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Oliver Evans, American Genius

Oliver Evans was born in 1755 and died in 1819. I guess you could say he was British since the American Revolution hadn’t happened when he was born, but everyone considers him American, even the Encyclopedia Britannica. (Although, the Britannica was sold to Americans around 1900 and then to the owner of Sears Roebuck in 1920 and the headquarters moved to Chicago where they still are. Even so, they still use British spellings such as colour. The Brits still resent the sale to Americans, but I digress.)

His major accomplishments were the development of the high pressure steam engine and long before Henry Ford, the first continuous production line. But these were only two of many inventions he came up with. He seemed to be constantly looking for ways to automate processes and make them easier.


He started out at the age of 16 as an apprentice to a wheelwright. He became interested in steam and the possibilities of it powering things. But he got diverted by another problem before he got far with steam. To card wool and other fibers, you needed brushes to untangle the fibers. This had to be done before spinning. Spinning and other processes in the textile industry were beginning to be automated. Carding was a bottleneck. Evans invented a system to cut metal hooks or teeth and attach them to a leather belt at a rate of 1,000 per minute. These were better for carding and helped speed up the process.

Automated Production Line

Then when he was 29 he invented the continuous production line. He took a flour mill and created machines that took the grain once it was loaded in at the beginning would move everything along until flour came out at the end of the process. He had to figure out a system of feedbacks and methods so that everything self regulated and kept pace with everything else. By his estimate, it reduced the cost of milling by 50% and was later widely copied around the US. He applied for a patent in several states in 1787. There was no US patent law yet so he couldn’t apply for a US patent.

He applied for a US patent in 1790 when the Patent Office was formed. At this time he also applied for a patent on the high pressure steam engine. He received third patent ever issued by the Patent Office.

High Pressure Steam Engine

The steam engine he saw being used in two models. One would be stationary and be used in factories and other locations. The other could be used for moving land or water vehicles. He wanted to test it out but wasn’t allowed to try it on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for fear of scaring the horses. A few years later he had created versions to do a variety of tasks from sowing seed to running saw mills and boring machines. Evans changed how the beam, cylinder and crankshaft were positioned and linked. He created a very ingenious straight line linkage which was widely copied because of it superior performance.

Dredge and Vehicle

He also created a dredge which was used to dredge and deepen the port of Philadelphia. It took ideas from his mill automation by using a chain of buckets. Interestingly it could not only float but had wheels and could be driven on land making it the first powered vehicle to be used in the United States.

Steam Warship

He wanted to make a steam warship with a large gun for the War of 1812 but couldn’t get anyone in government to OK the idea. If given the go ahead, he would have beaten Ericssons Monitor by 50 years. He was obviously a man ahead of his times. Interestingly, in 1805, he said that there was a need for the government to support and subsidize technological development. Wonder what the right wing of the Republican Party would say about that?



Mills as Giant Tools

Have you ever been to a mill? There were saw mills and woolen mills and grain mills and more. They were basically huge tools or machines. Nowadays they have been shrunk and a combine going along the field basically does most of what a mill originally did.

At first, they were all water powered and then later many switched motors. Some later used turbines powered by the water flow instead of the water wheels. The water wheels always had a direct mechanical linkage. The turbines which were more efficient than the water wheels could be also set up with a direct mechanical linkage. Or they could be used to generate electricity to drive motors to drive the machinery.

If you have never been to a mill, you should. They were a marvel of 1700s and 1800s engineering. And you wouldn’t believe how many there were. On the US East Coast there were thousands of them. In Pennsylvania alone there were almost 2,000 of them. Possibly more.

Interestingly many were on fairly small streams and creeks leading into larger rivers. It took a bit to get the water wheel turning, but once started, it didn’t take much water to keep it going.

When a farmer would come to the mill with a wagon of grain to be milled, it would be typically be hoisted to the top floor. That is why with most mills you will see a large beam extending out from the peak of the roof with a pulley that was used to hoist the grain and any equipment and supplies they needed on upper floors.

They then made use of gravity and as the grain was processed it normally moved down through the mill. One of the first things that would be done was to put it in a separator. The amazing thing is that these have changed little in design over the last 150 years. In fact, one company said they still use the same size screens as they did in the 1850s. So if you have an antique separator, you can buy a screen from them and it will fit fine.

The separator has shafts that are rotated by whatever power source is currently used. The shafts spin a blower and also a shaker. The grain goes on top of a larger screen. The grain and smaller contaminants drop through and the chaff and larger particles are blown away. Typically they would be blown down a tube and out one end of the mill, usually over the river. A biologist said that that this practice significantly changed the ecology of the river around the mill.

Then the grain lands on a smaller screen that is too small for the grain to fall through but dirt and weed seeds fall through and are carried away, leaving just the grain.

Then the grain would be taken down to the mill wheels to be ground into flour. Then the flour would be bagged or boxed and moved down to be shipped out.

Over time different devices were invented to make the mill work less labor intensive. A major inventor in this regard was Oliver Evans. His mill, Greenbank Mill in Delaware still operating as a museum. Besides revolutionizing how mills worked, he also other important inventions, in particular the high pressure steam engine.

Going to one of these mills and seeing what they did with wood and iron is rather incredible. Today it looks clunky and antiquated but at one time it was cutting edge technology.

Hello Tool Lovers!

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All Power Jack welcomes you. This blog will be all about tools that are useful. Some will be every day kinds of tools and some will be oddball ones that are kind of interesting. Probably will toss in some things about construction as well. Check back soon to find some interesting tidbits.