Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Miller's Tale

"Finally the mill was ready to be set into operation. The first grain was ground and the mill was tested. No one dared ask the millwright about his work, he went about it in silence, few people were lucky to watch him work, he safe guarded his knowledge and the secrets of his craft. No one dared ask him questions, what he was doing or why, because it is a well know[n] fact that a millwrights spit could kill a toad." [TR Hazen]

Oliver Evans (1755-1819) was an apprenticed Delaware wheelwright and wagonmaker who studied science and mechanics on the side. At 22 when working in a textile workshop he invented a couple of machines to help in the carding of wool. He then went into a flour mill venture with his brothers.

It was at the mill that Evans' extraordinarily inventive abilities were given an outlet. Over a 7 year period he devised an updated water-driven milling system by creating hoppers and conveyors and elevators and by integrating various existing mill components. This system (illustrated above in the final image) is the first fully automated factory operation ever described {I suspect this might be a little arguable viz: renaissance marvels/sketches} - predating Ford's assembly line by more than 100 years. Although he endured myriad problems in relation to patent and licensing litigation, this new system increased flour production 5-fold. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were early licensees.

Evans was also an aficionado of steam power and his other great invention was a high pressured steam engine which helped fuel the industrialization of America. He established a workshop in Philadelphia to produce engines for various types of mills, waterworks and steamboat companies. These efforts he described in the curiously titled The Abortion of the Young Steam Engineer's Guide in 1805 (the first 2 words were a last minute inclusion to signify his anger about the way his inventions had been treated).

Beyond the realized practical applications of his inventions, Evans stands out as a farsighted thinker, ahead of his time: by way of example, he designed the first refrigerator and described a long distance railway system, both of which came into existence after he died. {He was told of his workshop burning down in 1819 and suffered a fatal stroke.}

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