William Otis and the Steam Shovel

Related to the famous Elisha Otis, William Otis’ steam shovel was at least as important as his cousin’s.

steam shovel

A Thew Type O steam shovel busy at the 2014 National Pike Show near Brownsville, Pa.

Photo by Sam Moore

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Nearly everyone who has ridden on an elevator has, if they looked up above the buttons for the floors, seen the name Otis. Otis Elevator Co. is the largest builder of elevators and escalators in the world today. Elisha Otis started the company in Yonkers, New York, in about 1853, and can be truly said to have made the modern high-rise skyscraper possible.

However, this story isn’t about Elisha Otis, but his mostly forgotten cousin, William Otis. Although he was two years younger than Elisha, William got into the inventing game much earlier. His invention was at least as important, and arguably more, than his cousin’s, making possible the Panama Canal, as well as railroads, highways, dams and bridges all over the world. That same invention also made practical the large-scale mining of ores, coal, limestone and rock.

Slow evolution of earthmoving

Probably shortly after the earliest men developed the ability to think, they began to wonder what was over the next hill. In order to travel, primitive man followed rivers, streams and animal trails through the wilderness. As evolution gave him more skills, it may have occurred to him that if he could just move a few rocks here, or level a narrow path along a steep mountainside there, it would make travel easier, but how to do it?

The first digging tool was undoubtedly a stout, sharpened stick, followed by crude shovels and picks made of wood, stone, copper, bronze, iron, and finally, steel. These tools, while making the job easier, were still limited as to what they could accomplish by the strength of the humans wielding them.

After animal power was adopted, scoops and plows helped, but as the 19th century dawned, earthmoving was still a slow, labor-intensive process. Huge pyramids, aqueducts and paved roads had been built by the Romans and Egyptians with slave labor, but even the Erie Canal, built between 1817 and 1825, was mostly dug by the muscle power of humans and draft animals. The success of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the 1820s set off a railroad building boom in the eastern U.S. that spurred development of more efficient machines to move dirt.

Digging with steam power

In 1835, William Otis was a partner in a construction company engaged in building part of what became the Boston & Albany Railroad in Massachusetts. There was a bonus for beating the deadline and Otis began working on a steam-powered digging machine to speed up operations.

He and an engineer friend, Charles French, put together a crude contraption in Canton, Massachusetts, that had most of the basic features of the steam shovels we’re all familiar with. Otis called his machine a “crane excavator for excavating and removing earth,” and applied for a patent on June 15, 1836. The patent was issued, but was destroyed in December of that year by a fire in the patent office.

A description of this first excavator tells us that it had a vertical boiler and steam engine at the rear, and a fixed mast forward. The mast supported a swinging boom to which a dipper arm with a 1-cubic-yard, toothed bucket was attached. A double-drum chain hoist was used to raise and lower the bucket end of the dipper arm. The boom was swung from side to side by men on the ground, pulling on ropes, but it’s unclear if there was any type of crowd mechanism (a way to move the dipper arm forward and back on the boom). One of the ground men also manually tripped the bucket to dump.

Invention outlasts inventor

After successful completion of the railroad job, Otis went back to Philadelphia and, in 1839, was granted a patent on an improved version of his shovel with a powered boom swing and a chain-operated dipper crowd, as well as gearing to one axle to move the excavator forward or backward on a temporary iron track. The new shovels were quickly put to work, but Otis died of typhoid fever not long after his patent was issued.

Otis’ widow, Elizabeth, now controlled the patent. When she married contractor Oliver Chapman in 1844, she filed for, and won, a patent extension. She and Chapman contracted with Globe Iron Works of Boston to manufacture the shovels. Chapman patented several improvements to the machine in 1867 (one account says he invented the chain crowd mechanism, but after reading the patent, I don’t think so), and it was then called the Otis-Chapman shovel.

Powerful shovels launch strip mining

With huge growth in railroad construction, as well as discovery of uses for steam shovels in mining coal, copper, iron and other minerals, many manufacturers got into the act. Shovels got bigger and bigger, especially after it was discovered in the early 1900s that removing many feet of earth over a mineral deposit was an easier and cheaper method of getting at the stuff than deep mining.

By the 1920s, firms such as Marion and Bucyrus were building stripping shovels that ran on caterpillar-style tracks instead of temporary rails, weighed upwards of 1,000 tons and could grab 15 or 20 yards of earth in one bite. In 1915, Marion made a shovel powered by electricity instead of steam. By World War II, most large stripping shovels were electric.

Many, many smaller shovels were built through the years for general excavation work. Powered at first by steam, then gasoline and diesel engines, most all shovels of this type have been replaced by backhoes and larger hydraulic excavators built much like the backhoe.

The fascinating old shovels and a lot of other vintage construction machines can still be seen at work, operated by members of the Historical Construction Equipment Association (HCEA), at many shows around the country. FC


For more information: The 2017 HCEA International Convention & Old Equipment exposition is being hosted by the Ederville Train & Tractor Show in Carthage, North Carolina, Nov. 3-5. Check out their website at http://www.hcea.net.

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.