Oliver Evans: A Man Ahead of His Time

Oliver Evans’ innovations in steam powered transportation were revolutionary


| July 2011



A painting of the Orukter Amphibolos

A painting of the Orukter Amphibolos, likely a rather fanciful interpretation of the real thing, from a 1947 magazine ad for SKF bearings. The machine is depicted as emerging from the Schuylkill River and features front tiller steering, which doesn’t appear in other drawings of the machine.

Continuing the Oliver Evans story we began in the May issue, we get to the more controversial part. 

Evans recognized the possibilities in steam-powered transportation. In 1786, he applied to the Pennsylvania legislature for exclusive rights to build steam carriages to move over public roads. The lawmakers, as Evans later wrote, “conceived me to be deranged,” and denied his request. A year later Maryland’s legislature had more foresight and granted the rights, “for Mr. Oliver Evans’ new Plan of applying Steam to Propelling land carriages to travel with heavie Burdens Up and Down Hills without the aid of Animal fource with such Velocity as may be Convenient, and be guided by a person sitting therein Secure from the Inclemency of the weather.”

Benjamin H. Latrobe, an influential architect and engineer who knew all the important people in Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore, published a report that ridiculed Evans as a “visionary, seized with steam mania.” Latrobe used figures to “prove” that all the load-carrying capacity of a steam vehicle would be expended in carrying fuel and water, leaving no room for passengers or freight.

After that, Evans seems to have given up on building a steam carriage. In 1795, he wrote the Young Mill-Wright & Miller’s Guide, which went through many printings. Early in the 1800s, he established the Mars Iron Works in Philadelphia, where he manufactured mill equipment and stationary steam engines.

Built in 1812 - 1815, the Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia contained two steam engines, one built by Evans and one imported. George Sellers, a Philadelphia engineer who as a boy had known Evans, later wrote: “This engine (Evans’), if my recollection does not deceive me, was oftener seen running than the ‘great English engine,’ as it was then called.” Another user wrote Evans: “I take up my pen to inform you of the wonderful performance of our engine. We are driving at present three saws and millstones with ease; it does not appear to me that we use one-half its power ... it is viewed with admiration and astonishment by everyone who sees it perform.”

Orukter Amphibolos

In 1804 the city of Philadelphia, needing a machine to clean silt away from city docks, ordered a steam dredge from Evans, who later wrote, “I constructed for the Board of Health of Philadelphia a machine for cleaning docks, called the Orukter Amphibolos or Amphibious Digger. It consisted of a heavy flat-bottom boat, 30 feet long and 12 feet broad, with a chain of buckets to bring up the mud, and hooks to clear away sticks, stones, and other obstacles. These buckets are wrought by a small steam engine set in the boat, the cylinder of which is 5 inches diameter and the length of stroke 19 inches. This machine was constructed at my shop, 1-1/2 miles from the river Schuylkill where she was launched. Yet this small engine moved so great a burden, with a gentle motion up Market-Street and around the Centre Square. When she was launched we fixed a simple [paddle] wheel at her stern to propel her through the water by the engine…”