Oliver Evans was an American inventor, engineer and businessman. A pioneer in the fields of automation, materials 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, from designing or building the first fully automated industrial process; high-pressure steam engine; and amphibious vehicle (albeit crude).
Born in Newport, Delaware, Evans received little formal education and in his mid-teens was apprenticed to a wheelwright. Going into business with his brothers, he then worked for over a decade designing, building and perfecting an automated mill with devices such as bucket chains and conveyor belts. In doing so Evans designed a continuous process of manufacturing that required no human labor. This novel concept would prove critical to the industrial revolution and the development of mass production.Later in life Evans turned his attention to steam power, and built the first high-pressure steam engine in the United States in 1801, developing his design independently of Richard Trevithick, who built the first in the world a year earlier. Evans was a driving force in the development and adoption of high-pressure steam engines in the United States. Evans dreamed of building a steam-powered wagon and would eventually construct and run one in 1805. Known as the Oruktor Amphibolos, it was the first automobile in the United States and the world's first amphibious vehicle, though it was too primitive to be a success as either.
Evans was a visionary who produced designs and ideas far ahead of their time. He was the first to describe vapor-compression refrigeration and propose a design for the first refrigerator in 1805, but it would be three decades until his colleague Jacob Perkins would be able to construct a working example. Similarly, he drew up designs for a solar boiler, machine gun, steam carriage gearshift, dough-kneading machine, perpetual baking oven, marine salvage process, quadruple-effect evaporator and scheme for urban gas lighting; ideas and designs which would not be made reality until some time after his death. Evans had influential backers and political allies, but lacked social graces and was disliked by many of his peers. Disappointed and then angry at the perceived lack of recognition for his contributions, Evans became combative and bitter in later years, which damaged his reputation and left him isolated. Despite the import of his work, his contributions were frequently overlooked (or attributed to others after his death) so he never became a household name alongside the other steam pioneers of his era.
Oliver Evans was born in Newport, Delaware on September 13, 1755 to Charles and Ann Stalcop Evans. His father was a cordwainer 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 the fifth of what would eventually be eleven children – four sisters and seven brothers.Relatively little else is known of Evans's early life, and surviving records provide few details as to his formative years. The nature and location of his early education has not been preserved, however his literacy was demonstrably strong from a young age, as both a writer and an avid reader on technical subjects.At the age of 17, Evans was apprenticed to a wheelwright and wagon-maker in Newport. An anecdote from the period recalls that his master, an illiterate and extremely frugal man, forbade Evans the use of candles to illuminate his reading in the evenings. Evans found another way by collecting scraps and shavings of wood from his work during the day to serve as fuel for small fires.The Revolutionary War began when Evans was 19. He enlisted in a Delaware militia company, but ultimately saw no active service during the war.
By the age of 22, Evans moved out of wheel-making and became a specialist in forming the fine wire used in textile cards, which were used to comb fibers in preparation for the spinning process to make thread or yarn. A desire to increase the efficiency of this process led him to his first invention: a machine which would bend wire into teeth and cut them off rapidly to aid the assembly of cards.George Latimer, then a justice of the peace in Newport, saw the potential and tasked a blacksmith with creating the machine, which became one of Evans's early successes when it premièred in 1778. Evans wished to go further in mechanizing the production of textile cards by developing a machine which could puncture the leather which formed the bed into which the wire teeth were inserted, however the design was not pursued due to a perceived lack of commercial opportunity for his invention.His invention greatly increased the speed of the card manufacturing process – around 1,500 teeth per minute could be produced by his invention. Over the next two decades machines descended from Evans's led to the development of automated textile card production, now in great demand due to the growth of the Southern cotton industry. Early pioneers of mechanized textile card production, including Giles Richards and Amos Whittemore, are thought to have borrowed heavily from his original designs.Evans also began experimenting in this period with steam power and its potential for commercial application. His early ideas culminated in a patent application in 1783 for a steam-powered wagon, but it was denied as Evans had yet to produce a working model.In 1783 at the age of twenty-three, he married Sarah Tomlinson, daughter of a local farmer, in Old Swedes' Episcopal Church in Wilmington.
Developing the Automatic Flour Mill
Evans's attention turned to milling in the early 1780s. Two of his elder brothers purchased from their father part of the Newport farm estate and intended to start a mill there – Evans was recruited in 1783 to oversee its construction on the Red Clay Creek. In this era, the operation of grist mills was labor-intensive. Although the stages of the milling process – grinding, cooling, sifting and packing – were beginning to be mechanized to various degrees, gravity or manual labor was required to move grain from one stage to the next. Additionally, some stages (particularly cooling) were slow and inefficient, creating significant production process bottlenecks.Mills were becoming commonplace in populated areas and those with ready access to streams for power, but the bulk of milling in the 1780s was done in the home through hand milling. Furthermore, the quality of milled wheat was poor in colonial America. Cross-contamination was a major problem: mill processes were not well-partitioned; the many people moving about the mill contaminated the flour with dirt, grain and other impurities.In addition, hard wheat varieties were insufficiently ground and sifted by mills, leaving a flour that was coarse and brown.The end result, Evans recognized, was a low quality product that took too many laborers to make.
After developing some preliminary designs, over the next half-decade Evans began to experiment in Newport with inventions to reduce the reliance upon labor for milling. Moving wheat from the bottom to the top of the mill to begin the process was the most onerous task of all in contemporary mills. Evans's first innovation was a bucket elevator to facilitate this process. The use of chains of buckets to raise water was a Roman technology and used in various guises since antiquity. Evans had seen diagrams of their use for marine applications and realized with some modification and careful engineering they could be used to raise grain, so a series of bucket elevators around a mill could move grain and flour from one process to the next.Another labor-intensive task was that of spreading meal. This came out of the grinding process warm and moist, needing cooling before it could be sifted and packed. Traditionally the task was done by manually shoveling meal across large floors. In response, Evans developed the "hopper boy", a device which gathered meal from a bucket elevator and spread it evenly over the drying floor—a mechanical rake would revolve around the floorspace. This would even out newly deposited meal for cooling and drying, whilst a gentle incline in the design of the rake blades would cause the rake rotations to slowly move flour towards central chutes, which would take the flour down to be sifted.Used in conjunction, the two innovations removed manual intervention and meant the elimination of most entry points for flour contamination.
Despite their technical complexity, neither device was revolutionary by the standards of the time. However, the total vision of their design was. Evans was attempting a radical shift in thinking about the manufacturing process, treating it as a continuous integrated whole rather than a series of isolated processes. Thus, manufacturing could be a fully automated production line. The missing link was materials handling, and Evans's mill designs sought to feed materials continuously through a system that requiring no humans to manually complete any task. This was the first fully automated industrial process,and the idea of continuous production was proved to be a critical ingredient of the industrial revolution, and would ultimately lay the foundation for modern mass production.
Constructing the machinery to realize this vision was complicated. When his brothers opened their mill in 1785 it was a conventional design—Evans was not yet been able to convert his designs into reality. Evans struggled to find the money to pay the highly skilled carpenters needed to construct his complex machines.The nearby flour milling industry on the Brandywine River was large, but dominated by the Quaker millers of Wilmington who struggled to see the potential of Evans's ideas. James Latimer, a Newport flour merchant upon hearing Evans's ideas exclaimed "Ah! Oliver, you cannot make water run uphill, you cannot make wooden millers!"Latimer's son, George, however once more saw the promise in Evans's ideas and helped him to secure patent protection over the inventions throughout 1787 and 1788 across the eastern states.In these years Evans finished constructing the first fully automated flour mill based on his perfected designs, and the Evans brothers sent handbills and diagrams to the major milling centers of the United States offering free licensing of the designs for the first miller in each county who would commission Evans to refit their mills. Yet this campaign was to prove a major disappointment, and little commercial interest materialized.
One difficulty was that Evans lacked patience coupled with a prickly disposition, prone to display frustration and bewilderment towards those who could not immediately see the value of his ideas. His ideas and designs were often far ahead of their time, and the idea of a fully automated production process was difficult for contemporaries to comprehend. Evans recalled when some Brandywine millers happened to visit the Red Clay Creek mill in the early years of its operation after it was fully automated. He was alone at the mill that day and making hay in a nearby field, and purposely stayed out of sight so his visitors could observe the mill running independently without human supervision. Evans then appeared and at great length explained how the feat they witnessed was possible, and was convinced that the chance visit would bring about a breakthrough with the Brandywine millers. However, he was frustrated at reports that the millers returned to Wilmington and reported that the Evans mill was "a set of rattletraps, unworthy the notice of any man of sense".Disbelief continued even after Evans convinced a Brandywine miller to have his mill converted.
After years of persistence and attempts at marketing, Evans's designs were finally given a trial on larger scales and adopted elsewhere. A breakthrough came in 1789 when the Ellicotts, a progressively minded Quaker family in Baltimore, invited Evans to refit their mills on the Patapsco River. It proved a success, and Evans worked with Jonathan Ellicott to develop a modified form of Archimedean screw that could act as a horizontal conveyor to work alongside the vertically orientated bucket elevators. He would also in that year add a rake-drill and conveyor belt to his designs, and now possessed a full complement of materials handling machines for just about every possible design.In 1790, Evans moved to Wilmington and constructed a working model of his designs in the town. His inventions were given a major boost when leading miller Joseph Tatnall converted his mills to the Evans system, and estimated that in one year the changes saved his operation a small fortune amounting to $37,000. Local millers quickly followed suit, and Brandywine Village was soon a showcase for Evans's milling technology.After almost a decade, the Brandywine millers were finally convinced, and within a short period automated mills began to spread across the eastern seaboard.In 1790, upon introduction of federal patent law, Evans immediately applied for protection for his milling designs and was granted the third US patent, with his application personally examined and approved by Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph.