Who Was Oliver Evans?
Oliver Evans was an American inventor, engineer, businessman, and pioneer in the field of automation. He has been called the first great American inventor. Between his long series of accomplishments he designed and built the first fully automated industrial process in the 1780s, a flour mill in Newport, Delaware.
Oliver Evans was born in Newport, Delaware on September 13th, 1755. He was the fifth son of Charles, a Welsh-American, and Annika (Ann) Evans (nee Stalcop), a Swedish-American.
- Full Name
- Oliver Evans
- September 13, 1755
- April 15, 1819
- Net Worth
- Place of Birth
- Newport, Delaware Colony
- Fields of Expertise
- Pittsburgh Steam Engine Company
- Automated Mill, Steam Engine
Charles (1724-1799) and Ann (1729-1799) married in 1745. 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 eagerly devoured 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 Revolutionary War began when Oliver was 19 years old. He enlisted in a Delaware militia company but saw no active service during the war.
In 1772, when only 17 years old, Oliver began to contrive some method of propelling land carriages by means other than animal power. He thought of a variety of devices, such as using the force of the wind and treadles worked by men. He eventually discovered a book describing the old atmospheric steam engine of Newcomen and was at once struck with the fact that steam was only used to produce a vacuum.
It seemed clear to him that the elastic power of steam applied directly to moving the piston would be far more efficient. He was determined to make steam wagons, but couldn’t convince anyone else of this possibility.
While moving from grain mill owner to steam engine company, Oliver Evans is best known for his role as an inventor and the invention of the Automated Mill. He continued to explore more efficient ways of operating his companies and devised many successful machines to make processes faster and more competitive.
Grain Mill Owner
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. Oliver was put in charge of overseeing its construction.
When the mill opened in September 1785, it used a conventional grain milling approach, 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 ancient Roman technology that was still being used. Evans had seen diagrams of their use for marine applications and realized with some modification they could be used to raise grain, so he 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 the 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 manually done by shoveling the meal across large floors. Evans developed the hopper boy, a device that gathered meal from a bucket elevator and spread it evenly over the drying floor as a mechanical rake would revolve around the floor space. 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 the number of workers from three or four to just one for this process. It also greatly reduced the risk of contamination.
Pittsburgh Steam Engine Company
In 1811, Evans founded the Pittsburgh Steam Engine Company. It made engines and other heavy machinery and castings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The location of the factory on the Mississippi watershed was important in the development of high-pressure steam engines for use in riverboats.
What Did Oliver Evans Invent?
In 1817, Evans compiled a list of all his inventions. The list included at least 80 devices and improvements for a variety of industrial processes and other purposes. Some of his unfinished ideas that are known include a scheme for the gaslighting, a means for raising sunken ships, a machine gun, a self-oiling shaft bearing, various types of gear shift for steam carriages, a dough-kneading machine, and a perpetual baking oven.
Evans never even made a prototype of some of these inventions. The following are notable inventions that Oliver Evans patented or attempted to patent.
The U.S. Patent Office had not been organized in the 1780s, so several states exercised the privilege of granting exclusive rights to the use of the 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. He also applied for a patent for his steam wagons and requested permission for their use on the roads of the state.
The Legislature granted him the flour mill patent for grain milling the following year. On May 21, 1787, however, the Legislature of Maryland granted him both rights for 14 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 patents and rights, and, on December 18th, 1790, was granted a U.S. patent for his “method of manufacturing flour and meal.” This appears to be one of only three patents granted that year.
These inventions led to Evan’s Automated Mill, which allowed for the continuous production of flour. This was a critical moment in the history of automation and mass production of grain milling.
Steam Powered Wagon
Evans also began experimenting with steam power and its potential for commercial application in the early 1780s. 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 or prototype.
In 1805, Evans designed a refrigerator machine that ran on vapor, although he never built one. His design was later 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 a Philadelphia Board of Health commission. The Board was concerned with the problem of dredging and cleaning the city’s dockyards, so in 1805 Evans convinced them to contract with him for a steam-powered dredge. Evans built it, but the amphibious digger wasn’t a successful dredge. It was sold for parts after sitting at the dock for a few years.
Oliver Evans: Marriage, Divorce, Children, and Personal Life
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. Despite this personality trait, Evans was an accomplished inventor and business owner.
Evans married Sarah Tomlinson, daughter of John Tomlinson, a local farmer, in 1783. Evans was 27 when he was married in Old Swedes’ Episcopal Church in Wilmington. The couple had three sons and four daughters.
In 1816, Sarah died. Evans remarried two years later in April 1818 to Hetty Ward, who was many years his junior and the daughter of a New York innkeeper.
Oliver and Sarah Evans had three sons and four daughters.
In March 1819, Evans developed an inflammation of the lungs. On April 11th the news reached him in New York that his shop Mars Works in Philadelphia had burned down. This bad news appears to have brought on a fatal attack of apoplexy. He died on April 15th, 1819, and was buried at Zion Episcopal Church in Manhattan.
Oliver Evans: Awards and Achievements
Oliver Evans didn’t receive a significant number of awards during his lifetime. He did, however, design and create a number of significant inventions that harnessed steam power and mechanical efficiency to help power the Industrial Revolution. From a prototype to a successful operation, Evans distinguished himself as an important inventor in the history of automation.
Evan’s work on steam power helped him develop an advanced steam engine. He wasn’t able to receive approval to use this type to power a steam wagon capable of traveling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but he did apply the technology to many other manufacturing machines. He’s best known for his role in creating a continuous production line and pioneering high-pressure steam engines.