Since IMA is a magazine devoted to steam traction engine
collectors, we feel that everything connected with steam power is
That’s why this month we devote some space to Oliver Evans,
of Philadelphia, Pa., who designed and built the first engine
driven by steam, which he called the ‘Orukter
Evans started experimenting with steam in 1772, when he was 17
years old. He had to put up with a lot of ribbing, for the idea of
utilizing steam to do anything was considered an impossible
In 1787, the Maryland Legislature granted him a 14-year contract
for exclusive use of its roads for steam-driven wagons. That same
year, he also stated publicly that he could drive not only wagons
with steam, but mills as well.
He published a bet of $3,000 that he could ‘make a carriage
to run upon a level road against the swiftest horse that could be
found’ but nobody challenged him. So wiseacres called him
A poet summed up what Evans claimed that his steam wagon would
‘Nine miles to the hour,
with fifty horse-power,
By daytime and night time,
Arrive at the right time,
Without rumble or jumble,
Or chance of a tumble,
As in a chaise, gig, or whiskey,
When horses are frisky.’
At this time, John Fitch was seeking to run boats by steam, and
encountering just as much jeering as Evans.
Evans published some predictions about 1815. They seemed
impossible then but seem mild now:
‘The time will come, when people will travel in stages,
moved by steam-engines, at fifteen to twenty miles an hour.
‘A carriage will leave Washington in the morning, breakfast
at Baltimore, dine at Philadelphia, and sup at New York, on the
‘Railways will be laid, of wood or iron, or on smooth paths
of broken stone, or gravel, to travel as well by night as day.
‘A steam-engine will drive a carriage 180 miles in twelve
hours or engines will drive boats ten or twelve miles an hour; and
hundreds of boats will so run upon the Mississippi, and other
waters, as prophesied thirty years ago; but the velocity of boats
can never be made to equal those of carriages upon rails, because
the resistance in water is 800 times more than that in
The Maryland Legislature did not renew his grant of protection,
and Pennsylvania never gave him any. He said posterity ‘will
not be able to discover why’.
He applied his steam engine plan to a large scow, for the
purpose of cleaning docks. He set this on wheels, and piloted it
through part of Philadelphia. Then, launching it on the Schuylkill
River which flows through the city, he put paddle wheels in the
stern and drove it down the river like a steamboat. From there he
drove on land to the Delaware River, which also serves
Philadelphia, and took it to the place where the cleaning of the
dock was to be done.
The Evans gristmill needed only one operator (at right). Fully
automatic, his invention eliminated the need for three other men.
For years the world’s first automatic plant was a commercial
flop, since millers would have none of it. One of Evans’ few
customers was a sensible businessman from Virginia named George
The ‘Orukter Amphibolos,’ or Amphibious Digger, was a
scow thirty feet long, weighing fifteen tons. Evans put this
monster on wheels, sent it chuffing to the Schuylkill River, fixed
a paddle wheel to its stern, and despite headwinds drove it to
Philadelphia. Confronted with this miracle, wiseacres said only
that the thing was too slow.
Evans tried, but found no takers, to get permission for steam
carriages to run on the turnpikes, and also to build one to run on
rails. He published his proposal for a steamboat at about the same
time. He foresaw other uses of steam for ploughing, sowing and
reaping, among others.
While he was not successful in gaining acceptance for use of
steam for power, he did see widespread use of another of his
projects a mill for grinding grain that could be operated by one
Before he died, he knew of Robert Fulton’s trip up and down
the Hudson in the Clermont, in 1807. His fellow Pennsylvanian went
on to fame and a certain amount of fortune. Evans made little
profit, but in the annals of steam he is not forgotten.