Thew Steam Shovel

Sept. 28, 2010

Captain Richard Thew is credited with building America's first fully revolving shovel and, like most inventions, it originated from an idea to serve a specific need. Back in the 1890s, Thew, captain of an ore-carrying boat on the Great Lakes, often encountered the problem of handling iron ore once it was deposited on the docks. At that time, such work was done with "railroad-type" steam shovels that traveled on railroad tracks. They were heavy, cumbersome, and could only swing their booms from side to side in a half-circle. Much hand work was required to clean areas beyond the shovel's reach and also to frequently reposition the railroad tracks.

Captain Thew studied these problems of ore handling and conceived a unique machine that would overcome the former difficulties and restrictions. With the help of H.H. Harris, an experienced shovel designer, Thew built his first machine at the Variety Iron Works in Cleveland in 1895. His machine was a fully revolving steam excavator with a 5/8-cubic-yard shovel attachment that could swing in a full circle, the first with this capability built in America. To add even more flexibility, he mounted the machine on four steel traction wheels, which could steer and propel itself without the need for labor-intensive rail tracks. Now able to travel without restriction, the shovel was able to perform any loading or cleanup work over the entire dock property, doing away with most of the hand labor.

The Thew shovel also boasted a unique horizontal crowding or thrusting motion that remains unique to this day. Instead of mounting the bucket arm so that it pivoted on a shipper shaft attached to the mid-point of the boom, the back end of the arm was pivoted to a steam-driven carriage running in a horizontal frame. This arrangement gave the machine superior clean-up capabilities as the shovel bucket could travel a greater horizontal distance at ground level than a conventional shovel.

With his machine perfected, Thew began to draw interest from other Cleveland shipping companies in the use of his shovel on a contract basis. This led to the sale of the first machine and, as more companies eyed its success, several more orders came in. As a result of increased sales, the Thew Automatic Shovel Co. was incorporated in 1899 at Lorain, Ohio.

Thew Expands Line of Steam Shovels

The Thew company expanded its line of shovels covering all popular sizes up to 1¾ yards and, by 1912, reached the No. 3 position in excavator sales in the United States. It is credited with producing one of the earliest gasoline shovels in 1914, and supplying many machines to the armed forces in World War I. The machines also found their way into mines, brick plants, and all types of construction work.

In 1924, the Thew line of products was completely redesigned and the new machines were identified by the trademark "Lorain" after the town where they were built. In 1964, sales declined and Thew became the Thew-Lorain Division of Koehring Co. Today, the remnants of Koehring and Lorain can be found under Terex Corp., which acquired the division in 1987.