Oliver Evans (1755–1819) was an American inventor, engineer and businessman, a pioneer in the fields of automation, who has been called the first great American inventor. Between his long series of accomplishments was designing and building the first fully automated industrial process in middle 1780s, a flour mill in Newport, Delaware.
In 1782, Oliver and two of his elder brothers, John (1846-1798) and Theophilus (1753-1809) purchased part of their father’s farm in Red Clay Creek, Delaware, to build a grain mill, as Oliver was put in charge of overseeing its construction. When the mill opened in September, 1785, it was of a conventional design, but over the next five years Oliver began to experiment with inventions to reduce the reliance upon labor for milling.
Evans’s first innovation was a bucket elevator to facilitate moving wheat from the bottom to the top of the mill to begin the process. Chains of buckets to raise water was an old Roman technology, used in various processes since antiquity. Evans had seen diagrams of their use for marine applications and realized with some modification they could be used to raise grain, so devised a series of bucket elevators around a mill to move grain and flour from one process to the next.
Another labor-intensive task was that of spreading meal, which came out of the grinding process warm and moist, needing cooling and drying before it could be sifted and packed. Traditionally the task was done by manually shoveling meal across large floors. For this purpose, Evans developed the hopper boy, a device which gathered meal from a bucket elevator and spread it evenly over the drying floor, as a mechanical rake would revolve around the floorspace. This would even out newly deposited meal for cooling and drying, while a gentle incline in the design of the rake blades would slowly move the flour towards central chutes, from which the material would be sifted.
Used in conjunction, Evans’ two innovations saved many hours of labor, reducing number of workers from 3-4 to 1, moreover greatly reducing the risk of contamination.
The patent drawing of Oliver Evans’ automated mill
At this time the U.S. Patent Office had not been organized yet, and the several States exercised the privilege of granting exclusive rights to the use of invention within their own boundaries. In 1786, Evans applied to the Legislature of Pennsylvania for a right to use his improvements in machinery for making flour, and also to use his steam wagons on the roads of the State. The following year the Legislature granted him only flour mil patent, but, on 21 May 1787, the Legislature of Maryland granted both rights for fourteen years. A similar patent was granted in 1789 by New Hampshire. In 1790, when the U.S. Patent Office was organized, Evans relinquished his State rights, and on 18 December, 1790, a U.S. patent Number 3X was granted for his "method of manufacturing flour and meal." This is said to be one of the three patent granted that year.
Evans had a rather abrasive personality and little tolerance for those who did not see the originality and importance of his inventions. This made it difficult for him to obtain financial backing, forcing him to depend on patent royalties.
Who was the remarkable engineer and inventor Oliver Evans?
Oliver Evans was born in Newport, Delaware on 13 September, 1755. He was the fifth son of Charles (a Welsh-American) and Annika (Ann) Evans (nee Stalcop), a Swedish-American. Charles (1724-1799) and Ann (1729-1799) married in 1745 and had 12 children—8 boys and 4 girls. Charles Evans was a shoemaker by trade, though he purchased a large farm to the north of Newport on the Red Clay Creek and moved his family there when Oliver was still in his infancy.
Oliver was apprenticed to a wheelwright, or wagon maker, at the age of 15, then he worked in several other mechanical trades. He was a thoughtful, studious boy, who devoured eagerly the few books to which he had access, even by the light of a fire of shavings, when denied a candle by his parsimonious masters.
The American Revolutionary War War began when Oliver was 19. He enlisted in a Delaware militia company, but saw no active service during the war.
In 1772, when only seventeen years old, Oliver began to contrive some method of propelling land carriages by other means than animal power, and thought of a variety of devices, such as using the force of the wind and treadles worked by men. Soon into his hands fell a book describing the old atmospheric steam engine of Newcomen, and he was at once struck with the fact that steam was only used to produce a vacuum, while to him it seemed clear that the elastic power of the steam, if applied directly to moving the piston, would be far more efficient. He soon satisfied himself that he could make steam wagons, but could convince no one else of this possibility. In 1777 Evans completed a successful machine for making the wire teeth of wool cards, and then invented, but did not build, a machine for making and sticking the teeth in the leather backs.
In early 1780s Evans also began experimenting with steam power and its potential for commercial application. His early ideas culminated in a Delaware state patent application in 1783 for a steam-powered wagon, but it was denied as Evans had yet to produce a working model. That same year, aged 27, Evans married Sarah Tomlinson, daughter of John Tomlinson, a local farmer, in Old Swedes’ Episcopal Church in Wilmington. The couple will have three sons and four daughters.
In 1805 Evans designed a refrigeration machine which ran on vapor, although he never built one. Later his design was modified by Jacob Perkins, who obtained the first patent for a refrigerating machine in 1834.
The device for which Evans is best-known today is his Oruktor Amphibolos (Amphibious Digger), built on commission from the Philadelphia Board of Health (Evans lived in Philadelphia since 1792). The Board was concerned with the problem of dredging and cleaning the city’s dockyards, and in 1805 Evans convinced them to contract with him for a steam-powered dredge. Evans built it, but Oruktor Amphibolos was never a success as a dredge, and after a few years of sitting at the dock was sold for parts.
In 1811, Evans founded the Pittsburgh Steam Engine Company, which in addition to engines made other heavy machinery and castings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The location of the factory in the Mississippi watershed was important in the development of high pressure steam engines for the use in riverboats.
In 1817 Evans compiled a list of all his inventions (some 80 in total). Some of his unfinished ideas that are known include a scheme for the gas lighting, a means for raising sunken ships, a machine gun, a self-oiling shaft bearing, various types of gearshift for steam carriages, a dough-kneading machine and a perpetual baking oven.
In 1816 Evans’ wife Sarah died, and he remarried two years later in April 1818 to Hetty Ward, who was many years his junior and the daughter of the New York innkeeper. In March 1819 Evans developed an inflammation of the lungs, and on 11 April, news had reached him in New York that the his shop Mars Works in Philadelphia had burned down. This bad news appears to have brought on a fatal attack of apoplexy, and he died on the 15 April 1819, and was buried at Zion Episcopal Church in Manhattan.