Journey to the Center of the Snowbank


… 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.

As far as the size of the screw, this is conservative compared to some other would-be snow-borers.

Inventors did attempt to solve the problem of snow pressure, mainly by dropping the nose of the drill so it could be supported on some sort of wheel or carriage. In that case, it acted less like a drill and more like a cutter and conveyor of snow back to the fans. Then the front carriage ran into problems from being shoved into the snow, and the whole business never did work out.

But obviously this would be the perfect vehicle to bore your way to the lands of adventure in the center of the Earth!

Now, Jules Verne did no such thing. His 1864 Journey to the Center of the Earth relied on following caverns down. Most other authors relied on cavern-dwelling (like Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, 1871) Symmes Holes (natural entries to the hollow Earth proposed by John Cleves Symmes back in 1818).

But Edgar Rice Burroughs definitely used the Iron Mole to bore down to Pellucidar, starting in 1914.

What I am finding odd is a lack of reference to other uses of drill-vehicles in “all the usual places” — say, to the movie, Unknown World on lists of Subterranean Fiction. I’ve been adding links as I try to research the matter of “Who first drilled down into subterranean adventures rather than following natural adits?” Fortunately, I grew up on old sf movies and books, so I have a certain number of other items in my head, provided I can remember the proper names of the things.

Right now it looks like ERB (b. 1875) was the first to realize the geologic possibilities of auger snow plows, and set it to work.

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