150-Year-Old Steering Idea

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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The last thing most folks would believeabout wood-wheeled wagons is just how much ‘technology’ is packed inside the vehicles.  Nonetheless, theserolling works of art are loaded with innovative design distinctions.  A few months ago, I was privileged to sharedetails on a fair amount of technology built into America’s early wagons.  The rare details were included in a lengthypresentation I gave to members of the Carriage Association of America and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  Overall,it’s an area of tremendous fascination to me because so much of this part ofour history is regularly overlooked. Just because it goes unnoticed, though, doesn’t mean it’s a trivialpursuit.  In fact, it’s possible for someof these design elements to add important details to a vehicle’s provenance.  The individual features can also point to a timeframe of manufacture while simultaneously reinforcing identification and authentication efforts. Even so, gathering information on individual parts, processes, andpatterns takes time and detailed record-keeping to keep the entiretransportation story in perspective.

With that in mind, I recently read anarticle highlighting how much Henry Ford had done for the early autoindustry.  Clearly, Mr. Ford is dueconsiderable credit.  But, he didn’tstart from scratch.  In fact, a number ofdesign concepts in those period wheels came from other sources.  For instance, where did the ideas originatefor the steering systems?  For runningboards?  Bodies?  Tops? Suspensions?  Spoke designs?  Seats? Well, you get the picture.  Earlywagon makers had a tremendous influence on America’s first automobiles.   Truth be told, the influence hasn’t stopped.  Just as a point of reference, have you everheard of beadlocks for truck tires? Simply put, they’re used on many 21st century trucks to help secure thetires on wheels... especially for off-roading adventures.  Believe it or not, theroots for the idea are grounded in early tire rivets found on westernwagons.  Just as beadlocks are purposedto help hold modern vehicle tires on their rims when the tire pressure changes,tire rivets on wooden wheels were also engineered to help hold wagon tires inplace.  That way, when the wooden rims(felloes) shrank, it was harder for the metal tire to slip off and leave thedriver stranded.  So, even though the look of the ride changes through time, the needs of transportation have a way of remaining similar.  As a result, it’seasy to draw countless parallels between modern wheels and 19th centurydesigns.   

 Beadlock wheels have a very similar design purpose as tire rivets on period, horse-drawn vehicles.
Beyond tire rivets, in the paragraphabove, I also made a reference to early steering systems installed in America’sfirst autos.  Believe it or not, some ofthose steering designs were extraordinarily similar to a wagon patent grantedduring the Civil War.  That’s right, theCivil War!  At least 40 years before mostautos were being seriously considered, some of the first tie rods andindependent steering systems were being highlighted on wagons.  To get a feel for how significant this ideawas, it’s important to realize that most all wagons and carriages at the timewere steered by the entire axle turning on a center pivot.  It was a method of construction that hadendured for thousands of years.

The two illustrations above are part of a Civil War era patent featuring steering system elements similar to early auto designs.
In contrast to the traditional ‘axlesteer’ system, this 1860’s patent left the axle stationary and fixed; so, only thetwo front wheels turned.  It meant thatthe wagon could be much more stable as it retained a wider, four-legged stanceeven in hard turns.  The idea also helpedkeep the tongue from being thrown side to side when a front wheel hit anobstruction or hole.  It was a conceptthat took a great deal of wear and tear off of the draft animals.  Ultimately, there were several brands thatused variations of this configuration in both the 19th and early 20thcenturies. 

Again and again, the makers of earlywagons, stagecoaches, and western vehicles helped provide solid inspiration forthe early auto industry.  Even moreamazing – from the demands of modern off-roading to the many present-daymethods of marketing vehicles – the ideas and impact of America’s firsttransportation industry are still being felt. 

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.
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