The steam shovel or the steam-driven mechanical excavator is considered one of the most important contributions to the development and evolution of earthmoving machines.
Born on 20th September, 1813, in Pelham, Massachusetts; William Smith Otis went on to become a great American inventor. The steam shovel or the steam-driven mechanical excavator, his renowned invention earned him fame and a place among the greats in the equipment industry, across the world. Otis received a patent for his steam shovel on February 24, 1839. (William Otis was cousin to Elisha Otis of the Otis elevator fame.)
At an early age itself, William displayed a great deal of interest in earthwork and mechanics. He possessed an exceptional mechanical ingenuity which enabled him to create the first steam powered mechanical excavator at the age of 22. This was a history-changing machine as this apparatus and its progeny made earthmoving more advanced and much easier. It paved the way for the elimination of the a shovel, a pick, a wheelbarrow, and a strong back, the four absolutes of any large earthmoving project in the early 1800s, before the advent of the steam powered mechanical excavator.
The germ of the idea for this mechanism was born when Otis, a civil engineer, was working with Carmichael and Fairbanks on a railroad project in 1835. It involved a great deal of earthmoving activity which was tedious as well as time-consuming. Otis thought there had to be a better way to move the dirt and started tinkering around to develop an easier method. His efforts were productive and he was successful in putting together the world’s first steam shovel excavator using the popular materials obtained in the vicinity of Canton, Massachusetts.
Judging by present day standards, it was a clumsy contrivance; however it was revolutionary at the time of its invention. The excavator was built to be supported by rails and the bucket could be raised and lowered by a steam-powered chain hoist. Ropes were used to move the bucket from side to side, and shift it to where it needed to dig and release its material. The bucket door latch was also opened with the rope. The machine could move about 380 cubic metre of earth a day, with its 1.1 cubic metre capacity shovel and 180° slewing wooden jib. This invention was applied in the carrying out of excavations on railroad tracks building between Norwich and Worcester for the first time in 1837. The machine was used on railroads and could also be utilised for open-pit mining.
Recognising the labour and capital required by the project, William Otis moved to Philadelphia to finish the job on the steam shovel excavator. He enlisted the talents of Joseph Harrison who ope¬rated the company Garrett and Eastwick, to construct a pre-production model for it in 1836. On June 15th, 1836, William Smith Otis received the patent for the invention. However during a fire, the engineering specifications were destroyed. On February, 24th, 1839 the patent was given again under number 1089 and was called the Crane dredge for excavation and earth removals.
Unfortunately, William Otis was afflicted by typhus fever while working with his shovel for the Western Railroad of Massachusetts, and died on November 13, 1839, the same year he received his patent. He was only 26 years old at the time of his demise. Thus, he was deprived of seeing the success of his revolutionary invention. After his death in 1839, the Otis shovel brand was carried forward by Oliver Chapman, who married Otis’ widow. The shovels were then produced as Otis-Chapman shovels. Otis’ creation lives on as his legacy to the earthmoving equipment industry.