Today, we see what guns and steam engines have to do
with each other. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Many engineers of the late
17th century were trying to make use of two new
sources of power: steam and gunpowder. By then,
England and Europe were under the threat of a serious
energy crisis. Most of the trees were gone, and the
depth of coal mines had reached the underground water
table. A reliable power source was badly needed to
pump water out of the mines so people could keep
heating their homes.
No one got very far with gunpowder. But about this
time two Englishmen finally invented workable steam
engines. They both came from Devonshire, but they
didn't know each other. In fact, one of them --
Thomas Savery -- was an aristocrat, while the other
-- Thomas Newcomen -- was a blacksmith.
The blacksmith, Newcomen, provided the better of the
two engines. It produced power when steam was
condensed in its cylinder to create a powerful
vacuum. From then on, for many years, steam engines
operated at low pressures.
The first important American steam-engine builder was
a Philadelphia engineer named Oliver Evans. Evans saw
steam-engine building in relation to gun-making and
made his engines with small high-pressure cylinders
-- like gun barrels.
His engines weren't very fuel-efficient, but they
were light, and they performed well. They were
especially well suited to our greatest need, which
And so, on a summer's day in 1805, the doors of
Evans's Philadelphia workshop swung open, and out
rolled the most remarkable transportation machine the
world had ever seen. It was a gigantic steam-powered
behemoth that he called the Oructor
Amphibolos -- Latin for "Amphibious Dredge."
This strange, awesome machine could have lumbered
straight off the set of a Mad Max movie. It
rolled down the streets, around Centre Square, and
off into the Schuylkill river where it sailed about
for several hours, dredging mud.
Evans saw beyond gun-making to a larger issue --
straight through to America's need for powered
transportation. In one stroke, this wonderfully
inventive man had made one of our first horseless
carriages; and he'd invented a steamboat, two years
before Robert Fulton did.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Pursell, C. W., Jr., Early Stationary Steam
Engines in America. Washington, D.C.:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969, Chapter 4.
Bathe, G. and Bathe, D., Oliver Evans.
New York: Arno Press, 1972.
The very first program I did, Episode 1, was an
ongoing benchmark for me. And so I redid it twice,
once as a simple revison (Episode 264) and once as an
elaboration of Oliver Evans's story (Episode 285).