October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
Oliver Evans did not live to see railroads. He died in 1819, and the first real American railroad line, the Baltimore & Ohio, was begun only in 1828.
But in another sense he saw railroads very clearly indeed. Just look at what he wrote in 1813: “The time will come when people will travel in stages [i.e., stagecoaches] moved by steam engines, from one city to another, almost as fast as birds fly....A carriage will set out from Washington in the morning, the passenger will breakfast in Baltimore, dine at Philadelphia and sup at New York on the same day....To accomplish this, two sets of railways will be laid...to guide the carriage, so that they may pass each other in different directions and travel by night as well as by day.”
Oliver Evans not only foresaw railroads, he described precisely how modern refrigerators would one day work. He designed central-heating systems, a solar boiler, a machine gun, a gas-lighting system. Most of these inventions, like so many of Leonardo’s three centuries earlier, were impracticable given the technology of Evans’s day. They were just the fancies of an endlessly fertile engineering imagination.
But Oliver Evans also made two singularly practical contributions to the technology of his times. The high-pressure steam engine he invented (his contemporary Richard Trevithick of England also invented one independently) would be the driving force of the nineteenth-century economy. And his automatic flour mill foreshadowed the industrial process by which Henry Ford would transform the world in the twentieth century. Together they give him a claim to the title of founding father of the American industrial revolution that few can match.
Oliver Evans was born near Newport, Delaware, in 1755, the fifth child in what would grow to be a family of twelve. His father was a farmer of modest prosperity, and at sixteen Oliver was apprenticed to a wheelwright and wagonmaker in Newport.
While learning the trade, Evans also read widely, especially in mathematics and mechanics. Only two years before, in 1769, James Watt had patented his first steam engine, four times as fuel-efficient as earlier ones, and the young Evans devoured the details of the new energy source. He would be deeply concerned with steam engines for the rest of his life.
But there was no market for steam engines in late colonial America, and in 1783 he joined with two of his brothers in building a flour mill on land they had bought from their father.
The technology of flour mills had not changed in any essential aspect since waterpower had first been utilized hundreds of years earlier. To make flour, sacks of grain were carried, one by one, up to the top of the mill, where they were poured into a device that separated the grain from dirt and chaff. Next the wheat dropped through a chute to a lower floor, where it was ground into meal by millstones.
The meal then dropped into a chest on the ground floor and was shoveled into buckets to be hoisted back up to the third floor, where it was spread out to cool. The meal was then pushed into a chute from which it fell into the bolting cylinder, a device that separated it into flour, middlings, and bran. Finally the flour was packed into barrels and was ready to ship.
The only parts of this complicated process that were powered by the water wheel were the actual grinding and bolting. Everything else was accomplished by human muscle. Evans immediately thought he saw a better way. Over the next few years he designed a series of bucket elevators and screw conveyors, powered by the water wheel, that moved the grain, meal, and flour from one process to another automatically. He also designed a “hopper boy” that spread and cooled the freshly ground meal and slowly pushed it into the boiler. It, too, was powered by the water wheel.
Except for the hopper boy, none of Evans’s devices were entirely new. The bucket elevator was an adaptation of the chain pump, known since Roman times, and the screw conveyor was merely a horizontal version of the Archimedes’ screw, a device so ancient it might even antedate Archimedes himself.
What was stunningly new was the conception of an integrated, automatic, industrial process. Automatic machinery, which worked without human operators, had been around for some time (the clock was perhaps the first). In the late eighteenth century the number of automatic machines grew swiftly. Textile and nail-making machines were developed among others. And, of course, there was Watt’s steam engine.
But until Oliver Evans no one had conceived of the factory itself as a machine. Yet Evans’s flour mill was exactly that: you poured grain in one end, and flour came out the other.
Having invented a better mousetrap, Evans expected the world to beat a path to his door. He was very disappointed. Flour mills already in operation were profitable as they were, and their owners saw no reason to install expensive machinery. Also, most of them were family enterprises, and the owners feared they might put their own relatives out of work.
For the rest of his life Evans was to rail ill-temperedly against the human tendency to stick with the status quo and to bemoan the fact that fate had made him a genius in a world where geniuses were not appreciated. “He that studies and writes on the improvement of the arts and sciences labours to benefit generations yet unborn,” Evans wrote at a particularly gloomy period of his life, “for it is not probable that his contemporaries will pay any attention to him...; therefore improvements progress so slowly.”
Evans patented his flour-mill process in several states and, after the new federal Constitution went into effect, received only the third patent the new government issued. (The first patents were signed by Washington and two members of his new cabinet, including another prolific American inventor, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson must have been impressed as a few years later he would set up an Evans type of flour mill at one of his own plantations and paid Evans an eighty-dollar license fee for the privilege. George Washington, also always receptive to new technology, bought a license for his mill at Mount Vernon as well.)
Despite Evans’s grumpy attitude about people’s reluctance to change, the Evans process relentlessly spread through the industry over the next twenty years while its essential idea spread to other industries as well. Its success was greatly helped by a book Evans wrote called The Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide. A how-to book on building and running flour mills, it would have fully fifteen editions, the last printed on the eve of the Civil War, forty years after the author’s death.
Although his flour-mill inventions were a solid success, the license fees were not yet enough to earn a living, and Evans moved to Philadelphia and became a merchant, specializing in flour-mill equipment. But his restless mind was turning back to his adolescent passion: steam.
When he first learned about Watt’s engine, Evans had dreamed of building a steam carriage. But Watt’s engine did not produce anywhere near enough power to move itself, let alone a carriage. The Watt engine operated on low pressure and worked at what today seems an almost surreally slow pace, about twelve cycles per minute. In the Watt engine steam pushed the piston to the bottom of the cylinder and then was drawn off and condensed, creating a vacuum that sucked the piston back up.
Evans developed an engine using high-pressure steam that not only pushed the piston down but pushed it back up as well. Watt’s separate condenser was dispensed with. The result was a steam engine that was far smaller than Watt’s and yet produced far more power per unit of weight because it operated at many times the speed. Evans’s first engine, built in 1802, had a cylinder about six inches in diameter and eighteen inches long. It produced about five horsepower. The two great Watt-type engines that had been installed the year before to power the Philadelphia waterworks at Center Square, in contrast, each had a cylinder diameter of thirty-two inches and a stroke of six feet. Yet each produced only twelve horsepower.
Evans set his engine to stationary work, but soon returned to his steam-carriage idea. He was commissioned to build a steam dredge for Philadelphia Harbor. He did so near his shop, which was about a mile from the Schuylkill River up Market Street. The vessel, improbably named the Orukter Amphibolos, was twelve feet wide and thirty feet long. It weighed fully seventeen tons. To get it to the river, he put it on two sets of wheels, attached the engine to one axle with a chain drive, and proceeded down Market Street “with a gentle motion.”
When he got to Central Square, he gave a demonstration, circling several times the waterworks located there. He was, of course, both literally and metaphorically running rings around Watt’s low-pressure engines with his high-pressure one.
The demonstration over, the first land vehicle in America to move by means other than muscle power tootled off down Market Street toward the river, dropped its wheels, and entered both the Schuylkill and the oblivion that is the fate of dredges.
But its engine did not. Further refined and enlarged, it proved the perfect power source for the steamboats that were soon operating in the shallow and treacherous waters of the Mississippi River system as well as myriad industrial uses and, later, the early railroads. Together with the licensing fees of his flour mill, it made Evans’s old age a prosperous one.
Oliver Evans, still grumpy and convinced of the stupidity of his fellow man despite his prosperity, pointed the way to the nineteenth century. His fellow man, not so stupid after all, took it from there.