A Lot of Hot Air

By Carrie Blough, Curator, Historical Society of Frederick County | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 03.10.14 – History, Timepiece

Matthias Zimmer died young. In his 37 years, however, he accomplished a great deal for a coppersmith. He was born in Steckenroth, Germany, east of Frankfurt, on Dec. 1, 1749. He immigrated to America and settled in Frederick, which had a considerable German population in the 18th century.

Zimmer married Maria Elizabeth Mohrin in 1772. They had six children before Zimmer died on Dec. 6, 1786. His cause of death was listed as colic. Like other craftsmen, Zimmer made a variety of goods using his trade of choice. He produced household items like copper tea kettles, skillets, mugs and even stills for home distillation. More notably, he also crafted copper fittings for the boiler of one of the first steam boats in America, constructed by James Rumsey in 1786. Following Zimmer’s death, a lengthy lawsuit ensued contending that Rumsey was the inventor of the steamboat, not John Fitch. Zimmer’s partner, Frederick Tombaugh, testified that Zimmer made the copper pipes for Rumsey’s steam boat in March 1786. Another man testified that he stopped by Zimmer’s coppersmith shop that same month but was not permitted to view the items because it was “Mr. Rumsey’s secret.”  Several others testified that they helped build parts for Rumsey’s steam boat in the fall of 1785, but the majority made it clear that work to build the boat was not started until the spring of 1786. Even the silversmith Frederick Heisley, who spent much time in Zimmer’s shop, never heard mention of the steam boat in 1785. Eventually the patent lawsuit was decided in John Fitch’s favor, the evidence proving that he worked on the steam boat a year earlier in 1785. Zimmer may not have contributed to the first steam boat, but his copper fittings were a part of a new and cutting-edge technology in the 18th century.