Oliver Evans (1755–1819) was born in Newport, Delaware, on September 13, 1755. Evans was apprenticed to a wagon maker, or wheelwright, as a young man. But beyond the apprenticeship, he was a self-taught, natural mechanic who was good at figuring things out. Evans began his career as an inventor at the age of twenty-one, when he began work on a machine to make the toothed cards used to brush wool prior to spinning. In just a year, he perfected the process and had an operational machine.
Married in 1780, Evans moved to Wilmington, Delaware, to join two brothers in a flour milling business. Within five years, he had analyzed the milling machinery and built automatic machinery to mill grain in one continuous process. The machinery he invented included the grain elevator, conveyor, drill, hopper boy, and descender. With these improvements, grain could be milled and the process completely controlled by one person. Moreover, the end product was much cleaner than in the old process.
The legislatures of Maryland and Pennsylvania granted Evans exclusive rights to use this machinery, and in 1790, he was granted patents by the U.S. Congress. Evans' patent was the third ever granted by the U.S. government. However, he had trouble enforcing his rights and was unsuccessful at profiting from the inventions.
Evans moved to Philadelphia and established a manufacturing company to build and sell mill equipment. The next project Evans tackled was the steam engine. James Watt (1736–1819) introduced a low-pressure steam engine in 1802. In the Watt engine, condensing steam created a vacuum that "pulled" the piston. Evans worked on a high-pressure engine that used the expansion of steam to "push" the piston, a more efficient method of converting heat energy into work. A parallel effort in England at the same time is often credited with this particular improvement to the steam engine. However, British inventor Richard Trevithick had access to Evans' plans and drawings, and Evans grieved that others got credit for his work.
Evans built a steam-powered amphibious vehicle in 1804 to dredge mud and silt from the Schuylkill River. This vehicle was likely the first steam-powered vehicle on either land or water in the United States. Named the Oruketer Amphibolos, or amphibious vehicle, by Evans, the device moved over land with wheels and was propelled in the water with a paddle wheel. Evans lobbied for the first railroad, believing that the propulsion device could be adapted to moving vehicles over land on rails made from either wood or iron. Evans' plan was to run rails from Philadelphia to New York, but the first commercial railroad was not in place until years after Evans died. He continued to refine his design and work on the steam engine throughout his life.
Evans published books on his inventions and engineering. His The Young Millwright and Miller's Guide (1797), The Young Engineer's Guide (1805), and The Abortion of the Young Steam Engineer's Guide (1805) were early handbooks on these subjects. They were translated into French and published in Paris as well.
His iron foundries in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Mars Iron Works, were founded in 1807. By the time of his death, they were producing mill equipment, steam engines, and other types of ironwork. Oliver Evans died in New York City on April 21, 1819.
Bathe, Greville and Dorothy. Oliver Evans: A Chronicle of Early American Engineering. Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1935.
Bowman, John S., ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, s.v. "Evans, Oliver."
Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1998, s.v. "Evans, Oliver."
Percell, Carroll W., Jr. Early Stationary Steam Engines in America: A Study of the Migration of a Technology. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969.
World of Invention. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1994.
Oliver Evans (1755-1819) was one of America's first and most important inventors. He made major contributions to the technology of flour milling and steam engines.
Oliver Evans was born near Newport, Del. He was apprenticed to a wagon maker. About the age of 21 he began work on his first important invention: a machine to make the cards with which wool was brushed preparatory to spinning. In 1780 he married and joined his brothers in a flour milling business near Wilmington, Del., the center of that industry. Within 5 years he had made spectacular improvements in the ancient design of flour mills; these remained standard for a century.
Previously flour mills had required an enormous amount of difficult hand labor, and the flour was often dirty as a result. By harnessing the energy of the water-wheel to move the grain and flour both horizontally and vertically through the mill, Evans reduced the hand labor and improved the product's cleanliness. Although he patented his improvements, he had great difficulty in enforcing his legal rights to the invention. Soon after making these improvements, he moved to Philadelphia and established a manufactory of mill equipment.
Evans then turned to a problem which had long interested him: the production and harnessing of steam power. James Watt's low-pressure engine had been introduced into America by 1802, when Evans began to operate his first high-pressure engine. In the Watt engine, steam was condensed in the cylinder, creating a vacuum so that atmospheric pressure pushed the piston down. In Evans's new engine (which was independently invented in England at the same time) the steam was introduced into the cylinder under high pressure and used to push the piston down directly. In 1804 Evans built a steam-powered amphibious vehicle, but his hopes to introduce steam vehicles on common roads were not realized. However, his high-pressure engines soon became standard for American mills, railroads, and steamboats.
By the time Evans died in 1819, his large iron foundries in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were turning out quantities of steam engines, mill equipment, and other types of ironwork. His two books, The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide (1795) and The Abortion of the Young Steam Engineer's Guide (1805), were America's earliest handbooks on those subjects.
The only full-length biography of Evans is Greville and Dorothy Bathe, Oliver Evans: A Chronicle of Early American Engineering (1935). The story of steam engineering in America during Evans's time is told by Carroll W. Pursell, Jr., Early Stationary Steam Engines in America: A Study in the Migration of a Technology (1969). An old but still useful book on flour milling is Charles Byron Kuhlmann, The Development of the Flour-Milling Industry in the United States (1929).
Ferguson, Eugene S., Oliver Evans, inventive genius of the American Industrial Revolution, Greenville, Del.: Hagley Museum, 1980. □
American inventor who devised steam machinery. Apprenticed as a wheelwright, Evans developed mechanical processes to make industrial combs. He automated flour mills by using a rake that sifted and dried the flour, resulting in a higher-quality product. Many millers refused to reimburse Evans for his ideas. Frustrated by this patent infringement, Evans, interested in steam locomotion, worked on a high-pressure steam engine as well as a steam dredging machine called the Orukter Amphibolos.