Monthly Archives: February 2015

Journey to the Center of the Snowbank

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… or how failed railroad tech inspired scientific romance.

Railroads on a large scale only date back to the 1830s, but they ran into the problem of snow on the tracks the first winter. The earliest solution was the snow plow. Often called a Bucker (or bucker), it just relied on speed and plowing action to clear the tracks. If the snow got too deep, though, there was nothing to do but bring up crew cars with 200 men for several days of shoveling.

1884 brought a new high-tech solution: the Jull rotary snow plow, whose auger and blades chewed its way into the face of ten feet of snow and threw the result a hundred feet to either side, first going up thirty feet to clear the telegraph wires. Imagine a ten or eleven foot wheel spinning at 90 rpm, and you get an idea of the speed. (You can find way too many YouTube vids of North American rotaries in action. Really, the Europeans don’t seem to know how to really use them.)

Now, thanks to Mr. Orange Jull having secured good patent rights everywhere he could, and sold them to the Leslie brothers who built his first rotary (and knew a good thing when they saw it), nobody else could get in on the business.

(Fanfare, maestro!)

Enter the glorious failures, the screw-front snow plows.

Formally called augers, these ran into the basic problem that, however well they fed snow back to a blower, or cut into an iced bank, the horizontal pressures on the central shaft created insurmountable mechanical problems.

This “Cyclone Steam Snowplow” by E.P. Caldwell, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was constructed in 1889. (This is just a patent drawing of the lubrication system.)

The Cyclone Steam Plow, progenitor of the Cyclotram.

The Cyclone Steam Plow, progenitor of the Cyclotram.

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