Today, we meet an American original. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Oliver Evans was one of a
kind. He was born in Delaware in 1755. That was the
same year the first steam engine was started up in
the Colonies -- in New Jersey, not far north of
Evans worked as a wagonmaker during his teens, and
he studied math and science on the side. His
creative ability was soon apparent. When he was 22,
he was hired to produce cards for combing wool.
Making the teeth for a card was slow and
repetitive. Evans quickly tired of that and
designed a machine to produce card teeth. Meant to
turn out 500 a minute, it actually produced 1500;
and they were clearly better than the hand-made
Evans went on building, building. He called himself
a millwright, but his mind was taking him where no
millwright had gone before. He was drawn to the new
source of power, steam. When he was 31 he
petitioned to gain the exclusive rights to a
steam-powered wagon. They called him insane for his
trouble, so he set about to vindicate himself by
building his own steam engine.
Evans's engine violated all the conventions of the
great English engineers. They built big
low-pressure engines; his engine was a small
high-pressure machine. They improved efficiency by
condensing the steam. He simply discarded the spent
steam, and, without a condenser, his engine could
fit into a vehicle.
By 1804, he did indeed produce a steam-powered
wagon -- actually more than that: he produced a
steam-powered amphibian -- half steamboat and half
automobile. But it was his so-called Columbian
high-pressure engine that fed the coming-to-life of
American industry. It was our first bold step in
competing with the megalithic power-based English
Evans's life was fraught with soul-chewing combat
over patent rights and other business dealings. He
had, for example, published a very popular handbook
titled The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's
Guide that went through 15 reprintings. In
1805 he published a second book -- this one on
steam engines. Short of money, he rushed it into
print. He saw the book wasn't coming out to his own
satisfaction, and -- at the last minute -- he
angrily added two words to its title. The book
comes down to us as: The Abortion of the
Young Steam Engineer's Guide.
Evans brooded over his patent and financial
troubles. In the Abortion we read the
He that studies and writes on the improvements
of the arts & sciences labours to benefit
generations yet unborn, For it is improbable that
his Contemporaries will pay any attention to
In fact, Evans was well-to-do when he died in 1819.
That old engine, erected the year Evans was born,
was now an historical monument. And, for now,
Evans' engines were powering America.
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
(this Episode 285).
The story of America's first steam engine is told
in Episode 28 (which I also
revised later into Episode