1839: A U.S. Patent is Granted for a Groundbreaking Machine for Major Transportation Projects

February 24, 1839

Civil engineer William Smith Otis of Philadelphia was issued U.S. patent number 1,089 for the steam shovel, which was classified in that patent as a “Crane-Excavator for Excavating and Removing Earth.” As designed by Otis, this large steam-powered machine — when mounted on wheeled devices such as carriages or railroad cars — could be used for both lifting up and hauling away heavy loads of soil and rock during major construction projects.

Otis, who had been born in Pelham, Massachusetts, in 1813, developed a strong interest in mechanics and earthworks at an early age. He died of typhoid fever less than nine months after receiving the patent for the steam shovel. That invention of his, however, enjoyed a considerably longer life due to the vital role it played in a wide range of public works initiatives throughout a good deal of the 19th century and well into the first couple of decades of the 20th century. (The above engraving shows an early example of this machine.)

The steam shovel was first used during construction on the Western Railroad in Massachusetts. As far as transportation infrastructure priorities were concerned, this machine ultimately proved to be likewise pivotal in helping to build not only a large number of other railroads but also canals.

Image Credit: Public Domain

For more information on William Smith Otis and his invention of the steam shovel, please check out https://www.miningfoundationsw.org/William_Otis

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