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Otis Shovel

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The Otis shovel was the world’s first mechanized steam shovel and excavator. Invented by William S. Otis in 1835, it was literally one of the most groundbreaking pieces of equipment to appear in the construction and mining industries. [1]

The invention came about when Otis, employed by the firm Carmichael & Fairbanks, was working on a contracting position involved in building the American railroad. Working with strict time constraints, the firm would receive bonuses if it could finish the work before assigned deadlines. The excavation process and poor digging tools were delaying the project’s completion. This gave Otis the incentive to seek out a solution, as the current practices used for digging were very arduous and time-consuming. The traditional wagon-mounted graders and horse-drawn dragpans were not efficient enough.

The invention of steam engines became vital to the production of the Otis shovel. Otis figured that it might be possible to produce a machine using steam technology that could be applied to digging earth. With the help of a friend, Charles H. French, he built the first steam shovel in 1835 in Canton, Massachusetts.

He applied for a patent on June 15, 1836. The first patent described his invention as a “crane excavator for excavating and removing earth,” but was destroyed by a fire at the U.S. Patent Office. The second application was filed on October 27, 1838, and it was granted on February 24, 1839 under Patent No. 1089.

The self-propelling shovel comprised a one-cubic yard (0.8-m3) dipper with a partial swing. Resembling a quarry derrick, it used cables, an arm, and a bucket. The swing was accomplished by pulling a set of ropes connecting to the boom -- a motion that facilitated the digging process.

It could slew, crowd, and hoist. The wheels were made of cast iron, which meant that mobility was limited, but mounted on rail tracks, it was perfect for the project. It was mounted on a rail for the purpose of rail-building.

First known as the Philadelphia shovel, Otis put it to work on the American Midwest railroad project in Massachusetts.[2]

He patented the shovel in 1839 and it became the first mechanized steam excavator of its kind, using a mechanized boom and a single bucket to remove dry earth.[3]

Otis did not live to see the how much his invention would contribute to society. He died of typhus fever on November 13, 1839, just nine months after his patent was granted.

His invention did not go to waste, however. After his death, his wife Elizabeth married a good friend of Otis’, Oliver S. Chapman, in 1844. The union led to Elizabeth extending the patent to the late 1870s. Although other manufacturers couldn’t use the invention, Chapman could, and did.

In fact, Chapman made some changes and patented them under No. 63857 in 1867. The patent document described the changes as "certain improvements to the Otis shovel.” One of the improvements involved using a chain crowd mechanism to supply force for the bucket. Chapman altered the name and called it the Otis-Chapman steam shovel.

The Otis shovel eventually became a mobile machine, made so by being mounted on crawlers, a move that pushed it into the construction industry as a prime earthmoving machine. When the Panama Canal and the Welland Canal were constructed, the Otis shovel proved essential to their speedy completion.[4]

The shovel continued to be used for building railroads and was eventually used in open-pit mining. Not initially a road building machine, after the patents expired and manufacturers began to fully realize its potential, it was used for many different types of work, including road building, pipeline construction, and mining applications.

The Otis shovel remains one of the most important machines in the equipment manufacturing industry, leading other manufacturers, such as Bucyrus and Caterpillar, to include it in their equipment list. Many of the most significant earthmoving feats accomplished in the world today have used a derivative of Otis’ machine.

[edit] References

  1. Haddock, Keith. Bucyrus: Making the Earth Move for 125 Years. Motorbooks: 2005.
  2. Orlemann, Eric C. Power Shovels. Motorbooks: 2003. 12-13
  3. Sheryn, Hinton J. An Illustrated History of Excavators. Ian Allan Publishing: Shepperton, 2000.
  4. Haycraft, William R. Yellow Steel: The Story of the Earthmoving Equipment Industry. U of Illinois P: Chicago, 2000.