The first machines were known as 'partial-swing', since the dipper arm could not rotate through 360 degrees. They were built on a railway chassis, on which the boiler and movement engines were mounted. The shovel arm and driving engines were mounted at one end of the chassis, which accounts for the limited swing. Bogies with flanged wheels were fitted, and power was taken to the wheels by a chain drive to the axles. Temporary rail tracks were laid by workers where the shovel was expected to work, and repositioned as required.
Steam shovels became more popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Originally configured with chain hoists, the advent of steel cable in the 1870s allowed for easier rigging to the winches.
Later machines were supplied with caterpillar tracks, obviating the need for rails to be laid.
The full-swing, revolving shovel was developed in England in 1884, and this became the preferred format for these machines.
Expanding railway networks (in the US and the UK) fostered a demand for steam shovels; it can be said that the extensive mileage of railways, and corresponding volume of material to be moved, forced the technological leap. As a result, steam shovels became commonplace.
During the 1930s steam shovels lost out to the simpler, cheaper diesel-powered excavating shovels that were the forerunners of those still in use today. Open-pit mines were electrified at this time. Only after the Second World War, with the advent of robust high-pressure hydraulic hoses, did the more versatile hydraulic backhoe shovels take preeminence over the cable-hoisting winch shovels.
Many steam shovels remained quietly at work on the railways of developing nations until diesel engines supplanted them. Most have since been scrapped.
This machine was bought by the General Crushed Stone Company, who operated the largest rock crusher in the world at a quarry in Le Roy. The shovel, which weighed over 100 tons, was originally mounted on flanged rail-wheels, but was converted to caterpillar tracks in 1923 using a conversion kit manufactured by Marion.
A crew of three men were required to operate it: a fireman, who kept the boiler fed with coal and water; a crane man, who sat on the left-hand side of the boom and tripped the 1 5/8 yard bucket by tugging on a wire rope attached to the bucket; and an engineer (or driver), who raised and lowered the bucket and drove the machine along the track.
This shovel remained in use until 1949, when it was driven out of the quarry and parked by the main road – where it remains to this day, although no longer functional. The Town Council have purchased the land on which it sits, and are planning to apply (in March 2007) for National Landmark status for the shovel.
The shovel has several individual operations: it can raise or luff the boom, rotate the house, or extend the dipper stick with the boom or crowd engine, and raise or lower the dipper stick.
When digging at a rockface, the operator simultaneously raises and extends the dipper stick to fill the bucket with material. When the bucket is full, the shovel is rotated to load a railway car or motor truck. The locking pin on the bucket flap is released and the load drops away. The operator lowers the dipper stick, the bucket mouth self-closes, the pin relocks automatically and the process repeats.
Steam shovels usually had a three-man crew: engineer, fireman and ground man. There was much jockeying to do to move shovels: rails and timber blocks to move; cables and block purchases to attach; chains and slings to rig; and so on. On soft ground, shovels used timber mats to help steady and level the ground. The early models were not self-propelled, rather they would use the boom to manoeuvre themselves.
North American manufacturers:
Large, multi-ton mining shovels still use the cable-lift shovel arrangement.
In the 1950s and 1960s Marion Shovel built massive stripping shovels for coal operations in the Eastern US. Shovels of note were the Marion 360, the Marion 5900, and the Marion 6360 – with a bucket – while Bucyrus constructed one of the most famous monsters: the Big Brutus, the largest power shovel ever built and the largest still in existence. The GEM of Egypt (GEM standing for "Giant Excavating Machine" and Egypt referring to the Egypt Valley in Belmont County, eastern Ohio where it was first put to use), which operated from 1967 to 1988, was of comparable size; it has since been dismantled.
Although these big machines are still called steam shovels, they are more correctly known as power shovels since they use electricity to wind their winches.
Steam shovels have also found literary fame with the children's classic 'Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel''.