Oruktor Amphibolos

Huh? I’ll explain although someone reading probably knows what the title means.

First, a Friday the 13th story: on Friday, September 13th, 1991 I was driving in the downtown area of a large city when the belt that drives all of the engine accessories (power steering, fan, alternator) snapped. I couldn’t drive the vehicle especially since it was a hot day and I couldn’t risk having the engine overheat.

This was before car phones, cell phones, and membership in AAA. I don’t really remember how, but I managed to call a garage near my office who sent a tow truck. During the trip to the garage a bottle of grape juice exploded on the passenger seat. I owned that vehicle for almost four more years, but the juice stain was never fully removed. So, I am a little wary of Friday the 13th. Oh, that’s not the only bad thing that has happened to me on a Friday the 13th, either.


On this day in 1805 America’s first self-propelled vehicle—and the world’s first self-powered amphibious vehicle—moved under its own power for the first time.

From Wikipedia an 1834 drawing of the Oruktor Amphibolos, or Amphibious Digger.

This vehicle was designed and built by Oliver Evans (born in Newport, Delaware in 1755) and isn’t even close to being his most important invention. He designed and built the first fully automated industrial process (a system for milling and sifting flour) and the first high-pressure steam engine. In 1790, Evans received the third US patent ever granted for his milling/sifting process.

The Oruktor Amphibolos was built by Evans for the Philadelphia Board of Health as a solution to the Board’s concerns about dredging and cleaning the city’s dockyard and removing sandbars.

Evans was, obviously, a big believer in steam power. In 1812, 17 years before practical use of the locomotive began, he wrote:

“The time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines from one city to another almost as fast as birds fly – fifteen to twenty miles an hour. Passing through the air with such velocity – changing the scenes in such rapid succession – will be the most exhilarating, delightful exercise. A carriage will set out from Washington in the morning, and the passengers will breakfast at Baltimore, dine in Philadelphia, and sup at New York the same day.”

Oliver Evans was a man ahead of his time. He was the first to describe vapor-compression refrigeration and proposed a design for the first refrigerator in 1805, but it would be three decades until his colleague Jacob Perkins would be able to construct a working example. Similarly, he drew up designs for a solar boiler, machine gun, steam-carriage gearshift, dough-kneading machine, perpetual baking oven, marine salvage process, and a scheme for urban gas lighting; these ideas and designs would not be made reality until some time after his death in 1819.

Evans believed he was unappreciated and became bitter and isolated in his later years. (I can relate.) I think it’s appropriate, on this day and in this context, to remember Oliver Evans and the Oruktor Amphibolos.