1785 Two Hundred Years Ago

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In the early fall of 1785, Oliver Evans of New Castle County, Delaware, traveled his region seeking financial support for what everybody frankly told him was a harebrained scheme: Evans intended to convert a conventional flour mill into a fully automatic one. “Ah! Oliver,” one miller chided the inventor as he turned him away, “you cannot make water run uphill, you cannot make wooden millers!” It was without any backing, then, that Evans began redesigning the mill he owned with his brothers on Red Clay Creek. For his persistence, he became regarded as a man “who would never be worth anything,” a neighbor later recalled, “because he was always spending his time on some contrivance or another.”

Evans’s contrivances proved revolutionary. He devised a bucket elevator that hoisted grain, and a hopper boy that spread it and then funneled it elsewhere. Marvelous as these machines were, it was the functioning of the entire mill that represented a radical conceptual leap. In it, man’s presence was necessary only to start, stop, and adjust the machinery. Evans’s flour mill was, in fact, the first fully integrated automatic factory and the genesis for all modern mass-production industries.

Of course, Evans’s contemporaries remained resistant to the idea of “wooden millers.” Even after the Red Clay Creek mill was converted and working smoothly for all to see, it was years before most millers were willing to automatize their own establishments. When they finally did, they were typically dumbfounded by the results. At one newly converted site, Evans wrote, “all the millers assembled about the hopper boy, where they remained in silent astonishment, until one of them exclaimed, ‘It will not do! it cannot do!! it is impossible it should do!!!’—it doing perfectly well at the same time.”

Evans, who lived from 1755 to 1819, went on to build America’s first highpressure steam engine and drew up plans for eighty more inventions, he claimed, from a machine gun to a refrigeration machine. But he was never the quiet linkerer sort. He spent much of his life either hawking his mill design or, once it was patented and in common use, suing millers to pay him for having adopted it. Endowed at the outset with an abrasive personality, the inventor ended his life a virtual misanthrope. He took to riding about the country like some greedy Chaucerian figure, seeking out unlicensed millers to whom he could direct his lawyers.

•September 10: The United States enters a treaty of commerce with Prussia that outlaws privateering.

•September 14: After a nine-year stay in France, Benjamin Franklin returns to Philadelphia.