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Oliver Evans

Born:   1755, Newport, DE
Died:   1819, New York, NY

Did You Know?

One of Evans' brothers told him about a blacksmith's boy who had put water in a gun barrel, rammed wadding down it, and put the butt end of the gun in the smith's fire. The compressed steam in the cylinder ejected the wadding with a crack as loud as gunpowder. Evans saw utility in the joke and set out to harness the power of steam.

Photos: Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library

A Better Steam Engine

A versatile Revolutionary-era inventor looked for ways to improve and automate industry, and created an engine that would power hundreds of new businesses in the young nation.

The Power of Steam
Born in Delaware in 1755, Oliver Evans took an early interest in engineering, eagerly studying mathematics and mechanics whenever he could. He apprenticed himself to a wheelwright and wagon maker while a teenager. A chance conversation with one of his brothers led him to consider high-pressure steam as a source of power for wagons, in an era when only large, heavy, low-pressure steam engines were thought to be viable.

Reforming Production
At age 22, Evans went to work in a textile workshop. In the years before men like Samuel Slater and Francis Lowell developed the American textile industry, much of the work was done laboriously, by hand. Evans was put to work creating wire teeth for the carders used to comb textile fibers. He soon innovated a machine that could make three thousand of the carding teeth per minute. His next improvement was in the milling business. Observing the tedious and dirty method for turning wheat into flour, he determined to automate the process. Evans spent at least seven years perfecting five machines that, together, formed an integrated production line -- over a century before Henry Ford's. The new mill allowed one worker to do the work of five, processing 300 bushels per hour.

When he had trouble convincing millers to adopt his new system, Evans published a book, The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide, that would educate a new generation. In 1789, he made a breakthrough sale to the Ellicott brothers in Maryland; their output and profits leapt. Within a few years, Evans had licensed his technology to over 100 users, including a celebrated Virginia landowner, George Washington. Still, his profits would slip away as others took and adapted his technology.

Steam Power
Perhaps Evans' greatest contribution to American industry was a high-pressure steam engine. In 1803, visitors to his Philadelphia workshop saw a steam-powered engine that could drive 12 saws through a hundred feet of marble in 12 hours. Unlike low-pressure steam engines, Evans's machine was portable; it could power a wagon to transport 100 barrels of flour from Lancaster to Philadelphia in two days instead of three, tripling profits. He founded Mars Iron Works in 1807 and built the United States' first steam river dredge, the Orukter Amphibolos ("Amphibious Digger") -- a strange but powerful machine which was also the first amphibious vehicle and the first automobile. It had been ordered by the Philadelphia Board of Health in order to clean city waterways.

Evans worked to refine his "Columbian" engine despite others' fears that it was dangerous or impractical, writing a second book, The Young Steam Engineers' Guide, and lobbying Congress for recognition and support when others profited from his innovations. In 1811, he opened a factory to build steam engines in Pittsburgh, creating customized engines for a range of American businesses, from iron mills to paper mills; from waterworks to steamboat companies. In his later years, Evans continued to invent, and became convinced that the government was a necessary partner in the process of technological research and development. Evans died in 1819, having made his mark on the young nation's industries in many ways.

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