Perhaps the oldest machine on display at this week's CONEXPO-CON/AGG show is a 1:10 scale model replica of the original Otis steam shovel, first built in 1836.
While working for a contractor in Massachusetts in his early 20s, William S. Otis came up with the design for the first powered excavator. It was hugely popular, and shoveling with "stame"—as the New Englanders would say—became the method for digging the railroad beds that connected America.
It later served as the forebear to all other construction machinery. "This is the one that started it all," said Larry Kotkowski, president of the Historical Construction Equipment Association and president of Lakeside Sand and Gravel Inc., Mantua, Ohio.
We found it in the HCEA booth in the Grand Lobby of the Las Vegas Convention Center. HCEA is offering 75 numbered pieces for $4,500 each—exactly what the real machine cost in the late 1830s. Buyers can write off $1,500 of the cost as a tax-deductible donation to the HCEA.
The functioning models (sans steam) are being built from the shovel's original plans and are very close to its original materials. Remember, this was an era before steel—much of the model, like the real thing, is made of oak and iron. The real-life machine would have stood about 12 feet tall and carried either a 1.25 or 1.5-cubic-yard bucket.
Two operators would have driven the rig: A person at the back would control swing and hoist while another at the front would control crowd and bucket release. Clearly, the person standing next to the firebox in the back had the worse job.
Interestingly, at the time of invention, opinions differed on the effects of mechanizing labor. One observer was convinced that the machine would refine society by reducing vice.
"The masses of unruly men collected on our public works will be dispersed by its use, and compelled to till the land," reported a 100-year retrospective article appearing in the April 1936 issue of Excavating Engineer.
The quote went on to say that the machine will make people "good and quiet citizens, and putting an end to the disturbances, quarreling and complaints incident to such collections of men."
Watch the video here.