Technology and Consciousness in the Brumidi Corridor of the United States Capitol


By John Dyer

Fitch's Model: The Idea of Invention

When we come upon the lunette of John Fitch, inventor of the first practical steamboat, immediately his intensity and focus strikes us. The concept of invention has changed dramatically from Franklin's laboratory.

Fitch has pulled Franklin's laboratory into his mind, experimenting on and with himself in order to study and recreate the vision of his own imagination, rather than God's, in the physical world. One no longer simply observes nature's rules. Instead, the inventor uses these rules in order to materialize his own creations.

The imagination has gained some ground against 'outside nature' in this lunette. Fitch has internalized the structures Franklin directed towards his greater environment. Instead of looking out at the world in order to find the laws through which God reveals himself, Fitch looks inward, seeking the idea which he wants to reveal in his model. Consequently, Fitch tinkering with his model resembles the deist comparison of the world and God to a clock and the clockmaker.

In addition, we find that the environment has been brought under man's domination to an extraordinary degree. Notice the clock and map on the background wall and the box of tools, such as the saw, at the bottom left. All of these things represent impositions and manipulations of nature.

This management of nature preserves the distance experienced in Franklin's lunette. However, it replaces Franklin's accepted external world with the imaginative model that represents the invention. Whereas Franklin was holed up in a laboratory, Fitch is ensconced in his mind. Both inventors erect a wall between themselves and experience. Franklin had clinical experiments, Fitch has a vision which does not exist.

In this sense Fitch is in a lamentable state. He has a model, but only a model, and an idea of the finished product. In order to realize his idea, he has to craft a ship that conforms to the rules of nature. Just because the imagination can now make devices which may flout the effects of nature doesn't mean those effects no longer remain. Fitch's job is a positivist one, in which he must justify his ideas with empirical data. He has to constantly check his imagination against the tangible possibilities.

The disconnection between an idea and its iteration in a feasible model, which the inventor must bridge, and the complications arising from the change in the project of the sciences, from Franklin's encyclopedia to the materialization of an idea, represented in Fitch by a working steamboat, gives us a picture of the enormous weight being placed on the individual in this lunette.

Fitch's strategy of theory and practice tells us that he is building on Franklin's research. The former inventor is literally striving to actualize the subject of the painting bearing his name, an overt symbol of his notion, or thesis, of the steamboat. Such a development that would not have been possible if Franklin has not shown that men can apprehend creation via experimentation. We see here for the first time an example of the corporate nature of invention. This trend will continue throughout the corridor. In fact, Robert Fulton advanced Fitch's work to invent the first successful steamboat in 1808.