Saturday, September 18, 2010

Oliver Evans, America's First Great Inventor

People seem to naturally resist adopting a new technology even in the face of evidence that it will improve their lives. We stick with an old and inefficient technology when there is clearly a better way.  Given this natural human tendency, it is all the more remarkable that we have people who love to invent.  In fact, there have always been inventors.  In spite of the certain knowledge that getting people to change is a Herculean task, inventors not only persist, they seem to proliferate.

My list of positive attributes of an inventor would include creativity, persistence, and optimism.  Inventors have an extraordinary faith in their ideas and will endure years of neglect and abuse in an attempt to see that their ideas prosper. As a result of the rocky road that inventors must travel, they also tend to be defensive, prickly, and maybe even a little paranoid.  In short, inventors can be a real pain in the posterior.  When they are not enthusiastically pestering people to invest in their idea, they  are usually complaining about the stupidity of those who won't.

Oliver Evans was one of America's earliest inventors.  He is also is a great example of the inventor archetype. Evans was born a few miles west of Wilmington, Delaware in 1755. He was apprenticed as a wheelwright and wagon maker but he quickly gravitated towards ideas related to flour milling. In 1790, the first year of the newly-opened U.S. Patent Office, Evans received the third patent ever issued for his fully-automated flour mill.  His invention was a significant advance in the way flour mills had been constructed.  His new design not only saved a tremendous amount of the hard labor of lifting and carrying the intermediates of the flour milling process from place to place inside the mill, Evans' invention also improved the overall cleanliness of the finished flour.  Previously, millers in their work would walk across the ground flour that had been spread out on the floor to cool and dry, transferring dirt from their shoes into the flour.  Sometimes, the entire batch had to thrown out because it was too dirty.  Evans' automated mill spread the flour out evenly without the need for any manual operations and hence it remained clean.

Evans' Automated Mill

Despite all these advantages, millers at first saw no reason they should invest in his new-fangled milling equipment.  The old ways were tried-and-true, reliable, a real craft that demanded the miller's best efforts.  Milling couldn't simply be replaced with automated equipment - or so said the millers vested in the old ways of doing things.

Undaunted, Oliver Evans built his own automated flour mill and word started to get around that maybe this peculiar young man (inventors are often seen as a little odd) had something after all.  It wasn't Evans who convinced them to change.  It was a few of what today we would call "early adopters" who were willing to embrace Evans' new milling methods. Their success did more to convince their conservative brethren than all the evangelizing by the inventor.  Every inventor is made or broken by the early adopters.

When more millers did decide to try Evans revolutionary new method, they did what people have always done - they declared that the inventions were so obvious that they felt no moral obligation whatsoever to pay Evans his license fees for his patent.  They simply pirated the inventions.  Not everyone was so dishonest, of course.  George Washington paid Evans for a license to use his inventions in Washington's own mill on the Mt. Vernon estate.  A bit later, Thomas Jefferson did as well.

Evans' patent lapsed in 1804 after its 14-year patent life. Due to all the pirating of his invention, Evans never felt he was fairly compensated for his invention.  In a rare bit of legislative compassion, the U.S. House of Representatives in 1808 gave Evans a 14-year extension of his patent to allow him to again try to collect his patent license fees.  He didn't live to see the end of the patent extension. By the time of his death, he had become completely jaded on the legal protections offered by patents and railed against their usefulness as an incentive for inventors.  Evans wrote his own epitaph which perfectly expresses both the excitement and the frustration of the inventor.

This stone and sod, combined to hold
A wreck'd volcanic engine; old
Which steady wrought on, sixty years
then faulter'd and did need
Here is the end of Oliver, he died
____day of _____
Where has the active spirit flown
Who formed opinions, of its own?
Did disregard the laughs of fools
The Claims of things, the pomp
of schools...
As he wished others do to him
Just so, he strove to do to them
in this straight course, his Bark
did steer
And never felt a pang of fear.

Evans' Powered Dredge
Painting in U.S. Capitol
Oliver Evans died on April 15, 1819 but in his many productive years, Evans would leave a legacy of inventions.  He conceived (and patented) America's first powered land vehicle in 1787.  He foresaw the day when railroads would travel at great speed, carrying passengers between cities, even traveling safely at night.  In 1804, he patented the high-pressure steam engine which would open the door to river navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  He built a steam-powered dredge he named the Oruktur Amphibolos (amphibious digger) for the City of Philadelphia. He was the first to invent a practical refrigerator based on cooling from the expansion of ether.  The breadth of his creativity was astounding.

Evans' High-Pressure
Steam Engine
Evans was a self-taught man whose book, The Young Mill-wright and Miller's Guide, on the design and construction of water-powered mills would remain in print through fifteen editions (up to the Civil War). He also published a well-received guide to the design of high-pressure steam engines.

It is intriguing to speculate if there is such a thing as a born inventor.  The more I read, the more I believe that invention is almost like a drug: it seizes receptive people with its creative power and fills their brains with something that is akin to an addicting drive.  Once experienced, the inventor seems to have little choice but to drive forward to either success or exhaustion.

Most of us (myself included) have never experienced the "inventor's high".  Probably the closest we come to it is when we think of a clever way to solve some problem at work or school.  But this is not invention.  These simple problem-solvers don't contain the power to change the world.  True invention can be a dangerous substance.  I would guess that some future inventors would opt out if they knew what the path before them held.  We're all the better that they can't see what's ahead.  They're the better for doing it.

Further Reading: The Genius of Oliver Evans, Joseph Gies, American Heritage Invention and Technology Magazine, Fall 1990.

Video of George Washington's Flour Mill which licensed Evans' technology.

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