Patent Excavator

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Smithsonian Institution

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Man harnessed steam to do digging for him back in the days when that form of power was still being developed for many kinds of essential activities.

Excavation was the most demanding task faced by labor, in the field of engineering construction, and steam was applied to this before it went into any other phase of the building industry.

William S. Otis Patent Excavator No. Ill, 1841. Colored lithograph by P. S. Duval; S. Rufus Mason, artist.

Working model of a steam pumper engine, 1873, built by Amoskeag Manufacturing Company of Manchester, New Hampshire, for town of New Brighton (Staten Island), New York.

William S. Otis--not to be confused with E. G. Otis of elevator fame--designed a successful 'steam shovel,' illustrated here. Its basic operation functions remain unchanged.

This drawing is dated 1841. It was shown at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in an exhibit titled 'Loose the Mighty Power,' which closed last January.

Information presented with the exhibit helps tell the story of the days when steam was utilized in many different kinds of ways to bring about progress.

The first steam engine in America was an English Newcomen-type engine, erected in 1755 to drain a copper mine. Jossiah Horn blower, who came to this country to assemble the engine, remained as an immigrant, adopting its image for his family crest.

The standard stationary steam engine of the last 19th Century was a high-pressure horizontal machine with one or two cylinders that underwent many refinements to improve its efficiency. The engines were completely functional, yet designed with sculptural care and beauty.

The 'Centennial Corliss,' star attraction at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, was the most famous steam engine of the time. Although huge, it operated almost soundlessly, driving nearly all the machines in one of the largest exhibit buildings.