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Avatar of Frustrated Innovators

Oliver Evans's Grist Mill: First Automated Industrial Processing in the World c. 1790

Several weeks ago, I asked my daughter who has access to Stanford's magnificent Green Library, to borrow a book I needed for my research on wheat. Oliver Evans: A Chronicle of Early American Engineering by Greville Bathe and Dorothy Bathe was not available through any of my usual channels, as only 500 copies had been printed in 1935 by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Its scarcity is a shame, but understandable since the book -- all five pounds of its thick printed pages and glossy illustrations of mechanical drawings from 250 years ago -- tells in painstaking detail the circuitous career of Oliver Evans, a grumpy, largely failed engineer. My daughter is graduating with her MBA, and I have to get the book back to Green, but I'm loathe to part with it because it is such a careful record of a brilliant man who was hard to live with. After spending several weeks with Oliver and his sympathetic chroniclers, screened by all the obfuscations of time and other people's writings, I feel a great deal of empathy for him.

A Delaware Valley farmer's son who, by virtue of sheer engineering vision, pulled himself up several rungs on a very rigid social ladder at the turn of the 19th century, Oliver lacked charm. He knew he was smarter than just about everybody else, but he did not know how to get along with his peers. Like so many visionaries, he needed a handler or two to run interference for him among the conventional throngs. First, they sneered at his inventions. Then, when they saw the profit potential he'd claimed was real, they tried to steal his intellectual property rights. The just-formed federal government issued the third patent in U.S. history to Oliver Evans for his automated grist mill. Without it, the dietary and industrial history of our country, indeed our country's economic evolution, may have followed a very different path.

Like Ada Lovelace, a woman who saw the potential of computers a century before anybody else, Oliver has been largely ignored in our collective history. Ada, finally, is coming into her own, as all the shameful slighting of brilliant female engineers in past decades is slowly being set to rights, at least for future generations.

Oliver's day has not yet come, no doubt because he has lacked sympathetic chroniclers. My new book, Refined: The Capitalists Who Cook Up What America Eats adds some weight in Oliver's favor onto the scale of history. As girl-geeks have embraced Ada, the capitalist disrupters of today may find an avatar in Oliver Evans.

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