Was This America’s First Steamboat, Locomotive, And Car?
What Oliver Evans built in 1805 was an engineering marvel way ahead of its time. Or maybe it was just an early glimpse of what PR can do.
On July 16, 2005, Philadelphia celebrated the 200th anniversary of Oliver Evans’s Orukter Amphibolos. Evans was Philadelphia’s, and perhaps America’s, most important early inventor, and the Orukter Amphibolos was a dredge he built to clean the floor of Philadelphia’s waterfront. (The name, from Greek, means “amphibious digger.”) The Orukter was more than just a dredge, however. When it wasn’t digging, it was designed to travel over land or water under steam power. Over the past 200 years historians and boosters have variously described it as America’s first steamboat, first locomotive, and first automobile.
Philadelphia celebrated the Orukter’s anniversary with a proclamation and a re-creation of part of its first trip. An amphibious tourist bus drove 40 enthusiasts past the place where Evans’s factory once stood (now a parking lot), twice around City Hall (which 200 years ago was the site of Philadelphia’s new Centre Square waterworks), and then into the Delaware River. In 1805 Evans had advertised that his “mechanical curiosity” was “now to be seen moving around the Centre Square.” A few days later he wrote that the machine traveled a mile or so from there to the Schuylkill River, down the Schuylkill to the Delaware, and then up the Delaware and back toward the city.
Oliver Evans’s Orukter Amphibolos has been celebrated ever since as a milestone in transportation technology, but considered in light of what it was designed to do, it was far from a success. It was way over budget and behind schedule. It may never have worked as a dredge and was certainly not a practical device for long-term use. Moreover, it may not even have traveled under its own power on land or water. It is nonetheless a great story, giving us insight into the mind of an inventor and the world of invention in young America.
Evans was America’s first professional inventor. He was also a difficult man, and the Orukter Amphibolos reflects his personality. A prolific author of books, broadsides, petitions, and articles, he bragged endlessly about his inventions, demanded support, quarreled with competitors and the government, and fulminated against those who did not give him the credit he felt he was due. From his writings we can tease out not only the facts of the Orukter’s history but also the spin Evans put on its story, which tells us at least as much.
In 1805 Philadelphia was the second-largest city in the country. Its port was a never-ending source of concern. The port wardens worried about docks that chronically needed repair and extension. The Board of Health worried about contagious diseases arriving by boat and about keeping the port clean to reduce the “miasma” that was thought to cause yellow fever. Both groups worried about mud, which, besides its polluting effects, could make the harbor too shallow for large ships.
Mud accumulated endlessly and required constant efforts to combat it. Moving it was a labor-intensive business that seemed amenable to technological improvement, so port cities spent a lot of money on “mud machines.” Arthur Donaldson, a Philadelphian, invented America’s first dredge, the Hippopotamus, in 1775, but the leader in mud machines seems to have been Baltimore. In 1791 the Baltimore inventor Peter Zacharie patented a dredging machine powered by a man walking inside a hollow wheel. He claimed it had the virtue of simplicity, but, like most inventors of his day, he was unable to turn his idea into a successful product. A second Baltimore inventor, Stephen Colver, got the second U.S. patent on a mud machine in 1798, and soon he was making a good living there with his horse-powered dredge.
Philadelphia lagged behind Baltimore in dredging technology, perhaps because of a long debate over who should pay for it. Was dredging a federal, state, or city responsibility? Should taxpayers shoulder the burden, or those who used the port? Philadelphia’s merchants asked for federal support in 1798, when the city was still the nation’s capital. When that failed, they turned to the state. On March 15, 1805, they finally succeeded. A state law levied a four-cent-per-ton charge on ships leaving Philadelphia for ports outside the United States. Oliver Evans saw an opportunity. He could use public funding to gain recognition and acclaim while outshining his rivals and proving some long-held theories about steam power.
Evans was born in Newport, Delaware, on September 13, 1755. At the age of 16 he was apprenticed to a wheelwright, and soon afterward he got into the milling business. By the early 1780s he had invented a series of machines that automated the process of flour milling. After moving to Philadelphia in 1793, he sold milling supplies, consulted on mill design, worked at his inventions, and published the definitive book on automated mills, The Young Mill-wright and Miller’s Guide (1795).
To Evans, invention was a business, and he put as much effort into protecting his right to profit from his inventions as he did into devising them. His early inventions predated the creation of the American patent system. The rules for patent protection, and the roles that the various levels of government should play, were still uncertain. So Evans was in constant correspondence with federal and state legislatures, asking for rights not just to inventions he had already conceived but also to future ones that might occur to him.
In 1786 Evans had asked Pennsylvania and Maryland for exclusive rights not only to his automated mill but also to another of his schemes, the use of steam power for road vehicles—an idea he had not, in a later U.S. Patent Office phrase, “reduced to practice.” Pennsylvania, quite reasonably, turned him down for the steam-vehicle idea and, as he remembered it, “conceived me to be deranged,” something that Evans, an inveterate collector of slights and insults, stewed over for the rest of his life. Maryland granted the application, and from then on, Evans felt obliged to prove Pennsylvania wrong and Maryland right. The Orukter Amphibolos would be, in part, an attempt to do just that.
On December 18, 1790, Evans received the third U.S. patent ever granted, for his improvements in milling. The patent expired 14 years after taking effect, in January 1805. When that happened, he fought to have it extended (though he did not succeed in securing an extension from Congress until 1808). The date is important: Evans began working on the Orukter Amphibolos just as his milling patent was about to expire.
The denial of his extension brought out the contentious facet of Evans’s personality, which never stayed hidden for long. He believed that his genius was unrecognized, his inventions were not properly rewarded, and others were getting the credit due him. Biographers, while generally friendly, describe him as cranky, frank, and abrasive. Coming from a modest background, and with little formal education, he always felt he had to prove himself. He was obsessed with what others thought of him and put enormous effort into proving his enemies wrong. So it was not enough for him simply to do something; he had to let everyone know about it. For example, after building his steam engine, he placed an advertisement in a Philadelphia newspaper (he was always running ads) proclaiming “a new era in the history of the steam engine.” In that case he was right.
The closest that he ever came to a statement of philosophy was really more a wistful reflection on his reputation. “He that studies and writes on the improvements of the arts and sciences labours to benefit generations yet unborn, for it is not probable that his contemporaries will pay any attention to him, especially those of his relations, friends and intimates; therefore improvements progress so slowly,” he wrote by hand in a copy of one of his books. In his book on steam engines, he quoted Benjamin Franklin: “A man’s useful inventions subject him to insult, robbery, and abuse.”
He had been experimenting with steam power for more than two decades, on and off, when, in 1801, he was struck with a fear of yellow fever, something that swept Philadelphia every few summers. The experience reminded him that he had a “debt of honor” to the state of Maryland, which had granted him a patent on steam road vehicles years before. He had to invent one. The first step was developing a suitable power plant, so he returned to an idea he had conceived some decades earlier and started work on what would become his high-pressure Columbian steam engine—an invention at least as important as his mill machines. (Richard Trevithick, in Britain, developed the same idea at about the same time.)
Evans’s steam engine differed fundamentally from earlier ones, as invented by Thomas Newcomen and improved by James Watt. Newcomen’s engine relied on atmospheric pressure acting against the near-vacuum created when the steam, cooled by a spray of water, condensed in the cylinder. Watt improved on this arrangement by condensing the steam in a separate chamber and, in a later improvement, using steam pressure on both strokes. For reasons of safety and economy, though, he kept the pressure at a few pounds per square inch. Evans designed and built a steam engine that operated at high pressure, 25 or 30 pounds. High-pressure engines were smaller, lighter, and more efficient, and they could be made much more powerful. As developed by Evans in America and Trevithick in Great Britain, they were the key to the successful application of steam power to transportation and to thousands of industrial uses.
The first few years of the nineteenth century were discouraging ones for Evans. Work on the steam engine exhausted him. He had lost a battle with another rival, Benjamin Latrobe, to build Philadelphia’s new water system (which would sharply reduce yellow fever epidemics of the sort that had frightened him a few years earlier). Not only had Latrobe, a wealthy and cultivated European, rejected Evans’s engine for the project, he had written an article for the American Philosophical Society ridiculing Evans’s ideas.
Evans was also quarreling with the college-educated New Jersey steamboat pioneer John Stevens, who had accused him of pursuing an “ignis fatuus” in his steam engine. Stevens argued that Evans’s ideas were not new, and in any case, would not work. His engine would never be useful for boats or carriages: It was too large, too heavy, and too dangerous. In the midst of all this, Evans lost what seemed to be a final appeal to Congress to extend his milling-machinery patent.
In a fit of anger and despair at having his patent appeal denied, Evans stopped work on his steam-engine book—that accounts for its strange name, The Abortion of the Young Steam Engineer’s Guide —and was close to giving up invention altogether. He later wrote, with some exaggeration: “I was left in poverty at the age of 50, with a large family of children and an amiable wife to support, for I had expended my last dollar in putting my ‘Columbian’ steam engine into operation, and in publishing the ‘Steam Engineers Guide.’ … It brought on grey hairs again, and the use of spectacles, and greatly injured my constitution and health… .”
But there was one bright spot: The city had appropriated money to build a dredge. Evans had no particular interest in dredges, but he was fixated on finding a use for his steam engine, so why not take advantage of the opportunity? Latrobe had built Philadelphia’s waterworks with what Evans thought of as an old-fashioned, low-pressure steam engine. The dredge would be a chance for Evans to show off his new engine design. And once he had put a steam engine on a dredge —well, there might be other uses found for it as well. In the meantime he would prove Pennsylvania wrong and Maryland right, and while he was at it, he could one-up Stevens and Latrobe.
Evans had gone to the Board of Health in late 1804 with a proposal “to construct a machine for the purpose of cleansing the docks and wharves, removing obstructions in the navigation of the river, and other purposes… .” He signed a contract with the board and then left town, heading for Washington (where the capital had moved in 1800) to lobby Congress for the extension of his gristmill patent. He left there in defeat and returned to Philadelphia via Baltimore, where he checked out that city’s dredging machines. In what one can only imagine as despair, he told the Board of Health, which was angry at him for the delay, that the Baltimore machine was (as the board’s notes recorded) “at least equal to the purpose to any which he could devise.” It may have been the only time that Evans ever said anything complimentary about another inventor’s work.
The board asked Stephen Colver if he could build a dredge for $3,000. Either he declined the offer or the board changed its mind, and Evans kept the job. He started work in the spring of 1805 and went through the board’s money quickly. By May he had spent $1,150, with not much to show. Over the next few months the board advanced him several hundred dollars more.
In early July he decided to take his mud machine out for a spin—on the road, not the river. This made no sense, as he was supposed to be building a boat, not a car. And the device he had built was a boat—12 feet wide and 30 feet long, with a heavy iron boiler set in brick, a steam engine, and a chimney. It weighed 17 tons. He advertised in the Philadelphia Gazette that he wanted “to gratify the citizens of Philadelphia by the sight of this mechanical curiosity.” What happened next is no surprise: The thing collapsed.
Evans fixed it and tried again. On July 13 he wrote that the “machine is now to be seen moving around the Centre Square.” Centre Square, about five blocks from Evans’s shop, was the location of Latrobe’s new waterworks building. Evans was showing off his engine there to annoy Latrobe. To judge from the advertisement, he was enormously proud of his success. After years of dreaming, he had built a steam-powered vehicle. The public could pay 25 cents to see it, with those unable to “conveniently share the money” let in for free.
The Orukter may have stayed at Centre Square for a few days; at least, Evans placed another ad a few days later. He described what happened next in his Abortion of the Young Steam Engineer’s Guide , published in October of that year: “I constructed for the Board of Health of Philadelphia a machine for cleaning docks, called the Orukter Amphibolos or Amphibious Digger. It consisted of 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. These buckets are wrought by a small steam engine set in the boat, the cylinder of which is 5 inches diameter and the length of stroke 19 inches. This machine was constructed at my shop, 11/2 miles from the river Schuylkill where she was launched… . Yet this small engine moved so great a burden, with a gentle motion up Market-Street and around the Centre Square.
“When she was launched we fixed a simple wheel at her stern to propel her through the water by the engine… . We concluded that if the power had been applied to give the paddle wheel the proper motion we could have stemmed the tide of the Delaware.”
“Could have”? Did the machine ever actually get afloat? Evans seems to say yes, though the description of the machine’s activities is hedged about with caveats, “would have’s,” and excuses. Other sources are not so clear. What should have been a dramatic sight, something no one in America had ever seen, seems to have made almost no impression. Not a single newspaper mentioned it.
There is one contemporaneous reference to the machine. Joseph Scott’s 1805 Gazetteer went to press that summer—in August, after the machine was supposed to have run, though it’s possible the passage had been written before then. Scott, clearly a friend of Evans, sings his praise: “An inventive genius in mechanics that few men have equaled … a mechanical philosopher, and a man of original genius… . Homer, Milton, and Shakespeare, have not exhibited, to the world, more striking proofs of their genius, in poetry, than he has done in mechanics.”
Scott mentions the machine and Evans’s intention to drive it to the water: “He is now just finishing a machine called the Orukter Amphibolis , or Amphibious Digger, for the purpose of digging either by land or water, and deepening the docks of the city of Philadelphia… . Orukter Amphibolis is built a mile from the water; and although very heavy, he means to move it to the water by the power of the engine. Its first state will then be a land carriage moved by steam.”
Some later recollections provide a bit more information. In his Annals of Philadelphia … Memoirs, Anecdotes, and Incidents of the City and Its Inhabitants , written around 1840, John F. Watson recalled: “Oliver Evans had at one time a great steam engine standing for six months at the corner of Ninth and High streets, where it had broken, and would go no further ! It had been made to go under water , as it was said, and was to dig out river beds, and docks and shoals. It had started from his premises at Vine street, and had gone that far on the streets. To what will steam not eventually contribute!”
Evans did not move his shop to Vine Street until 1806, so if Watson is recalling what happened in 1805, the Orukter may never have moved from Evans’s shop at all. Alternatively, it may never have made it out of the shop until 1806. At the very least, it suggests that if we are to credit Oliver Evans with the first automobile, we should also credit him with the first breakdown and the first abandoned vehicle.
There are a few later bits of evidence, memories recorded long after the fact. In the mid-1860s the local historian Charles Hagner remembered seeing the machine “hauled out on Market Street.” In 1872 the author of a biography of Evans found two eyewitnesses who remembered the machine. And in 1929 the curator of the B"O Museum in Baltimore heard from his 90-year-old aunt a story that her grandfather, who had worked for Oliver Evans, had told her. Though she claimed to remember an unlikely amount of technical detail, almost all of it suspiciously similar to Evans’s published description, she was quite certain that “Grandfather never made any mention of the dredge being operated through the streets of the city.”
Can we argue from mechanics? The “small steam engine” Evans describes would have had an output of about five horsepower, which might be used to propel a golf cart today. He gave the Orukter’s total weight as 34,437 pounds. Moreover, he’s clear that the Orukter had to be jury-rigged for use as a road vehicle. It’s true that steam engines create a lot of torque—early steam traction engines, perhaps the closest analogue, moved several tons with engines not much larger—but the problem is the transmission, getting power from the engine to the wheels. Inventors worked at that for decades; it seems unlikely that the Orukter, with its improvised power train, could have solved that problem.
It’s impossible to know today what the Orukter actually did. Many prototypes and inventions work well enough to impress an observer already taken with their novelty. A steam wagon lurching a few yards on its own power would have let Evans claim success and let his backers feel vindicated. And who but a skeptic could be upset if, say, horses had to be harnessed to pull the wagon the rest of the distance?
How about the Orukter as a steamboat? The first question should be why Evans wanted to use it that way. He was being paid to build a dredge, which did not have to be self-propelled. Here again we can see the shadows of Latrobe and Stevens. Just a year earlier Latrobe had declared that a steamboat using Evans’s engine was an impossibility. Stevens had also written that Evans’s boiler would not work on a steamboat. Evans had to prove them wrong. Perhaps as important, steamboats promised to be an enormously important market for steam engines, and Evans was looking to drum up some business for himself with a demonstration.
Another question: Assuming his story is true, why did he bother to take his boat down the Schuylkill and then up the Delaware when delivering the Orukter directly to the Delaware would have been so much shorter? Part of the reason is geography: It’s downhill from the waterworks to the Schuylkill. Another problem was that the Delaware waterfront was built up, and Evans needed to drive the Orukter directly into the water. And though the image of the Orukter’s powering its way up the Delaware makes for a better story, this may be less impressive than it seems. The Delaware is still tidal at Philadelphia, so when the tide is coming in, it flows upstream. The Orukter could have floated down the Schuylkill with the current and then up the Delaware with the tide, perhaps running its engine and turning paddles for show all the while.
Finally, there’s the evidence—or, more precisely, the lack of evidence—in Evans’s own correspondence. In late 1808 he wrote to New York State Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, who had invested in Fulton’s steamboat research. Evans does not mention the Orukter, and when he discusses steam propulsion of boats, it is in very hypothetical terms: “Was I to apply one to a boat I would simply attach the piston rod or beam to a crank on the shaft of the paddle wheels.” And: “It is my duty to endeavor to convince some one so as to induce them to apply my steam engine to propel Boats.” It seems that in 1808 Evans did not think he had produced a successful steamboat. Indeed, he never again built a steam road vehicle, and though he made several attempts, it was not until 1816 that he found success with a steamboat.
The Board of Health didn’t think the Orukter was a success as a dredge either. At the end of 1805 it reported that Evans was working on the dredge’s problems and hoped for completion before “the commencement of the warm season.” In 1806 the board asked a committee of distinguished Philadelphia engineers to report on the problem. Their report seems to be lost. Then in 1807 the Board of Health hired Benjamin Latrobe to propose a way to dredge the river. “The cleansing of Docks and Slips, and the deepening of Water at the front of piers or Wharves, is well performed by our, so called, Mud turtle, but beyond that, we cannot advantageously venture,” Latrobe wrote. It’s not clear whether the “mud turtle” is the Orukter, but it seems unlikely. In May 1807, when Latrobe wrote, the board was still fighting with Evans over its completion, and nowhere else is it called by that name.
The Board of Health finally gave up on the Orukter in late 1808. It paid Evans what he claimed he was owed, and in June 1809 it sold the machine for parts. It got $31.10 back for its $4,000 investment. (We can add to the first abandoned car, the first junked car.) That was the end of the Orukter Amphibolos— as a machine. As a myth it lived much longer.
Evans was the first to raise it from the dead. After ignoring it in his correspondence—after declaring his dismay at his steam engine’s not finding use in a boat—he resurrected the Orukter Amphibolos as a remarkable piece of self-advertisement. He did so when he reached a stage in his life when he was most interested in burnishing his reputation.
In 1809 a judge questioned the validity of Congress’s extension of his mill patents and called the whole patent system a bad idea, declaring, as Evans put it, “a patent right to be an infringement of a public right” (a widely held belief at the time). This threw the inventor into such a despairing rage that he burned all the “drawings, specifications explanations and minutes of all my inventions,” telling his family that thenceforth he would invent no more but would “pursue regularly [ sic ] business the remainder of my life.”
He did quite well as a businessman, moving into a large house and setting up a factory in Pittsburgh as well as expanding his shop in Philadelphia. But as he approached 60, he seems to have devoted his efforts more to his reputation than to either invention or business. Between 1812 and 1814 he published a series of books, letters, and articles designed to secure his place in history and to demonstrate the value of inventors to society.
The Orukter stars in many of these publications, and the story gets better each time Evans tells it. (The publications all get the date wrong, placing the invention in 1804, not 1805. Many modern writers have repeated this error.) The first time the new story appeared was in a letter Evans published in Niles’ Weekly Register of Baltimore, one of the early Republic’s most influential newspapers, on November 13, 1812. (The paper’s publisher, Hezekiah Niles, was much younger than Evans but had grown up near him in Delaware. He remembered how, when he was a boy, all the adults had agreed that Evans “would never be worth any thing, because he was always spending his time on some contrivance or another.”)
In his letter Evans describes the Orukter Amphibolos more or less as before, but he adds: “I transported my great burthen to the Schuylkill River with ease; and when it was launched in the water I fixed a paddle-wheel at the stern, and drove it down the Schuylkill, to the Delaware, and up the Delaware to the city, leaving all the vessels going up behind me at least half-way, the wind being ahead.” Here, seven years after the event, he added “with ease” to the road portion of the journey and turned the trip up the Delaware into a race. In his Abortion he says that if the Orukter had been built differently, it “could have stemmed the tide of the Delaware.” Now he’s beating out all the other boats! The Orukter may have benefited from its lack of sails; as with its trip on land, it is hard to know what really happened. But the story certainly got better with the telling.
In October 1813 he published the most remarkable book ever written on patents, Patent right oppression exposed; or, Knavery detected. In an address, to unite all good people to obtain a repeal of the patent laws . This book is a bizarre miscellany of rhyming verse, footnotes, appendices, and anecdotes. It was written under the pseudonym “Patrick N. I. Elisha, Esq., Poet Laureate,” who supposedly sets forth the point of view of Evans’s critics. If Evans were granted patents, Elisha writes, he would make:
First, a machine for digging canals, Banking marshes, deep’ning channels Filing wharves, and raising low grounds, In fact, for like things ‘twill have no bounds; All by steam engines to be done, Whilst lab’ring men must idle run.
Elsewhere the book abandons Elisha’s sarcastic tone for serious prophecy (“the time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines, from one city to another, almost as fast as birds fly, fifteen or twenty miles an hour”). It also gives the story of the Orukter Amphibolos in its fullest form. In this version, the Orukter goes “round the circle” at the waterworks and travels farther up the Delaware (16 miles) than in any previous telling. He repeats the story of the race but adds that it occurred “in the presence of thousands of spectators.”
Why did Oliver Evans rewrite his personal history in these later retellings of the Orukter Amphibolos story? Why did he change the date of the adventure from 1805 to 1804? Why did he increase the distance and add thousands of spectators?
It’s possible that he just wanted a better story. But these enhancements can probably best be understood as a part of the heated debate in the early nineteenth century over the invention of the steamboat. This was a hard-fought battle among advocates of John Fitch, James Rumsey, Robert Fulton, and John Stevens, as well as British and French inventors, for credit for one of the most important technologies of the day. Stevens first operated his twin-screw propeller steamboat in 1804, and Evans may have wanted to claim priority.
After Evans’s death in 1819, others picked up the story and made the Orukter Amphibolos into a landmark in the history of American inventiveness. Niles’ Magazine put the Orukter into a nationalistic context in 1828: “We state these things with the pride of Americans—that the honor of the discovery may remain where it is due.”
The first picture and first full explanation of the Orukter Amphibolos appeared in a Boston magazine, The Mechanic , in July and August 1834, as part of a long and thoughtful analysis of the history of the steam engine, steamboat, and steam carriage. The editor, basing his story on Evans’s Niles’ Register article, weighed Evans’s claims for the “first practical exemplification of his ideas of steam-locomotion” against those of William Symington, a Scot, who made an earlier working model of a high-pressure steamboat. Evans deserved credit, the editor decided, based on his earlier idea.
By 1846 the story had reached its fullest form. Henry Holt’s Memoirs of the Most Eminent American Mechanics included Evans with Fitch, Benjamin Franklin, and Eli Whitney and said of the Orukter, “This machine … is believed to have been the first application, in America, of steam power to the propelling of land carriages .” This formulation credited Evans with a new first. By the 1840s steamboats were old hat, but the steam locomotive was new, and it needed a history.
An 1848 article in the Southern Quarterly Review echoes this theme, describing the Orukter as “a locomotive carriage” and adding, for color, that it was displayed in a “majestic march through the streets of Philadelphia, in the presence of at least twenty thousand spectators.” In the 1880s The New York Times commented on a proposed memorial to George Stephenson, of Britain: “If the proposed monument is to bear the legend ‘inventor of the locomotive’ on its face, evans’s form should rise above. . . . OLIVER EVANS, though so few know his name, is the inventor of the most valuable prime mover made by man.”
With the invention of the automobile, Evans became a hero for a new age. In his great-granddaughter’s obituary in 1932, the Times called him a “pioneer auto inventor.” The Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805–1942 describes the Orukter as “America’s first recorded automotive vehicle.” In a wartime detour, a 1945 history of Philadelphia calls the Orukter “the first amphibian tank.” And to bring the story up to date, in 1997 the Times headlined a letter about Evans: “First Car in U.S. was Truly a Sport Utility.”
The Orukter was the focus of a novel, Darwin L. Teilhet’s Trouble Is My Master , serialized in the The Saturday Evening Post in 1941 and 1942. It continues to appear in popular books of American invention. A dramatic image in a 1971 National Geographic book shows it driving into the Schuylkill (not, as is more likely, being lifted off its wheels by the tide). On Evans’s card in the 1979 “Story of America” collectors’ series, it circles the waterworks while a crowd of admirers looks on.
The exact story of the Orukter Amphibolos—whether it ever ran on the roads, whether it was a precursor to the steamboat, the locomotive, or the automobile—is not so important. Evans’s place in the history of invention is secured by his flour-milling and high-pressure steam-engine inventions, not by what one historian called his “clumsy scow on wheels.” What the Orukter reveals is the power of an inventor’s persistence, the way that personality drives technological change, and the power of a good story. Evans was not only a great inventor but a great storyteller. And whether the Orukter ran or not, it is a great story.