Oliver Evans (September 13, 1755 – April 15, 1819) was an American inventor, engineer, and businessman born in rural Delaware and later rooted commercially in Philadelphia. He was one of the first Americans building steam engines and a proponent oh high-pressure steam engine. A pioneer in the field of automation, material handling, and steam power. Evans was one of the most prolific and influential inventors in the early years of the united states. He left behind a long series of accomplishments and a dream left never achieved of steam-powered land transportation.
Steam engines appeared in the United States as a source of power in the late 18th century, and living in Delaware and Philadelphia meant Evans was exposed to it. John Fitch an American inventor had launched the first rudimentary steamboat onto the Delaware River in the late 1780s, and the Philadelphia waterworks was by 1802 operating two low-pressure steam engines to pump water from the Schuylkill River, these were much of the only examples on the developments on steam engines in America that time.
But the development of steam power in Great Britain, with Thomas Newcomen and James Watt instrumental in developing and commercializing steam power there and elsewhere in Europe, with several hundred machines operation, leads to industrial and labor-saving applications and much higher applications of steam power at that time.
Evans had first begun to consider the potential applications of steam power for transportation while still an apprentice in the 1780s and had developed rudimentary designs for ‘steam carriages’ in the 1790s. In 1801, Evans definitively began work on making his long-held dream of a steam carriage a reality, although British engineers such as Richard Trevithick had already begun work on such ideas. Other early steam engineers, most notably Watt contemporary, William Murdoch, had developed plans for a steam-propelled carriage incorporating a heavy flywheel.
We have an article on William Murdoch: Britain’s 1st working model of steam engine locomotive Where in his design pressure was directly converted to rotary power which would enough to move the structure but quite inefficient for a larger load and however it became apparent in the experimentation that a low-pressure rotary steam engine would never be powerful enough to propel a carriage of any weight forward.
There were ideas of high-pressure steam engines i.e. the reciprocating engine but this idea was long resisted by watt and earlier steam pioneers because the necessary iron making and metalworking technology were lacking that time.
Evans recognized that a high-pressure steam engine would be essential to the development of a steam carriage because they could be built far smaller while providing similar or greater power outputs to low-pressure equivalents. Some experiments with high-pressure steam engines had been made in Europe, most notably Trevithick’s Puffing Devil, in 1801, and his later London Steam Carriage of 1803, The prevailing fear of early steam engineering, however, was that no boiler could safely contain high-pressure steam.
Evans ignored the potential drawbacks and developed similarly different designs of engines operating at high-pressure while eliminating Watt’s condenser. His designs also incorporated a grasshopper beam engine, a double-acting cylinder, and four steam valves, very similar to Trevithick’s designs. Each valve was independently operated by one of four cams. The resulting design was a high-pressure steam engine that had a higher power-to-weight ratio than Newcomen engines, setting it among the ranks of other engineers’ engines in their quest to make locomotives and steamboats practical. These engines were also mechanically simpler than condensing engines, making them less costly to build and maintain, and did not require large volumes of condensing water. These features made the engines equally well suited for a variety of industrial applications.
Oliver Evans’s development of high-pressure steam engine came in accordance with many industrial applications which flourishes the market with ease In prosses and cost efficiency which leads to Evans receiving a patent for his new steam engine in 1804.
Evans set about looking for commercial applications for his engine, the first of his proposals was for the Lancaster Turnpike Company. He proposed to construct a steam wagon with the capacity to carry 100 barrels of flour between Philadelphia and Lancaster in two days, which by his estimation would greatly increase profits compared to the equivalent five-horse wagons, for whom the trip took three days. Evans declared in his proposal that “I have no doubt but that my engines will propel boats against the current of the Mississippi, and wagons on turnpike roads with great profit. With the company unsure of the reliability and cost of the technology, the proposal was rejected.
Within a year Evans had found a client. “The Philadelphia Board of Health” was concerned with the problem of dredging and cleaning the city’s dockyards and removing sandbars in 1805 Evans convinced them to contract him to develop a steam-powered dredge. The result was the Oruktor Amphibolos, or “Amphibious Digger”. The vessel consisted of a flat-bottomed scow with bucket chains to bring up mud and hooks to clear away sticks, stones, and other obstacles. Power for the dredging equipment and propulsion was supplied by a high-pressure Evans engine. The result was a craft nearly thirty feet long, twelve feet wide, and weighing some seventeen tons. To move this ungainly hulk to the waterfront, as well to give a demonstration of his long-held beliefs in the possibility of land-based steam transportation, Evans mounted the hull on four wheels (twice, as the first set collapsed under the weight) and connected the engine to them to drive the Oruktor from his workshop through the Philadelphia streets on the way to the Schuylkill River on July 13, 1805.
The Oruktor Amphibolos is thus believed to have been the first automobile in the United States, and the first motorized amphibious craft in the world. However, very few contemporary accounts of the craft survive, and Evans’s tendency to exaggerate its success in his annals make verification of its performance difficult. Although Evans himself claimed it proceeded successfully around Philadelphia (and circled his erstwhile rival Benjamin Latrobe’s Philadelphia waterworks) before launching into the river and paddling at speed to Philadelphia harbor; the great weight of the craft make land-propulsion based on its limited engine capacity and jury-rigged power train fairly improbable over any significant distance.
It is similarly unknown how well, if at all, the Oruktor functioned as a steamboat, and Evans’s claims on this point vary significantly over the years. Nevertheless, it is known that the invention proved ineffective for its ostensible purpose as a dredger, and it was scrapped for parts by the Board of Health in 1808.
Evan’s idea of the steam carriage was not an impossible dream. He continued to promote the idea, in 1812 he published a futuristic description of a world connected by a network of shipping lines, railroad tracks, and steam locomotives, accurately ascribing the future of mobility long before any such potential could be realized.
“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 in an hour”
Evan’s contribution to steam was not as ground-breaking as his earlier work in milling but he played a critical role by inventing and propagating the high-pressure steam engine in the United States. The combination of many machines into an automated and continuous production line was a unique idea that would prove pivotal to both the industrial revolution and the development of mass production. Scientific and technical historians generally credit Evan’s as the first in a line of industrialist that culminated with Henry Ford and modern assembly line.
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