped Texas beef at the deli counter, and bottled Italian balsamic vinegar in the foreign foods section. If we hear Spanish, or French, or Portuguese, or Mandarin, or Wolof while we wait in line to check out, we don’t usually bat an eye. The world’s goods are at our fingertips; we buy without thinking about a product’s place of origin, or how it came to be in our hands. And the diversity of our population is a given. For most antebellum observers, though, a walk along New Orleans’s levee was an unprecedented experience. And the people there understood that steamboats had assembled the collage before them.

How did that happen? Mostly because of increasing veolcity and the predictability steamboats imposed on the Mississippi River system. The first steamboat, the Washington, to travel upstream from New Orleans to Louisville took twenty-five days to make the trip in 1817. Then, later that fall, the Shelby covered the same route in just over twenty days. In 1828, the Tecumseh arrived in Louisville just eight days out of New Orleans. By 1850, a passenger could leave Louisiana on Sunday for a Friday engagement in Louisville, confident that she would arrive on time. Steam travel collapsed time and space, as a kind of technological alchemy first turned six months hard labor into one month’s comparatively luxurious travel. Less than twenty years later, further innovation transformed that month-long voyage into a journey of less than a week. It seemed as though steamboats had compressed the Mississippi Valley’s geography like an accordion, bringing the upper Ohio River and the lower Mississippi together as easily as one might fold a map, leaving Baton Rouge astride Pittsburgh. One commercial commentator wrote of the steamboat’s impact: “distance is no longer thought of in this region—it is almost annihilated by steam.”

And there’s the rub, the final plot point on our narrative’s arc. Scholars don’t often talk about steamboats anymore. The railroad remains much in vogue for Western historians — as I fritter away this evening, Richard White is probably finishing up his massive tome on the subject — and other transportation technologies command the attention of students in a number of fields. Steamboats, though, apparently seem antiquarian, Olde Timey, with their decks piled high like the layers of a cake and their twee whistles. But there’s more there than meets the eye. Steamboats annihilated space and time long before the Internet was a gleam in Al Gore’s eye.