Johnson, Alba Boardman
Hagley Museum & Library
Manuscripts & Archives Department
P.O. Box 3630
Wilmington, DE 19807-0630
0.2 linear feet Microfilm, one reel
Oliver Evans (1755-1819) was perhaps the most talented of Philadelphia's early 19th century mechanicians. He produced two major innovations, the automated flour mill and the high-pressure, non-condensing steam engine, and experimented with or anticipated others, including four-cycle mechanical refrigeration, central heating, the steam wagon, the machine gun, and a perpetual baking oven. Evans was born in Newport, Del., on September 13, 1755. Little is known of his early life beyond the fact that he was apprenticed to a wheelwright and worked in several other mechanical trades. Between 1780 and 1787 he conceived and perfected his plan of a fully automated flour mill using bucket elevators, screw conveyors and the hopper boy to spread, cool and dry the meal between grinding and bolting. This was the first time that anyone had conceived and executed a system of continuous, fully automatic production. The system was first installed in a mill on Red Clay Creek operated by Oliver's brothers. In 1795 Evans published THE YOUNG MILL-WRIGHT AND MILLER'S GUIDE, explaining both his own system and general principles of mill construction. Fifteen editions were published between 1795 and 1860. In 1793 Evans moved to Philadelphia and established himself as a merchant, while he continued to pursue his inventions, particularly steam carriages. He soon became preoccupied with the engine itself. The need for a more compact and powerful power plant led him to develop the high-pressure, non-condensing steam engine, which he invented independently of and contemporaneously with Richard Trevithick in Britain. Evans' first model was in operation in 1803. In 1805 he built the ORUKTER AMPHIBOLOS, a steam-powered dredge that was at once a crude steam wagon and steamboat. Evans had a rather abrasive personality and little tolerance for those who did not see the originality and importance of his inventions. This made it difficult for him to obtain financial backing, forcing him to depend on patent royalties. In 1805, after failing to get a patent extension law through Congress and falling into a public dispute with another steam engineer, John Stevens, Evans ceased his experiments and published his still incomplete text on steam engineering as THE ABORTION OF THE YOUNG STEAM ENGINEER'S GUIDE. After 1806 Evans moved into manufacturing, building the Mars Iron Works in Philadelphia (1806-1807). Here he built not only his steam engine and boilers but also iron gears and other industrial castings. Evans' engines were installed in the Fairmount pumping station of the Philadelphia Water Works in 1816, in flour mills in the Ohio Valley, and in steamboats operating on the Delaware and Ohio Rivers. Oliver's son, George Evans, organized the Pittsburgh Steam Engine Company in 1812 as a western offshoot of the Mars Works. Evans spent the years after 1809 in pressing his patent rights and involved in several patent controversies. He died in New York on April 15, 1819. The Alba B. Johnson collection represents the most important group of surviving Oliver Evans manuscripts. Evans destroyed most of his papers and drawings in 1809. The collection consists of two items. The first is a portfolio of 156 loose pages, including some 34 pen sketches and several large colored wash drawings. The period covered is 1786-1808. The pages are positive photostatic copies of the originals. the manuscript pages include mathematical calculations, notes on experiments and inventions and requests for patents. The majority of the work is concerned with steam engines and boilers, but there are also notes and sketches on water wheels, mills and millwork, pumping engines, the steam-powered marble saws set up at the Mars Works, Evans' ovens for baking bread, and a system of municipal lighting using a central beacon. The second item is a copy of THE ABORTION OF THE YOUNG STEAM ENGINEER'S GUIDE with about 240 blank pages interleaved. Evans used this notebook and commonplace book during the years 1805-1818, entering manuscript notes on his work with the steam engine and other inventions. The latter include an inclined plane for canals, a machine for hulling rice, a central heating system, and a means of cooling factories using the waste heat of a steam engine. There are notes on steelmaking and the manufacture of iron castings, the comparative values of wood and coal, the manufacture of plaster of Paris and cements, reducing water resistance in ship's hulls, and notes on one of Robert Fulton's Hudson River steamboats (1811). In addition to the specifics of Evans' inventions, the papers tell much about his engineering "style" and his methods of approaching problems, particularly the relationship between theoretical and empirical methods.