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The Automation of Flour Milling in America

The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide, by Oliver Evans, 1795
A Cross Section of a Typical Oliver Evans Mill
The Same Typical Oliver Evans Mill Shown in Side Cross Section
Schematic Layout of a Typical Oliver Evans Mill
The Hopper-boy of Oliver Evans
The Automation of Flour Milling in America, Part 1
Reference Works on Oliver Evans
Illustrations of Oliver Evans, Steam Engine & Dredge

The Automation of Flour Milling in America
Part 2

Theodore R. Hazen

The Evans mill on Red Clay Creek with most of the improvements was in full running order in 1785. A pair of Brandywine millers came to inspect the mill, they found the mill operating but without the benifit of its operator. They found Oliver Evans working in a nearby field because it was haying time. The millers had found the mill clean and in perfect working order, and for the most part were greatly impressed. However, the strange sounding machinery to them sounded like "a set of rattle traps."

Oliver Evans by 1788 had successfully obtained the privileges for his inventions in the states of Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Oliver's plan was that his brother Joseph Evans would tour several of the states adjacent to Delaware and try to interest millers in their patented milling machinery. The plan was simple, to present the idea to one miller in each county free as an advertisement. The local miller would then become their local agent in that county. The miller would be required to introduce the improvements to other millers in that county's mills. The original miller would still have free use of the improvements as long as other millers would pay the regular license fees. Joseph Evans traveled many months and covered thousands of miles, stopping at mills in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. There was absolutely no positive results, and he did not find any miller with vision or progressive thought to take advantage of from this free offer. When he returned home again, he had no favorable prospects for future acceptance of this offer.

Oliver Evans in his travels around the country side was also trying to locate an interested party in his milling improvements. Finally while traveling in Maryland, he contacted Jonathan Ellicott of Patpsco, Maryland. The Brandywine millers were in particular opposition to Oliver Evans improvements until later when it was used in several mills around them. Jonathan Ellicott and his brothers were the largest mill owners and farmers in the state of Maryland at this time. The Ellicotts owned several large flour mills on the Patapsco River near Baltimore. Their mills were known as the Upper and Lower Mills. Andrew and John Ellicott began the milling business in 1771 at a place called Ilchester, and afterwards it became known as Ellicotts' Upper Mill. After building the mill they struggled to survive during the American Revolution until after the war when they finally managed to become successful and wealthy. Illchester Mills was like a miniature likeness of Harper's Ferry. Harper's Ferry with the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers, and then later railroad. Ilchester Mills with the Patapsco and Bonny Branch and also came the railroad came. The Ellicotts purchased land and water power from Joseph's Mill to the tide water with few exceptions all was their property. The Lower Mills was 100 feet in length and 36 feet wide, a story and half tall, with five pairs of millstones five feet in diameter. In both mills grain and flour was moved by manual labor from the millstones to the bolting cloths. The milling business could be termed "the bag and shoulder." There had been no miller or millwright who was able to substitute machinery for manual labor.

The remarkable individual was Oliver Evans who would eliminate forever "the bag and shoulder boys" working in the mills of the time. Oliver Evans "improvements" as he called them, consisted the elevator, the conveyor, the hopper boy, the drill, and the descender. Evans' elevator for unloading ships was described clearly in his book, but its construction did not appear in use until Joseph Dart of Buffalo, New York, in 1843 resurrected the idea from "The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide."

In Evans' book he also solved the great hydrostatic paradox of the time. Hydraulics the application and use of either: the overshot, the pitch back, the breast shot, and the under shot; the art of judging which size of millstones approbate for each type of water wheel. This knowledge only accessible to the master millwright.

Evans fully satisfied the Ellicotts' and they acknowledged Oliver Evans as the inventor of the improvements. Thomas Ellicott millwright would turn his attention to use these improved milling machinery at the Patapsco River mills and at the falls of the Occuquan River, in Virginia, a short distance from Alexandria, Virginia.

During the second session of the first Congress of January 8, 1790, in Philadelphia, the United States Patent Office was set up and the first Patent Law was passed. Oliver Evans immediately applied for a patent on his milling improvements. Congress awarded him a patent on December 18, 1790, for fourteen years, but the Federal Patent law required him to relinquish his individual patents from the various states. Oliver Evans first charged $40.00 per each pair of millstones in a mill for his improvements. However, the great difficulty was that were so many infringements on his inventions, it became almost impossible to collect.

Oliver Evans then contacted William Young of Philadelphia, a printer and bookseller to draw and illustrate engravings which would clearly show the Evans improvements in the manufacture of flour. At the time Evans only contemplated a small pamphlet to be printed in a small quality so he and his agents could distribute them. later in 1791 Oliver Evans developed the idea in his mind for writing a book. Two years later Evans began to make some money from his brother Joseph, who was still continuing to travel showing millers the small pamphlet with its crude copper plate engravings of the Oliver Evans machinery. As time passed more and more millers tried the improvements for themselves, the hopper boy, the elevator, and they reluctantly admitted that they could show a profit with this machinery. Then $40.00 was not such a high fee demanded by Evans for each pair of millstones the mill had.

In April of 1793 Evans advertised in local newspapers that his shop in Philadelphia would began to make and sell anything in the milling line of machinery. So now married, Joseph Evans was finally able to settle down and stop his traveling that he had done for so many years. Later of this year Oliver Evans had almost completed his book "The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide." Because of it growing size with additional copper plate engravings to fully illustrated the construction of his improvements, Oliver Evans also included in his work the theoretical principles of mechanics and hydraulics showing the best way to apply water to water power mills.

Evans paradox was to discover how to bring together the different parts to prevent millwrights making expensive errors. He had to compile accurate standard information for the miller and the millwright. The book he was assembling contained all the necessary information to construct an Evans mill. Oliver Evans first with the help of the Ellicotts and in particular Thomas Ellicott in 1795, Oliver Evans published his book called "The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide." Thomas Ellicott would later provide the practical part of the work. Unlike Ellicott, Oliver Evans made no meantion of the traditional "shaking sieves" other than they were used in country mill for sifting corn meal and removing hulls from buckwheat. They were described by Thomas Ellicott, and the most common mistake in interpeting Evans work is to include Ellicotts work as being part of the Oliver Evans system. Thomas Ellicotts practical side included as the state of the art in milling technology up to time of Oliver Evans developing his devices. Oliver Evans included his improvements and Ellicott his part. This was the solution for teaching millers to understand his improvements and to instruct millwrights to properly construct and install his machinery. Together they provided the validity of Oliver Evans claims and ended finally the millers resistance.

For Oliver Evans to concentrate on his book, he neglected everything else, that he lowered himself and wife to such a state of poverty. Evans would write,"to such abject poverty that my wife sold the tow clothe which she had spun with her own hands for clothing for her children, to get bread for them." Because of this Evans was forced to seek private money to promote and publish his book from John Nicholson, Esq. of Philadelphia for the sum of $1,000. If it was not for John Nicholson's help the book which saw 15 editions might have never been published. One of Oliver Evans agents his own brother Joseph traveled for thirteen years, instructing millers and millwrights to make improvements and sold licenses, and probably traveled in Evans' estimates about 100,000 miles.

In 1795 Oliver Evans printed a board side advertising the sale of his book:


"I. THIS Work shall be printed on a good Paper, with a neat Type, to contain between three and four hundred Pages, in Octavo, and be illustrated with not less than Twenty elegant Copperplates, neatly engraved, and will be neatly bounded and lettered.

II. The Price to Subscribers will be Two Dollars, one to be paid at the Time of Subscribing, the other on Delivery of the Book. - Those subscribing for twelve Copies, or collecting twelve Subscriptions, to have one gratis. - Should any Copies remain after supplying the Subscribers, the Price will be Two Dollars and Fifty Cents.

III. The Subscribers names shall be prefixed to the Work, as Patrons of American Arts and Sciences, this being an American Production.

IV. The Book shall be delivered to subscribers residing in Philadelphia, and for those at a distance, will be deposited with the Persons who received the Subscriptions.

Subscriptions will be received by the Author, at No. 215, North Second Street, by Thomas Dodson, William Young, Mathew Carey, Joseph Crukshank, Booksellers, Philadelphia; John Webster, Postmaster, Wilmington; Levi Hollingworth, Elkton; John Rice, Baltimore; George Gregg, Flour Inspector, Georgetown; Ellis Price, Printer, Alexandria; John Moody, Flour Inspector, Richmond; Robert Evans, Flour Inspector, Petersburg; Samuel Campbell, New York; and Samuel Reynolds, Mill-wright, Albany.

N. B. A Person receiving Subscriptions, will call in a few Days."

Oliver Evans book "The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide," is probably the most practical milling book ever published. The Guide is made up of four parts and an appendix. "Part one, Mechanics and Hydraulics; showing errors in the old, and establishing a new system of theories of water mills, by which the power of mill seats and the effects they will produce may be ascertained by calculation. Part two, Rules for applying the theories to practice; tables for proportioning mills to the power and tail of the water, and rules for finding pitch circles, with tables from 6 to 136 cogs. Part three, Directions for constructing and using all the authors patented improvements to mills. Part four, The art of manufacturing meal and flour in all its parts, as practiced by the most skillful millers in America."The Appendix, Containing rules for discovering new improvements - exemplified in improving the art of thrashing and cleaning grain, hulling rice, warming rooms, and venting smoke by chimneys, & etc." Also in the appendix was a list of the oriainal 622 subscirbers.

Thomas Ellicott had been complying writing a small book himself on millwrighting. Ellicott offered his work to Thomas Dobson, a printer and editor in Philadelphia, which he left his small treatise for acceptance for publication. Ellicott learned that a few days before Oliver Evans brought "The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide," for review for publication. It is unclear if there was a joint meeting between Oliver Evans and Thomas Ellicott, or if it was Thomas Dobson's idea. The out come was that the first edition printed by Thomas Dobson was the joint work of Evans and Ellicott. The Evans book, included part five which was "The Practical Mill-Wright," by Ellicott. The first four parts and twelve plates are by Oliver Evans and the fifth part and its thirteen plates by Thomas Ellicott, mill-wright. "Part five, "The Practical Mill-wright"; containing instructions for building mills, with tables of their proportions suitable for all falls from three to thirty six feet.

There were 2,000 copies of the book published in 1795. The book was issued in three editions during Oliver Evans's lifetime. The second edition was printed in 1807, and the third was printed in 1818. After he died in 1819, there were a dozen more editions published over the next forth years, the last edition was the fifteenth edition published in 1860. By 1813 a good deal of the battle of overcoming the acceptance of Evans ideas had been won. Towards the end of Oliver Evans life he saw satifaction in both his milling improvements and also his high pressure steam engine. The first automatic steam powered mill was constructed by Evans in Pittsburgh in 1807, which was operated by his eldest son George. It was not until after 1870 was the first automatic roller mill was constructed.

Flour Press by Cadwallerader Evans

"The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide" was translated into French in 1830 (Guide du Meunier, by Oliver Evans, translated by R. M. Benoit, Paris). The fourth edition was published in 1821. The fifth edition was then published in 1826. This edition saw the book completely reset with new copper plates engraved. On June 15, 1826 Oliver Evans' son Cadwallerader Evans added to the book's appendix, this included metal gearing, the flour press and iron hubs for water wheels. The book that Oliver Evans worked on so long was then fiddled with by Thomas P. Jones the editor of the Franklin Institute publication the Journal. Many of the original essays were shortened or eliminated, and dozens were rewritten, sadly nothing was none to clarify any of the concepts presented in the original work. To the appendix was added the work of Robertson Buchanan, with his "Pratical Essays on "Mill-work and other Machinery," including information on reaction water wheels.

The only an impressive statement added to the 1826 edition was: "Fifth Edition, with Additions and Corrections by Thomas P. Jones, Member of the American Philosophical Society, Correspondent of the Polytechnic Society of Paris, Editor of the Journal of the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania, and late Professor of Mechanics in that Institution." Jones added several excerpts from the Franklin Institute Journal , but retained parts of Oliver Evans original appendix. All of the plates were moved to the back of the book, rather than being with part four "The Young Miller's Guide" section and the other plates being with part five "The Practical Mill-wright" section, this only added further confusion to understanding the work. It has been said over and over again, I can't make sense of Oliver Evans' book. The reality of it, they need some prior understanding on milling technology before they can sit down and understand "The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide." Oliver Evans was correct in his concepts, the problem is our understanding of his work. As to Mr. Jones, he obliviously never heard perhaps our old saying, "if it works, don't mess with it!"

The book's origin was a had bill addressed "To the Millers" announcing the radically new flour mill on the Newport (now Faulkland) Road where it crossed the Red Clay Creek. The Evans mill began far reaching implications for the future of all manufacturing. A technologicl change, as it was the first automation of any industry. It was the first important American contrubution to industrial revolution after the war of independence. Several of Oliver Evans devices found other applications later in other industries, even today they are still used, such as the conveyor belt. Part of the early resistance to Evans inventions was that machines would take the place of the skilled worker. It was the first form of technological unemployment, while in England and here in New England, the ludites protested technological changes as evil. Oliver Evans made it possible for the millers to make finer whiter flour, which the reverend Sylvester Graham claimed that what the millers were doing was agaist the will of God. Graham started a campain against the millers for sifting out the bran and the germ. Evans changes brought about a change for the good because there was a labor sortage in America at the time.

The advantages to the Oliver Evans milling improvements installed in a mill were: The flour drying time was much shorter and it was better prepared for bolting, packing and shipment (keeping). In the old process fermentaion of the flour often occured. Also during this time insects would lay their eggs and infest the flour. Cleaning and bolting precesses were carried on more effectively. There was less waste in the milling process, flour and grain was no longer stored open to the air or on floors where it was more likely to become contaminated. Grain and flour was always contained within the machinery. The savings in using the Evans system would more than pay for the costs of installing the machinery and building repairs. The Evans system took up less space than the traditional machinery layouts. The miller could spend more time attending to his millstones and keeping them in good order. The miller had more free time to learn his trade. The miller's work station was relocated to the first floor rather than being in the mill's basement, where it was damp, cold and dark. The miller' health was much improved, and he needed to be near his millstones rather than in the basement. With the automated mill machinery a single miller could keep six pairs of millstones operating. While in the traditional designs two men and a boy were required to operate one pair of millstones. The Evans machinery would last longer, with better repair, there was less heavy strain on any single part. The Evans machinery within a mill upheld the buildiings structural strength better. The mill could better operate in periods of low water because the stress on the machinery was better distributed. The Evans system cut the labor cost in half, and demonstrated the obsolescence of the tradtional mill designs when matched against the automated milling system of Oliver Evans.

Perhaps the greatest effect of Oliver Evans automated milling machinery was the effect it had upon agriculture. The milling business and argiculture had not charged in hundreds of years, why should argriculture advance of the milling business could not keep up with technological changes. So the milling business advanced because of Oliver Evans, and came out of the dark ages. It then allowed agriculture to advance and also come out of the dark ages. Evans system allowed mills to be able to grind much more grain with less man power, and created a glut in the market for more grain. Agriculture had to advance and keep up with the demand for more grain. Soon better designs for plows were made so more land could be cleared to plant more grain. Grain harvesting and threshing improvements were made after the 1820's with McCormick and Hussy's grain reapers, and so the scythe with its cradle, the flail, the winnowing basket began to fade from common use.

Evans book's has had enormous influence and durability, because it was the first to provide practical information on flour milling. Oliver Evans book became the first technical manual, and because of it, other similar manuals started appearing in other trades. Another book published in London also in 1795 called "A Treatise on Mills," by John Banks, made no pretense of telling millwright how to build mills. It was not based on experience with actual water power, water wheels, or real streams, but on a small model water wheel in a laboratory. This was the accepted method of construction for ships and even for water and windmills. You first build a model of what you want to construct. Then you take the model apart and scale up the parts to a larger size or full size. Many ships were constructed in this manor well into the 1700's with out any plans. The average person who had the money to invest in such things did not have the basic understanding of building plans but if you showed them a model of what you intended to build. Early millwright's shops were full of all sorts of models from water wheels to complete mills. This worked as long as mills remained very simple machines, or you captured an enemies gun ship and want to make that design your own. When Oliver Evans looked at earlier books, which he thought he could depend upon for accurate information, but he only found errors and inconsistencies.

Plan of a circa 1870's Oliver Evans Flour Mill
original drawing by Prof. B. W. Dedrick 1931,
redrawn by T. R. Hazen for clarity and reproduction

Today it is harder to locate original first editions of Professor Benjamin W. Dedrick's 1924 text book "Practical Milling," than any of the original 15 editions of "The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide." Reprints of the first edition and thirteenth editions have remained in reprint for the last twenty five years. Even today, "The Guide" is a valuable reference work in the field of mill restoration and learning the basic milling technology. The most complete work on Oliver Evans life is "Oliver Evans, A Chronicle of Early American Engineering," by Greville Bathe and Dorothy Bathe, published by The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1935 (still available in reprint). within the pages of their book, when it comes to the death of Oliver Evans on April 15th, 1819, they simply added:

"With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand labour'd it to grow;
And this was all the harvest that I reap'd-
I came like Water and like Wind I go."
Omar Khayyam.

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Copyright 1996 by T. R. Hazen