Although there were other steam powered excavators in the late 1700s, the steam shovel as we know it was designed by a Mr. Otis. He received his patent in 1839. The very first steam shovel, like anything newly invented, had a lot of kinks to work out. Unfortunately Mr. Otis died of Typhus fever just 9 months after he received the patent. As a result he was unable to do further work on his invention. In 1844, his widow married a Mr. Chapman. Mr. Chapman did a few improvements on the steam shovel. Many of the current earth moving machines are derived from Mr. Otis’ design.
The steam shovel went through many designs. The first steam shovels had cast iron wheels and operated on railroad tracks. To move the steam shovel from place to place, workers had to lay temporary rail tracts. Eventually the railway chassis were replaced with caterpillar tracks. The steam shovel had better mobility and the rails were no longer necessary. In 1884, England developed the 360 degree revolving shovel. The design quickly came across the ocean and was the preferred format for these earth moving machines. There were other changes as well, some small and others more obvious.
The first steam shovels had a boiler which used wood or coal to heat water and create steam. During the 1930s, however, these were replaced with diesel-powered shovels. The diesel powered ones were lighter and cheaper than their forerunners. Later on the diesel powered shovels were replaced, at least in some areas, by electric powered shovels.
In 1877, Hodges and Armil brought an Otis steam shovel to Pittsburg. Their idea, while good, failed. The 8-to-12-foot overburden in Pittsburg was too much for the machine. In 1911, there had been enough progress on steam shovels that they were capable of being used in southeast Kansas. For about 50 to 60 years deep mining had replaced strip mining, but strip mining made a comeback in the 1930’s.
The above picture is of a model steam shovel built by Mr. Jack Verga at the age of 13. His father worked in the mine in Burgess and Jack visited often developing his design. Mr. Verga donated this wonderful piece of history to the Miners Hall Museum in Franklin. We invite you to come and view this relic and the many others we have on display.