Today, we talk about muskets, steam engines, and
motorcars. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
A new idea rose up in the
1600s -- the idea that gases could exert power. The
steam engine was finally built after a century of
experimenting with air, steam, and gunpowder.
Gunpowder didn't work out. But the force that drove
a musket ball faster than an eye could follow it
tempted our imaginations. By 1700 we finally had
workable steam engines.
Thomas Newcomen's first practical engine didn't
really reveal its kinship with muskets. It produced
power when steam condensed in its huge cylinder and
sucked the piston in. From then on, for many years,
steam engines operated at low pressures. James Watt
finally made engines that ran above atmospheric
pressure, but not much. He didn't think we should
fool around with high-pressure steam.
The first important American steam-engine maker was
Oliver Evans -- born in 1750. As a young man he'd
amused himself with a neat little experiment. He
put some water in a gun barrel, corked it tightly,
and then heated it until the cork blew out. "Why
not make steam engines like that!" Evans said, and
he did. The kinship of his steam engines with
muskets was quite clear. They had small
high-pressure cylinders -- like gun barrels.
They weren't awfully efficient, but they were
light, and they performed well. They were naturally
suited to America's need for transportation. Yet
Evans spent years trying to find backing for some
sort of steam-powered vehicle. It was 1805 before
he finally contracted with the city of Philadelphia
to build a dredge for their harbor. He closed
himself in his workshop while neighbors wondered
aloud if he, like Noah, was arming against the
And so, one day that summer, the doors of Evans's
workshop finally swung open, and out rolled the
most remarkable transportation machine since Noah's
ark. It was a gigantic steam-powered behemoth that
he called the Oructor Amphibolos --
Latin for "Amphibious Dredge." This strange,
awesome machine could have lumbered straight off
the set of a Mad Max movie. It rolled down the
streets, around Center Square, and off into the
Schuylkill river, where it sailed about, dredging
Evans sensed our need for powered transportation.
In one stroke, he'd made our first horseless
carriage, and he'd invented a steamboat as well.
During the next decade it all began in earnest.
Quite suddenly Robert Fulton's steamboat, and
railroad trains with high-pressure engines, were
there to carry us across this sprawling,
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Pursell, C.W., Jr., Early Stationary Steam
Engines in America. Washington: The
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969, Chapter 4.
Flexner, J.T., Steamboats Come True.
2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1978,
The very first program I did, Episode 1, was an ongoing benchmark
for me. And so I redid it twice, once as a simple
revison (this Episode 264) and once as an
elaboration of Oliver Evans's story (Episode 285).
From the 1832 Edinburgh
Oliver Evans's High-Pressure Columbian Engine
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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