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Thumbnail of Oliver Evans (source)
Oliver Evans
(13 Sep 1755 - 15 Apr 1819)

American millwright and inventor who designed an automated corn mill and later developed steam-power for saw-mills, boats and a land vehicle.

On the Origin of Steam Boats and Steam Wagons

by Oliver Evans.

Wood engraving of steam engine aboard a flat boat. The boat has a stern paddle wheel and four land wheels driven by the engine
Amphibious steam powered carriage and paddle boat by Oliver Evans (source)

[p.205] About the year 1772, being then an apprentice to a wheel-wright, or wagon maker, I laboured to discover some means of propelling land carriages without animal power. All the modes that have since been tried (so far as I have heard of them), such as wind, treadles with ratchet wheels, crank tooth, &c., to be wrought by men, presented themselves to my mind, but were considered as too futile to deserve an experiment; and I concluded that such motion was impossible for want of a suitable original power.

But one of my brothers, on a Christmas evening, informed me that he had that day been in company with a neighbouring blacksmith’s boys, who, for amusement, had stopped up the touch hole of a gun barrel, then put in about a gill of water, and rammed down a tight wad; after which they put the breech in the smith’s fire, when it discharged itself with as loud a crack as if it had been loaded with powder.

It immediately occurred to me, that here was the power to propel any wagon, if I could only apply it, and I set myself to work to find out the means. I laboured for some time without success. At length a book fell into my hands describing the old atmospheric steam engine. I was astonished to observe that they had so far erred as to use the steam only to form a vacuum to apply the mere pressure of the atmosphere, instead of applying the elastic power of the steam for original motion ; the power of which I supposed irresistible.

[p.206] I renewed my studies with increased ardour, and soon declared that I could make steam wagons, and endeavoured to communicate my ideas to others; but however practicable the thing appeared to me, my object only excited the ridicule of those to whom it was made known. But I persevered in my belief and confirmed it by experiments that satisfied me of its reality.

In the year 1786, I petitioned the legislature of Pennsylvania for the exclusive right to use my improvements in flour mills, as also steam wagons in that state. The committee to whom the petition was referred heard me very patiently, while I described the mill improvements, but my representations concerning steam wagons made them think me insane. They however, reported favourably respecting my improvements in the manufacture of flour, and passed an act granting me the exclusive use of them, as prayed for. This act is dated March—— 1787. But no notice is taken of the steam wagons.

A similar petition was also presented to the legislature of Maryland. Mr. Jesse Hollingsworth, from Baltimore, was one of the committee appointed to hear me and report on the case. I candidly informed this committee of the fate of my application to the legislature of Pennsylvania respecting the steam wagons; declaring, at the same time, without the encouragement prayed for, I would never attempt to make them; but that, if they would secure to me the right as requested; I would, as soon as I could, apply the principle to practice; and I explained to them the great elastic power of steam, as well as my mode of applying it to propel wagons. Mr. Hollingsworth very prudently observed, that the grant could injure no one, for he did not think that any man in the world had thought of such a thing before; he therefore wished the encouragement might be afforded, as there was a prospect that it would produce something useful. [p.207] This kind of argument had the desired effect, and a favourable report was made May 21, 1787, granting to me, my heirs and assigns, for fourteen years, the exclusive right to make and use my improvements in flour mills and the steam wagons in that state. From that period I have felt myself bound in honour to the state of Maryland to produce a steam wagon as soon as I could conveniently do it.

In the year 1789, I paid a visit to Benjamin Chandlee, and sons, clockmakers, men celebrated for their ingenuity, with a view to induce them to join me in the expence and profits of the project. I shewed to them my drafts, with the plan of the engine, and explained the expansive power of steam; all which they appeared to understand, but fearful of the expence and difficulties attending it, declined the concern. However, they certified that I had shown to them the drawings and explained the powers, &c.

In the same year, I went to Ellicott’s mills on the Patapsco, near Baltimore, for the purpose of persuading Messrs. Jonathan Ellicott and brothers, and connections, (who were equally famous for their ingenuity), to join me in the expence and profits of making and using steam wagons. I also shewed to them my drawings, and minutely explained to them the powers of steam. They appeared fully to comprehend all I said, and in return informed me of some experiments they themselves had made, one of which they shewed me. They placed a gun-barrel having a hollow arm, with a small hole on one side at the end of the arm, similar to Barker’s rotary tube mill, as described in the books; a gill of water put into this barrel, with fire applied to the breech, caused the steam to issue from the end of the arm with such force, as by re-action, to cause the machine to revolve, as I judged, about one thousand times in a minute, for the [p.208] space of about five minutes; and with considerable force for so small a machine. I tarried here two days, (May 10 and 11, 1789), using my best efforts to convince them of the possibility and practicability of propelling wagons on good turnpike roads, by the great elastic power of steam. But they also feared the expence and difficulty of the execution, and declined the proposition; yet they heartily esteemed my improvements in the manufacture of flour, and adopted them in their mills, as well as recommended them to others.

In the same year I communicated my project, and explained my principles, to Levi Hollingsworth, Esq., now a merchant in Baltimore.* He appeared to understand them; but also declined a partnership in the scheme for the same reasons as the former.

From the time of my discovering the principles and the means of applying them, I often endeavoured to communicate them to those I believed might be interested in their application to wagons or boats. But very few could understand my explanations, and I could find no one willing to risque the expence of the experiment.

In the year 1785 or 6, before I had petitioned the legislatures, I fell in company with Samuel Jackson, of Redstone ; and learning of him that he resided on [p.209] the western waters, I endeavoured to impress upon his mind the great utility and high importance of steam boats, to be propelled on them; telling him that I had discovered a steam engine so powerful according to its weight, that it would, by means of paddle wheels (which I described to him) readily drive a vessel against the current of those waters with so great speed as to be highly beneficial. Mr. Jackson proves that he understood me well, for he has lately written letters declaring that about twenty-six years before their date, I did describe to him the principles of the steam engine that I have since put into operation to drive mills, which he has seen—and that I also explained to him my plan for propelling boats by my steam engine with paddle wheels; describing the very kind of wheels now used for this purpose; and that I then declared to him my intention to apply my engine to this particular object as soon as my pecuniary circumstances would permit.

In the year 1800, or 1801, never having found a man willing to contribute to the expence, or even to encourage me to risque it myself, it occurred to me that though I was then in full health, I might be suddenly carried off by the yellow fever, that had so often visited Philadelphia; or by some other disease or casualty to which all are liable, and that I had not yet discharged my debt of honour to the state of Maryland by producing the steam wagon. I determined therefore to set to work the next day and construct one. I first waited upon Robert Patterson, esq. professor of mathematics in the University of Pennsylvania, and explained to him my principles—as I also did to Charles Taylor, steam engineer from England. They both declared these principles to be new to them, and highly worthy of a fair experiment, advising me without delay to prove them; in hopes I might produce a more simple, cheap, and [p.210] powerful steam engine, than any in use. These gentleman were the only persons who had such confidence, or afforded me such advice. I also communicated my plans to B. F. Latrobe, esq. at the same time; who publicly pronounced them chimerical, and attempted to demonstrate the absurdity of my principles, in his report to the Philosophical Society of Pennsylvania, on steam engines; in which same report, he also attempts to shew the impossibility of making steam boats useful, on account of the weight of the engine; and I was one of the persons alluded to, as being seized with the steam mania, conceiving that wagons and boats could be propelled by steam engines. The liberality of the members of the society caused them to reject that part of the report which he designed as demonstrative of the absurdity of my principles; saying they had no right to set up their opinions as a stumbling block in the road of any exertions to make a discovery. They said I might produce something useful, and ordered it to be stricken out. What a pity they did not also reject his demonstrations respecting steam boats! for notwithstanding them, they have run, are now running, and will run: so has my engine, and all its principles, completely succeeded: and so will land carriages, as soon as these principles are applied to them, as explained to the legislature of Maryland in 1787, and to others long before.

In consequence of the determination above alluded to, I hired hands, and went to work to make a steam wagon, and had made considerable progress in the undertaking, when the thought struck me, that as my steam engine was entirely different in form as well as in its principles from all others in use, that I could get a patent for it, and apply it to mills more profitably than to wagons; for until now I apprehended, that as steam mills had been used in England, I could only obtain a patent for wagons and [p.211] boats. I stopped the work immediately, and discharged my hands, until I could arrange my engine for mills, laying aside the steam wagon for a time of more leisure.

Two weeks afterwards, I commenced the construction of a small engine for a mill to grind plaster of Paris—the cylinder six inches in diameter, and stroke of the piston eighteen inches—believing that with $1000 I could fully try the experiment. But before I was done with experiments,I found that I had expended $3,700—all that I could command. I had now to begin the world anew at the age of forty-eight, with a large family to support. I had calculated that if I failed in my experiment, the credit I had would be entirely lost; and without money or credit, at my advanced age, with many heavy encumbrances, my way through life appeared dark and gloomy indeed. But I succeeded perfectly with my little engine, and preserved my credit; I could break and grind 300 bushels of plaster of Paris, or 12 tons, in 24 hours; and to show its operations more fully to the public, I applied it to saw stone on the side of Market street, where the driving of twelve saws, in heavy frames, sawing at the rate of 100 feet of marble stone in 12 hours, made a great shew, and excited much attention. I thought this was sufficient to convince the thousands of spectators of the utility of my discovery: but I frequently heard them enquire if the power could be applied to saw timber as well as stone, to grind grain, propel boats, &c.; and though I answered in the affirmative, I found they still doubted. I therefore determined to apply my engines to all new uses, to introduce it and them to the public.

This experiment completely tested the correctness of my principles, according to my most sanguine hopes. The power of my engine rises in a geometrical proportion, while the consumption of fuel has only an arithmetical ratio; in such proportion that every time I added [p.212] one fourth more to the consumption of fuel, the powers of the engine were doubled; and that twice the quantity of fuel required to drive one saw would drive 16 saws at least; for when I drove two saws the consumption was 8 bushels (coal) in 12 hours, but when 12 saws were driven, the consumption was not more than 10 bushels; so that the more we resist the steam the greater is the effect of the engine. On these principles, very light, but powerful engines, can be made, suitable for propelling boats and land-carriages, without the great incumbrance of their own weight, as mentioned in Mr. Latrobe’s demonstrations.

In the year 1804, I constructed at my works, situate a mile and a half from the water, by order of the board of health of the city of Philadelphia, a machine for cleansing docks. It consisted of a large flat or scow, with a steam engine of the power of five horses on board, to work machinery to raise the mud into flats. This was a fine opportunity to show the public that my engine could propel both land and water carriages, and I resolved to do it. When the work was finished, I put wheels under it, and though it was equal in weight to two hundred barrels of flour, and the wheels fixed with wooden axletrees, for this temporary purpose in a very rough manner, and with great friction of course, yet with this small engine I transported my great burthen to the Schuylkill with ease; and when it was launched in the water, I fixed a paddle wheel at the stern, and drove it down the Schuylkill to the Delaware, and up the Delaware to the city, leaving all the vessels going up, behind me, at least half way, the wind being a-head.

Some wise men undertook to ridicule my experiment of propelling this great weight on land, because the motion was too slow to be useful. I silenced them by answering, that I would make a carriage, to be propelled [p.213] by steam, for a bet of $3000, to run upon a level road against the swiftest horse they would produce. I was then as confident as I am now, that such velocity could be given to carriages.

Having no doubt of the great utility of steam carriages on good turnpike roads, with proper arrangements for supplying them with water and fuel, and believing that all turnpike companies were deeply interested in putting them into operation, because they would smooth and mend the roads, instead of injuring them as the narrow wheels do. On the 25th September, 1804, I submitted to the consideration of the Lancaster turnpike company, a statement of the costs and profits of a steam carriage to carry 100 barrels of flour, 50 miles in 24 hours—tending to show that one such steam carriage would make more net profits than 10 wagons drawn by five horses each, on a good turnpike road, and offering to build such a carriage at a very low price. My address closed as follows:

“It is too much for an individual to put in operation every improvement which he may invent.

“I have no doubt but that my engines will propel boats against the current of the Mississippi, and wagons on turnpike roads, with great profit. I now call upon those whose interest it is to carry this invention into effect. All which is respectfully submitted for your consideration.”

In the year 1805, I published a book describing the principles of my steam engine, with directions for working it, when applied to propel boats against the current of the Mississippi, and carriages on turnpike roads. And I am still willing to make a steam carriage that will run 15 miles an hour, on level rail-ways, on condition that I have double price if it shall run with that velocity; and nothing for it if it shall not come up to that velocity. What [p.214] can an inventor do more than to insure the performance of his inventions? Or, I will make the engine and apparatus at a fair price, and warrant its utility for the purpose of conveying heavy burthens on good turnpike roads.

I feel it just to declare that, with Mr. Latrobe, I myself did believe that the ponderous and feeble steam engine, now used in boats, could never be made useful in competition with sail boats, or to ascend the Mississippi, esteeming the current more powerful than it is. But I rejoice that, with him, I have been mistaken; for I have lived to see boats succeed well with those engines; and I still hope to see them so completely excelled and out-run by using my engines, as as to induce the proprietors to exchange the old for the new, more cheap and more powerful, principles.

I have been highly delighted in reading a correspondence between John Stephens, Esq. and the commissioners appointed by the legislature of New York, for fixing on the scite of the great canal proposed to be cut in that state. Mr. Stephens has taken a most comprehensive and very ingenious view of this important subject, and his plan of rail-ways for the carriages to run upon removes all the difficulties that remained. I have had the pleasure, also, of hearing gentlemen of the keenest penetration, and of great mechanical and philosophical talents, freely give in to the belief that steam carriages will become very useful. Mr. John Ellicott (of John) proposed to make roads of substances such as the best turnpikes are made with, with a path for each wheel to run on, having a railway on posts in the middle, to guide the tongue of the wagon, and to prevent any other carriage from traveling on it. Then, if the wheels were made broad and the paths smooth, there would be very little wear. Such roads might be cheaply made; they would last a long time and [p.215] require very little repair. Such roads, I am inclined to believe, ought to be preferred, in the first instance, to those proposed by Mr. Stephens, as two ways could be made in some parts of the country for the same expence as one would be with wood; but either of the modes would answer the purpose, and the carriages might travel by night as well as in the day.

When we reflect upon the obstinate opposition that has been made by a great majority to every step towards improvement: from bad roads to turnpikes, from turnpikes to canals, from canals to rail-ways for horse carriages, it is too much to expect the monstrous leap from bad roads to railways for steam carriages, at once. One step in the generation is all that we can hope for. If the present shall adopt canals, the next may try rail-ways with horses, and the third generation use the steam carriages.

But why may not the present generation, who have already good turnpikes, make the experiment of using steam carriages upon them? They will assuredly effect the movement of heavy burthens; with a slow motion of two and a half miles an hour, and as their progress need not be interrupted, they may travel fifty or sixty miles in the 24 hours.—This is all that I hope to see in my time, and though I never expect to be concerned in any business requiring the regular transportation of heavy burthens [on land] because if I am connected in the affairs of a mill it shall be driven by steam and placed on some navigable water, to save land carriage—yet I certainly intend, as soon as I can make it convenient, to build a steam carriage that will run on good turnpike roads, on my own account, if no other person will engage in it; and I do verily believe that the time will come when carriages propelled by steam will be in general use, as well for the transportation of passengers as goods, traveling at the rate of fifteen miles an hour, or 300 miles per day.

[p.216] It appears necessary to give the reader some idea of the principles of the steam engine, which is to produce such novel and strange effects ; and this I will endeavour to do in as few words as I can, by showing the extent to which the principles are applied already.

To make steam as irresistible or powerful as gunpowder, we have only to confine and increase the heat by fuel to the boiler. A steam engine with a working cylinder only nine inches in diameter, and a stroke of the piston three feet, will exert a power sufficient to lift from 3,000 to 10,000 pounds perpendicularly, two and a half miles per hour. This power applied to propel a carriage on level roads or rail-ways would drive a very great weight with much velocity, before the friction of the axletree or resistance of the atmosphere would balance it.

This is not speculative theory, the principles are now in practice; driving a saw-mill at Manchacks on the Mississippi, two at Natchez, one of which is capable of sawing 5000 feet of boards in 12 hours; a mill at Pittsburgh able to grind 20 bushels of grain per hour; one at Marietta of equal powers; one at Lexington, (Ky.) of the same powers; one, a paper mill, of the same; one of one-fourth the power at Pittsburgh; one at the same place of 3½ times the power for the forge, and for rolling and splitting sheet iron; one of the power of 24 horses, at Middletown, (Con.) driving the machinery of a cloth manufactory: two at Philadelphia of the power of five or six horses, and many making for different purposes; the principles applying to all purposes where power is wanted.

Oliver Evans

Ellicott’s Mills on the Patapsco, Nov. 13, 1812.

[p.208] * I certify that Oliver Evans did about the year 1789, communicate a project to me, of propelling land carriages by power of steam, and did solicit me to join him in the costs and profits of the same.


Baltimore, November 16, 1812.

I do certify, that some time about the year 1781, 31 years ago, Oliver Evans, in conversation with me, declared, that by the power of steam he could drive any thing—wagons, mills, or vessels, forward, by the same power, &c.


November 15, 1812.

Image, not in original text, from The Boston Mechanic and Journal of the Useful Arts and Sciences (Jul 1834), 17. (source) Text from Oliver Evans, 'On the Origin of Steam Boats and Steam Wagons', Thomas Cooper (ed.), The Emporium of Arts and Sciences (Feb 1814), 2, No. 2, 205-216. (source)

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Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

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