The Genius Of Oliver Evans
He was already pioneering steam navigation, industrial automation, and a precursor to the automobile before the nineteenth century began
Among the founding fathers of American technology—Benjamin Franklin, Eli Whitney, John Fitch, Robert Fulton, and their peers —the most surprising disparity between shining merit and its recognition by posterity must be the case of Oliver Evans. The steamboats that conquered the Mississippi owed their engines to Evans. The first powered land vehicle patented in America was built by him. His genuinely automatic flour mill provided America with its first, seminal model of industrial automation—in 1786. Besides these historic technical achievements, Evans, a doughty battler for his inventive rights, contributed powerfully to making the federal judiciary a bulwark of defense against patent piracy for all the inventors who came after him. Yet he is little remembered.
Oliver Evans was born in Newport, Delaware, in 1755, the fifth of twelve children. His father was a shoemaker, a respectable if not illustrious calling in the days of handicraft production. Oliver doubtless exhibited a bent for mechanics as a boy, for at sixteen he was apprenticed to a wheelwright. The very next year he gave his first hint of an inventive future. One of his brothers and the blacksmith’s boy poured water into an old musket barrel, stopped it up, and placed one end in the smith’s fire. The resulting explosion was as violent as if the gun had been loaded with powder. Hearing about the experiment, Oliver conceived of the idea of harnessing steam: “It immediately occurred to me that there was a power capable of propelling any waggon, provided that I could apply it; and I set myself to work.to find out the means of doing so.”
Given the slowness with which news of technological innovation traveled, it is not surprising that the seventeenyear-old Oliver Evans in 1772 knew nothing of James Watt’s invention of seven years earlier. He was aware of the old Newcomen engine and, finding a book containing a description, was surprised to recognize that “they had so far erred” as to use steam only to raise the piston in the cylinder, allowing atmospheric pressure to drive it down, a fault corrected by Watt.
While he pondered the possibilities of steam power, a more pressing technical problem thrust itself on him. The War of Independence that broke out in 1775 created a shortage of wool-combing cards, which were indispensable to the production of homespun cloth. A wool card was a leather-bound block armed with wire teeth, and though American smiths could draw wire, they had no efficient way of cutting and bending the wire into teeth. Laid up by an injury to his foot, Evans thought the problem through and carved a wooden model of a handcranked machine. A friend of Evans persuaded a skeptical blacksmith to translate the model into iron, and the resulting device worked so smoothly that blacksmith, friends, and family “all changed their language,” as the inventor recorded with satisfaction, “and nothing could surpass the ingenuity of Oliver.”
Contracting with a Wilmington manufacturer to produce the machine, he redesigned it not only to cut the teeth but also to set them into the comb. The new model was a complete success, and he at once experienced a shock typical for eighteenth-century inventors. The invention was pirated from Philadelphia to Boston without a cent of royalties paid.
Evans enrolled in a militia company but saw no combat in the war, and at its conclusion he settled down in the Maryland part of the Delmarva Peninsula, where with his brother Joseph he opened a store. Dealing with local millers, he became aware of shortcomings in the traditional grist operation. Many of the little stone or log mills were of the primitive Greek or Norse type, with a revolving upper millstone turned by a slow-moving horizontal waterwheel in the stream below. Even the more modern mills, with the more efficient vertical waterwheel, were wasteful of labor. The miller had to carry the grain up the stairs on his back, a sack at a time, and dump it into a tub, which was manhandled to the granary, thence to a hopper to be screened, and thence to another to be ground and emptied into a trough. Two men shoveled the flour from the trough into tubs and later spread it on the loft floor by shovel and rake to dry and cool. By the time it was sifted and resacked, the flour had been mixed with a “great quantity of dirt … from the dirty feet of every one who trampled in it, trailing it over the whole Mill and wasting much,” as Evans later recalled. A great portion had to be condemned, “for people did not even then like to eat dirt, if they could see it.”
Meanwhile, he met and successfully courted Sarah Tomlinson, the daughter of a neighboring Delaware farmer. They were married in Wilmington in April 1783 and returned home to Maryland, where he divided his honeymoon between his bride and a paper model embodying his flour-mill ideas. He found himself unsatisfied by a mere remedy of the defects of the existing mills. Evolving in his imagination was an entirely new concept, a mill in which the raw grain would be efficiently transformed into superfine flour by mechanical means alone, without ever touching human hands.
He got little encouragement from friends and neighbors; they were even more incredulous about the automatic flour mill than they had been about the card-making machine. Hezekiah Niles, who grew up to be an influential editor, recalled how in his boyhood the adults had agreed that Oliver Evans “would never be worth any thing, because he was always spending his time on some contrivance or another.” Undaunted by universal skepticism, Evans set to work in 1783 constructing a mill on Red Clay Creek.
A traditional mill typically used four floors to carry out its successive functions and didn’t even do them in a top-to-bottom sequence. Grain was cleaned on the top floor, ground on the second, collected on the first, and hoisted back up to the third to cool and dry. The men who spread the flour in this last stage were known as hopper boys, and one of Evans’s principal concerns was to replace them with an automatic device. “I persevered with a zeal and indefatigability peculiar only to inventors,” he recalled. He designed a broad wooden rake twelve feet long, with wooden teeth, mounted on a vertical drive shaft to sweep in a circular motion, powered by the mill wheel. To move the grain through its earlier stages, he modified several existing devices: an endless bucket-and-chain elevator, also powered by the mill wheel; a gravity-powered belt conveyor running over two pulleys; and a horizontal conveyor that in its final form employed the ancient Archimedes screw in a close-fitting trough.
By these means, grain delivered at a window of the ground floor rose to the top floor by waterpower, descended by gravity, and moved by waterpower through all the stages of drying, grinding, spreading, cooling, and sorting. Nothing like it had been seen before anywhere. In the words of Eugene Ferguson, a leading authority on the technology of the early nineteenth century, the combination embodied “the totally fresh concept of a continuous manufacturing process” and thus “demonstrated for the first time the fully integrated automatic factory.”
The smooth, almost magical operation of the Red Clay Creek mill fascinated visitors, but it did not stampede the milling profession. The affluent Quaker millers whose establishments lined Brandywine Creek all shook their heads over it. “Ah, Oliver,” one merchant told him, “you cannot make water run up hill, you cannot make wooden millers.” Nevertheless, Evans was able to get five leading millers to submit a petition supporting his patent application to the Delaware legislature, which responded favorably in 1787. He also received patents in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Hampshire, but it was already evident that state-by-state patenting was hopelessly cumbersome.
Congress passed the first national patent law in 1790, awarding to the inventor of a new machine or process exclusive rights for fourteen years, and the third patent under the law went to Oliver Evans for his flour mill (December 18, 1790). After signing it, George Washington became one of the first licensees for the mill, at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson, who countersigned as Secretary of State, presently became another, at Monticello.
In 1793 Evans moved to Philadelphia, the American metropolis. There he opened a shop to sell millstones, bolting cloths (used to sift flour), and licenses and instructions for building his mill. As the business became moderately profitable, it permitted him to turn his mind back to the steam-power dream of his youth. By now he had learned all about Watt’s low-pressure engine. A radical improvement on the old Newcomen engine, the Watt engine was admirably adapted to meet Britain’s pressing need for industrial power. America, however, already enjoyed industrial power in abundance, thanks to the many falling streams of the Eastern seaboard. What America stood in urgent need of was power to drive boats. The Mississippi-Ohio system served the burgeoning Midwest splendidly for floating products downstream. The problem was getting the boats back up, to St. Louis and Cincinnati. Evans had been a witness to the operation of John Fitch’s little steamboat on the Delaware in 1786 and 1787 (and had advised Fitch to use a paddle wheel rather than his paddle-crank device). He had concluded that though a low-pressure engine sufficed for the Delaware, it would never do against the powerful Mississippi current. Also, the low-pressure engine required a large-bore cylinder, which cost more to make (it saved fuel, but that was abundant in wood-rich America anyway).
But Evans considered the steamboat already invented. His eye was fixed on the steam wagon, or steam carriage. Here a high-pressure engine would be indispensable because of its compactness. The old Newcomen engine, on which the Watt engine was based, had been invented to lift water out of coal mines, where its cumbersome structure was no handicap; its boiler supplied steam to a cylinder whose piston was connected to one end of a horizontal working beam, pivoted in the center, the other end connected to a pump. The piston was raised by steam pressure, then driven down by atmospheric pressure, tilting the beam and lifting the water from the mine. James Watt’s improvements—a separate condenser to keep the cylinder hot and admission of steam to both strokes of the piston—had brought a marked increase in efficiency but left the engine as large as ever and still unsuitable for transportation needs. Furthermore, Watt prudently kept his steam pressure as low as two to four pounds per square inch. Evans believed that a boiler could be made safe for a pressure of at least twenty-five to thirty pounds, permitting a substantial reduction in the size of the whole apparatus.
Behind these differing views on steam pressure may have lain a contrast in temperament: Watt a cautious Scotsman, Evans an optimistic if sometimes testy Yankee. In fact, Evans somewhat overestimated the power to be gained by his projected increase in pressure, though his general idea was sound enough. In 1787 he had petitioned the Delaware and Maryland legislatures for a patent on a “land carriage” to travel “without the aid of animal force” and received from Maryland what can be considered the first American patent for an automobile. As usual, skeptics abounded. Benjamin Latrobe, Philadelphia’s leading scientific intellectual, informed the American Philosophical Society that a steam carriage was an impossibility. In the face of scorn Evans was not always a model of patience. As he explained his idea to one audience, a gentleman asked “waggishly” how he would manage to get his contraption out of the way of an oncoming wagon. “Why sir,” replied Evans, “were you the waggoner, and did not give room for me to pass, I would crush you and your waggon to the earth.” The gentleman turned silent and civil.
While tinkering with the steam wagon, Evans wrote a manual for millers using his machinery, The Young Mill-wright and Miller’s Guide . Its publication, in 1795, at first left him in debt. John Nicholson, the comptroller general of Pennsylvania, came to his assistance with a private loan of one thousand dollars, which Evans had difficulty repaying. A few years later Nicholson found himself in financial straits and was sentenced to debtor’s prison. By that time the Guide was selling well and Evans was prospering. Learning of Nicholson’s predicament, he paid off what remained of the thousand-dollar debt and offered a loan of more. The book eventually went through fifteen editions, remaining in print until the Civil War.
In 1802 a stranger from the West with an imaginative idea called on Evans. Louis Valcourt, a French émigré who had settled in New Orleans and had heard of Evans’s steam-engine theories, wanted to build the first steamboat on the Mississippi. Evans designed and built an engine, shipped it by sea to New Orleans, and got it installed in a hull prepared by Valcourt’s partner, Capt. James McEver. The skillfully prepared enterprise deserved a better fate than it received. The Mississippi happened to suddenly flood, sweeping the steamboat a half-mile inland and grounding it beyond recovery. McEver and Valcourt extracted themselves financially by selling the engine to a local sawmill. There it performed so successfully that local sawyers, seeing their livelihood threatened, burned down the mill.
By that time Evans had another engine built and operating in Philadelphia, The city had recently installed two big engines of the Watt type to drive its new waterworks, and naturally everyone compared the Evans engine with these. By comparison it seemed almost a toy. Its cylinder had a diameter of only six inches and a piston stroke of eighteen. Its iron-hooped wooden boiler was only twenty inches high. But its five-horsepower output was enough to drive a wagon.
It was not, however, hitched to one. Evans shelved the wagon project to get involved in the market for plaster of Paris, which was in demand as a fertilizer and a cement for millstones. The material was made by pulverizing gypsum, recently discovered in Nova Scotia, and Evans set his new engine to work doing the pulverizing. It performed admirably, grinding up twelve tons in twenty-four hours.
Again, wonder was mixed with incredulity among the observers, who asked if a machine that ground gypsum could also grind flour. Evans assured them it could, and to demonstrate the engine’s versatility, he connected it to a marble-cutting saw and sawed up marble slabs. That provoked an equally silly question: If it could saw marble, could it saw wood?
Such was the reaction among the naive. Among the sophisticated it was something worse. Foreseeing piracy, Evans published a warning that the high-pressure engine was protected by patent and that infringers would be prosecuted. The threat proved vain. The eneine did in due course appear on the Mississippi and played a role as historic as its inventor had foreseen, but nearly always in pirated form. Meanwhile, however, Evans succeeded in making profits by building and selling his own engines, while striving ceaselessly to improve the design.
In the interest of economy in weight and metal, he departed from the standard arrangement used by Newcomen and Watt to transfer power from the piston and cylinder. Where his predecessors had positioned the cylinder under one end of an overhead working beam and the shaft it drove under the other, Evans put the two close together under one end, reducing the size and strength required of the beam. That created a subtle technical problem, since the piston rod was no longer directly under the end of the beam. To make the upper end of the piston rod move properly in a vertical line, he created a linkage involving the working beam and two sets of pivoted bars that became (and still is) known as the Evans straight-line linkage.
Evans had to rely on outside suppliers for his parts. Not trusting Yankee mechanics to work to scale, he always drew components full size, using a two-foot rule, a T-square, and compasses. He took special pains to render his boilers safe from the explosions Watt had warned of. He first used copper girdled by wood staves and iron bands, then, as iron plates became available, solid iron. Despite his precautions, a couple of his boilers did explode—as, occasionally, did everyone else’s (see “The Future of an Explosion,” by John K. Ward, Spring/Summer 1989).
That Fulton and not Evans (or Fitch) became the inventor of the steamboat in popular mythology may be an accident. Evans sent a copy of The Young Mill-wright to Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, a powerful political figure who had obtained a monopoly on steam navigation in New York, and the two had a brief correspondence. Evans neglected to mention his steam engine, and Livingston later met Fulton, another Philadelphian with a steamengine idea, with whom he set to work.
Evans did build a steamboat of his own, one less glamorous but arguably far more original than Fulton’s. Philadelphia’s new Board of Health, pressed to clean up the debris choking the Schuylkill waterfront, tried using a scow with a hand-cranked windlass and scoop. It proved inadequate for the job. Evans then proposed a steam engine and was awarded a contract.
The engine that powered the dredging machinery, he thought, might as well power the boat itself. Furthermore, it might as well power it en route from his shop to the water. The wheels he put on his dredge consequently made it the first American powered land vehicle (Nicholas Cugnot’s steam tricycle of 1769 in France, was the world’s first). From the Greek words for “digger” and “doublepointed” or “amphibious,” Evans called his machine Orukter amphibolos , certainly a unique automotive marque. He described it as “a heavy flat bottomed boat, 30 feet long and 12 feet broad, with a chain of buckets to bring up the mud, and hooks to clear away sticks, stones and other obstacles.” Before its launching as a boat, Orukter was driven down Market Street to Center Square, where for several days it circled the waterworks building, edifying onlookers attracted to the scene by an ad Evans had placed in the Philadelphia Gazette .
Its ground-vehicle capability fully demonstrated, Evans moved Orukter to the sloping riverbanks at low tide and had its paddle wheel fixed astern with a belt to the engine shaft. As the tide rose, the hull floated off the frame that held the axles and wheels. Steered by a long stern oar, it moved slowly but steadily downriver, turned into the Delaware, and steamed upriver to Dunk’s Ferry, New Jersey, and back.
Evans never sought a federal patent for his steam wagon or the steamboat (which he regarded as John Fitch’s invention), but he obtained one in 1804 for his high-pressure engine. To guide engineers in its operation and maintenance, he prepared another manual, The Young Steam Engineer’s Guide . Just before publication he changed the title to The Abortion of the Young Steam Engineer’s Guide , a quirky expression of his frustration at a shortage of funds and Congress’s rejection of a bill to extend his patent rights from fourteen to twenty-one years. He had petitioned Congress for relief on the grounds that his patent of 1790 was just beginning to produce substantial royalties. “I was left in poverty at the age of 50,” he wrote bitterly, “with a large family of children and an amiable wife to support.”
He acquired another source of vexation in a brush with a fellow inventor that led to an acerb correspondence. Col. John Stevens of Hoboken, New Jersey, an able but touchy pioneer in steam propulsion, had read a description of Evans’s engine and feared a patent collision. Through an intermediary he asked Evans a number of detailed questions, to which Evans made frank and full reply. Stevens then rather churlishly published the replies in a friendly magazine, accompanied by a sarcastic critique of Evans’s steampower theory and claims of his own priority in some of the technical ideas.
Not one to back away from a controversy, Evans penned a lengthy and equally sarcastic reply and reprinted the whole correspondence in The Abortion . That gave his vanity some satisfaction, but in truth neither inventor really quite knew what he was talking about in the area of theory. Thermodynamics was a complex and scarcely explored field, awaiting the highly cerebral work of Carnot and Kelvin to be understood. Yet Evans’s concept of a steam wagon or steam carriage was in practical terms perfectly sound. Pursued in England by his brilliant contemporary Richard Trevithick, it found fully practical expression a generation later in a British omnibus line.
In America the steam carriage never advanced to that point. Perhaps it was discouraged by the wretchedness of most U.S. roads, though this was a problem that did not unduly worry Evans. In vainly seeking a contract from the Lancaster Turnpike Company to haul flour, he promised the directors that his steam wagon would “roll and mend the roads.” The success of the railroad—also using high-pressure steam—may have undercut the steam automobile. Evans foresaw the value of steam on rails, but he did not live to witness it.
The Abortion of the Young Steam Engineer’s Guide contained another idea that was ahead of its time, too: artificial refrigeration. Evans proposed using a vacuum pump driven by a steam engine to volatilize ether, drawing heat from a surrounding container of water, while a second pump recompressed the ether. Thirty years later Jacob Perkins, a Philadelphia friend of Evans, patented a refrigeration system on the basis of the cycle described by Evans.
In 1806 Evans carried out a major expansion of his establishment by purchasing a building to house a foundry, among other manufacturing facilities. In doing his own casting and molding, he developed a bellows technique for forcing air into the furnace that brought him and his foundryman to the verge of the later malleable-iron process and within hailing distance of the historic Kelly-Bessemer process. He christened the new plant the Mars Works, though its products were entirely peaceful. Only when the British raided Chesapeake Bay and burned Washington in 1814 did he turn his mind to war, offering the government his design of a partly armored steam warship. No such warship was built for more than forty years, but an Evanstype engine did play a role in the War of 1812. The Enterprise , built by one of his piratical rivals, carried critical supplies to Andrew Jackson’s army before the Battle of New Orleans.
Despite his patent troubles and his controversy with Stevens, Evans remained open with his own ideas and generous toward those of others. In The Abortion he promoted a flour press and straw cutter invented by his brother Evan and an earth mover from a friend. When Luther Stephens of Kentucky invented a superior rotary valve to admit steam alternately to either end of a cylinder, Evans purchased the right to use it in return for a quarter share of his steam-engine patent.
At the same time, he began having problems with his flour-mill patent. The Yankee millers who had at first dismissed Oliver Evans’s automation began to like it. They ceased denouncing his improvements as useless and started denouncing his monopoly as unmerited—and began adopting his improvements without paying any royalties. When his patent ran out, roguery seemed triumphant. Frustrated and helpless, he petitioned Congress for an extension. Congress considered a general extension of all patents, but rejected that remedy. Then, surprisingly, it voted an extension explicitly “for the Relief of Oliver Evans,” extending the mill patent for fourteen years dating from January 1808. Evans promptly put his agents to work collecting license fees, setting off a new wave of profanity up and down the Brandywine.
In April 1809 the federal judge Bushrod Washington (a nephew of the first President) made a statement in the circuit court in Philadelphia to the effect that a patentee was a violator of public rights. The same judge had already made rulings hostile to Evans; now the mercurial inventor exploded. Summoning his entire family to watch, he hurled into a blazing fire a bundle of drawings and specifications. “Such doctrine from such authority,” he wrote, “determined me that patent rights were property too untenable to be worthy of the pursuit of any prudent man. That it was highly dangerous to leave my papers to lead any of my children or grand children into the same road to ruin, that has subjected me to insult, to abuse and robbery all my life.”
He presently recovered his composure and enough confidence in the new federal courts to start pursuing patent violators. He hailed the “generous and Patriotic example” offered by Thomas Jefferson, who voluntarily paid a license fee of $80.00 plus $9.60 in interest even though his mill at Monticello had been constructed during the interval before the patent extension. Jefferson also defended Evans against a campaign launched by a Baltimore miller to get the patent extension repealed. Jefferson expressed the conviction that although two components of the Evans mill, the Archimedes screw and the chain of buckets, were old and not patentable, Evans’s division of the Archimedes screw into sections was definitely patentable and the hopper boy certainly original.
The courts agreed. To Evans’s immense gratification he won his first infringement suit, against a Philadelphia miller, and he thenceforth sued up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Other inventors followed his example until eventually federal courts were so flooded that the modern Patent Office was established, in 1836, to investigate the validity of patent claims before the issuance of patents.
As Jefferson realized, the patent question was trickier than it appeared at first glance. He had wondered whether “an idea the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain,” could be patentable. The answer was yes. An inventor’s ideas may be merely the combination of already existing elements and yet be very properly patentable. As Eugene Ferguson points out, the most significant aspect of the Evans mill was not the hopper boy or the bucket chain or the horizontal Archimedes screw; it was Evans’s inspiration of an integrated system of manufacture.
Evans spent the last dozen years of his life suing millers and manufacturing high-pressure engines. For a new Philadelphia waterworks he built a hundred-horsepower engine that burned almost twice as much wood as its low pressure predecessor but that also pumped almost twice as much water. In England the Watt engine might have been judged the winner, but not in America. In the West, where wood was even cheaper than in the East, the high-pressure engine was never seriously challenged. Evans supplied engines not only for steamboats but for flour mills in Kentucky and in Pittsburgh. To manufacture steam engines for the West, he organized the Pittsburgh Steam Engine Company, with his capable son George as manager.
In April 1817 the Pittsburgh company encountered a crisis when one of its boilers exploded on the steamboat Constitution , killing eleven men. Oliver Evans attributed the disaster to negligence on the part of the captain and engineers, who had been racing another boat, and George blamed the owners for a design modification. Critics of high pressure enjoyed a round of I-told-you-sos. But boiler explosions, it turned out, did not discourage the West. Neither did fires, snag-ripped hulls, or wrecks caused by floods, storms, or ice floes. Such calamities merely added to the excitement of the Western steamboat, whose captains kept right on racing.
Inventors are often not the easiest people to get along with, and Oliver Evans exhibited a combativeness bordering on truculence. Yet he was a devoted husband and father, and no bad friend. The crusty John Fitch knew of “nothing so vexatious as a turbulent Wife and Steamboat building”; Evans’s admitted aggravations were limited to patent infringements, but like Fitch, he had a sense of humor. At the age of sixty he penned his own epitaph, in rhymed couplets, employing the metaphor of a failing steam engine:
This stone and sod, combine to hold A wreck’d volcanic engine; old Which steady wrought on, sixty years then faulter’d, and did need repairs . … Here is the end of Oliver, he died ____ day of ____ Where has the active spirit flown Who formed opinions, of its own? Did disregard the laugh of fools The Claims of things, the pomp of schools . … As he wished others do to him Just so, he strove to do to them In this straight course, his Bark did steer And never felt a pang of fear.
The date left blank proved to be April 15, 1819. He died not in Philadelphia but in New York, where he had found his second wife, the daughter of a Bowery innkeeper, and where his remains, twice moved uptown, lie obscurely today in an unmarked common grave in Trinity Cemetery, at Broadway and 157th Street.
Eugene Ferguson, who has done much to elevate Evans to his deserved place in the pantheon of technology history, cites as equally momentous Evans’s mechanization (and automation) of production processes, his highpressure steam engine, and his role in the establishment of the principle that federal patents could be protected in the courts. However tardily, a prediction by the French translator of The Abortion of the Young Steam Engineer’s Guide is perhaps finally coming true: “An understanding posterity will place his name among those who are most truly distinguished for their eminent services rendered to their country and to humanity.”