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 invention.


| May 2017



steam shovel

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

Photo by Sam Moore

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.