Reinventing the wheel

I’m fascinated by hinges of technological transition—moments when the modern world realizes, almost a little too late, that it’s saying good-bye to the traditional one. Years ago, while reading Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft, a book about finding work that feels meaningful (which, Crawford believes, often turns out to be work with one’s hands, and in his own case was motorcycle repair), I came across a reference to a book about the lost art of making wooden wheels and wagons, and jotted down the author and title.

It wasn’t until years later, however, that I found a copy of George Sturt’s The Wheelwright’s Shop, and it wasn’t until last month that I finally read it. Sturt’s book is indeed about how to make wheels and wagons, or rather, how to make them without using machines or any power other than human and equine muscle. It is so comprehensively about this that by the time a reader reaches the end, he will likely feel that—except for the small matter of lacking the tools, skills, experience, and enough physical strength—he could probably build a wagon out of a few fallen trees himself.

In 1884, Sturt began working in a wheelwright’s shop that had been in his family for three-quarters of a century. He gave up schoolteaching for it; having read Ruskin, he had come to believe that “man’s only decent occupation was in handicraft.” Unfortunately, a month after he started work, his father became sick, and five months later, died. Even in 1884, Sturt writes, to call the business old-fashioned was “to understate the case.” But in spite of knowing almost nothing about the business, and in spite of the threat that the industrial manufacture of wagons posed even then to the artisanal manufacture of them, Sturt didn’t sell out. Instead he set about learning the trade from the eight workmen and apprentices he suddenly found himself the employer of, seeking to acquire the difficult, intricate knowledge that, according to tradition, only came to an apprentice after seven years, if not more.

Sturt’s book about what he learned, first published in 1923, almost four decades later, is ruminative and even scholarly about the vanished working-class world it describes. In the back there’s a glossary of wheelwright vocabulary, and at least a few of the words aren’t in the Oxford English Dictionary. Exbed (an axle-bed) and jarvis (a tool for shaving spokes), for example. From Sturt you may learn that the base of a tree—the part where it spreads out its roots like a settling octopus—is called a stamm.

Sturt’s sequence of description is methodical. He begins with the title-deeds to his family’s shop, which date back to 1706. He next describes the floor-plan: the timber-shed stood next to the smithy, and the lathe-house looked across the courtyard at the strake chimney (not that the reader knows yet what any of these things are). In the shop’s early days, there was no glass in the windows. “With so much chopping to do one could keep fairly warm,” Sturt writes; “but I have stood all aglow yet resenting the open windows, feeling my feet cold as ice though covered with chips.” The workday was twelve hours long, a span that included half an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner (which was a mid-day meal), but if the shop went into overtime, the hours could number as many as fourteen (another half an hour of which was in that case set aside for tea). The schedule wasn’t as oppressive as it sounds, Sturt argues:

In those days a man’s work, though more laborious to his muscles, was not nearly so exhausting yet tedious as machinery and “speeding up” have since made it for his mind and temper. “Eight hours” today is less interesting and probably more toilsome than “twelve hours” then.

A labor historian might demur. Sturt is probably correct, though, that wheelwrighting was more cognitively engaging than work on an assembly line was to be. A wheelwright, Sturt explains, had to “live up to the local wisdom of our kind.” He had to know, for example, that in his part of the country, ruts were traditionally five foot ten and a half inches apart, and that the wheels of a new wagon therefore had to be spaced the same, as rigorously as the wheels of a train have to match the gap between the rails it travels on. A new wagon that didn’t fit into the old ruts wouldn’t be able to get down a muddy road on a wet day. Sturt can wax a little mystical about this kind of lore: “A wheelwright’s brain had to fit itself to this by dint of growing into it.”

Experience eventually gave a wheelwright a faculty of judgment so fine, and so incarnated (for lack of a better word), that it couldn’t be transmitted via writing. Trees look different, Sturt explains, to someone who has spent a lifetime making wagons out of them with hand tools:

Under the plane (it is little used now) or under the axe (it is all but obsolete) timber disclosed qualities hardly to be found otherwise. My own eyes know because my own hands have felt, but I cannot teach an outsider, the difference between ash that is “tough as whipcord,” and ash that is “frow as a carrot,” or “doaty,” or “biscuity.”

When a wheelwright considered buying a tree, he took into account not only the species but also the soil it had grown from, the season of the year when it was “thrown” (that is, cut down), and its natural curves, which were to be made use of. “Trees were rarely crooked in more ways than one,” Sturt writes; “and the object was so to open them that this one curve, this one crookedness, was preserved.”

The opening of a tree was done by sawyers, that is, by men who sawed for a living. Without the help of gas-powered engines, sawing was laborious. It required dexterity, muscular strength, a fine sense of rhythm, an intuitive understanding of how to section differently shaped volumes, and a stoic capacity for hours of persistent attention. “The least deviation from the straight line might spoil the timber,” Sturt warns. Sawyers, who worked in pairs—a top-sawyer yoked to a bottom-sawyer—were usually alcoholic and often quarrelsome. Sturt saw them as sorrowful, somewhat noble figures; by the time he wrote his book, they had almost completely vanished.

What was it that at last caused the disappearance of the sawing craft? For although there may be a few sawyers left, I do not personally know of one, where of old there were several couple. Of old you might catch sight of a sawyer—perhaps at a winter night-fall on a Saturday—trailing off with his saws and axes for some remote village. Long before he could get home he would be benighted—the country lanes would be dark; yet sawyers never hurried. They dragged their legs ponderously, and they looked melancholy—I do not remember seeing a sawyer laugh. A sort of apathy was their usual expression. They behaved as if they felt they were growing obsolete.

There’s a whole world in the sentence “Sawyers never hurried.” I am reminded for some reason of writers.

The next step was to season the sawn timber. Here I’m going to digress: what reminded me that I owned Sturt’s book, and what got me to read it, finally, was that I had been reading George Chapman’s translation of the Iliad, and there I came across this beautiful, almost architectural description of the killing of Simoeisios, son of Anthemion, by Ajax:

He [Ajax] strook him at his breast’s right pap, quite through his shoulder-bone,
And in the dust of earth he fell, that was the fruitfull soil
Of his friends’ hopes; but where he sow’d he buried all his toil.
And as a poplar shot aloft, set by a river side,
In moist edge of a mighty fen, his head in curls implied,
But all his body plain and smooth, to which a wheelwright puts
The sharp edge of his shining axe, and his soft timber cuts
From his innative root, in hope to hew out of his bole
The fell’ffs, or out-parts of a wheel, that compass in the whole,
To serve some goodly chariot; but (being big and sad,
And to be hal’d home through the bogs) the useful hope he had
Sticks there, and there the goodly plant lies withring out his grace:
So lay, by Jove-bred Ajax’ hand, Anthemion’s forward race

It’s one of the first deaths narrated in the poem. In the Greek, as near as I can tell, the fallen Simoeisios is indeed likened to a fallen poplar, as Chapman has it, but Chapman seems to have made Homer’s epic simile a little more epic than it originally was. It’s Chapman who adds the suggestion that Simoeisios’s “head in curls” resembles the leafy top of the fallen tree, and whereas Homer simply leaves the imaginary poplar where the imaginary wheelwright threw it down (“and the tree lies hardening by the banks of a river,” is how Richmond Lattimore translates the line), Chapman further imagines an explanation: the timber has had to be abandoned where it fell because it’s too “big and sad” to haul home across a marsh—a danger mentioned by Sturt, by the way: “It behoved the wheelwright buyer to refuse if, as sometimes happened, a tree had fallen in an inaccessible place. . . . The tree must rot where it lay.”

When I read Chapman’s version of Homer’s simile, I wondered whether Chapman, in his elaboration, was drawing on a traditional knowledge of wheelwrighting. That’s what reminded me that I possessed a book on exactly this topic, which I’d been meaning to read for a decade or so. And now that I look at the passage in Chapman’s Homer again, as I write this, it seems to me, in the light of Sturt’s book, that Chapman may in fact have the advantage over Lattimore here: if the poplar was growing in a marsh and was cut down there, as Homer says it was, then maybe a reader from the world of traditional wheelwrighting, to which both Homer and Chapman belonged, would understand that however beautiful the wood from the tree might have been, it would probably have to be left to “wither” where it fell. Lattimore’s decision to translate the word ἀζομένη as “hardening,” instead of Chapman’s choice, “withring,” may miss the point, which is waste and uselessness. The Greek word seems elsewhere to mean “being parched” or “being scorched”—to refer to kinds of drying that have a negative connotation.

Seasoning was a delicate process, by the way, that could hardly have been performed in a marsh. Planks had to be stacked in perfect alignment, so as to minimize warping, with strips of board between each plank, so that “no two planks might touch,” lest the moisture that they sweated out lead to rot. Drying took years. “A year for every inch of thickness was none too much,” Sturt says. And even with the best of care, “elm boards insisted on going curly.”

The fact that Chapman supplies a gloss for fell’ffs—the “out-parts of a wheel”—suggests to me that even in Chapman’s day, the wheelwright’s terms of art must have been specialist knowledge. By the late 19th century the word had evolved into the form felloes. Sturt gives a pronunciation tip: “In this word leave out the o. Make the word rhyme to bellies.” Felloes were the curving pieces of wood that made up a wheel’s circumference. They were mounted on the spokes and attached to each other either by strakes or a tire—the two options for “shoeing” a wheel. “A tyre was a continuous band, like a hoop, put right round a wheel,” Sturt explains. “A strake was an iron shoe, nailed across one joint only, where two felloes met.”

In the center of the spokes went the stock, or hub, which was always made of elm, just as spokes were always made of heart of oak. “A newly-turned stock was a lovely thing,” Sturt writes. “Butter-colored, smooth, slighty fragrant.” In Sturt’s father’s shop, stocks were turned on a lathe that had been created by Sturt’s grandfather. The lathe was powered by workmen turning a large old wagon wheel, which served as a pulley to drive the lathe. The stock of the large old wagon wheel, however, had not been turned on a lathe—it couldn’t have been, since it had been created before the lathe—and its hub was only “rounded up very neatly with an axe, in the old-fashioned way.” A neat symbol of technology being born out of the technology it displaces.

The "dish" of an old-fashioned wheel, a diagram in George Sturt's "The Wheelwright's Shop"

I can’t go through all the steps for making a wagon here, alas. But I can’t resist quoting Sturt’s appraisal of one of his workmen: “I think his idea was to slip through life effective and inconspicuous, like a sharp-edged tool through hard wood.” And I can’t resist relaying Sturt’s ingenious discovery—recovery?—of why wooden wagon wheels were not vertically symmetrical but instead had what was known as “dish.” (See the diagram above.) The wheels on modern automobiles are straight up-and-down, but those on the wagons of yore resembled “saucers, with the hollow side outwards,” Sturt observes. He also likens the shape to “a flattish limpet.” Sturt admits that “for years I was careful to follow the tradition, without fully seeing the sense of it.” He knew only that a wheel without “dish” was “sure to turn inside out like an umbrella in a gale.” Then one day, while Sturt was watching a cart being pulled by a horse, he noticed that the cart gently swayed from side to side, and it dawned on him: a horse doesn’t move straight ahead. It moves forward one step at a time, so its motion is also, slightly, from side to side. “Wheels were built to meet force in two directions, not in one only. Besides the downward weight of the load there was the sideways push right at the very middle of the wheel, all the time the horse was moving.” The “dish” of an old-fashioned wheel was a structural compensation to this sum of vectors.

One last recovery: Years ago, I was puzzled by a line of Emerson’s, in which he praises transcendental love as “extinguishing the base affection, as the sun puts out the fire by shining on the hearth.” I understood the Platonic idea—a higher and impersonal love displaces lust, or is supposed to—but I didn’t understand the metaphor. How could the sun be said to put out a fire? It turns out that Emerson was referencing a blacksmiths’ saying. Smiths need to be able to make nice judgments of how hot their fire is, and that’s easier to do in a dim room, as one of Sturt’s workers, named Will Hammond, explained to him:

Excepting for light through the open half-door, or from the window over the bench and vice, the smithy was kept pretty dark. Will Hammond preferred it so. If the skylight did admit a splash of sunshine, as it sometimes tried to do on summer noons, he was prompt to veil it with an old sack he kept nailed for that purpose to the sooty rafters. The sunshine, he said, put his fire out; and very likely it did affect the look of the “heat,” so all-important to a blacksmith.

Hammond could have been a reader of Emerson, but the likely explanation is that both he and Emerson were drawing on a common store of folk-wisdom, now extinct.

Into the horizon

Edwin B. Coddington bookplate

I found this bookplate, unglued but still tucked into the front endpapers, in a history that I spent today reading. The book, which I bought used last week, was published in the 1930s; the Internet tells me that Edwin B. Coddington, its sometime owner, was the longtime chair of Lafayette College’s history department and wrote the definitive history of the Battle of Gettysburg, published in 1968, some time after his death. I like the way the bookplate evokes the idea of American history. I’ve been using it as a bookmark, and I must have looked at it half a dozen times before I had a Sesame Street moment and realized that the Indian and the airplane don’t belong in the same picture.

Miles per oat

What Happened on 23rd Street, NYC, 1901

“A World of a Different Color,” my review of Ann Norton Greene’s Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America, appears in the 30 November 2008 issue of the New York Times Book Review. Jennifer Schuessler, my editor, has also posted to Paper Cuts, the NYTBR blog, about the uncanny parallels between anti-car diatribes today and anti-horse diatribes a century ago, as reported by Greene. Another tidbit from Greene’s book that might be of interest to Streetsblog readers: it was late-nineteenth-century bicycle culture that paved the way, as it were, for the displacement of horse by automobile, “by advocating an increased role for the state and national government in what had been the largely local responsibility for road funding and road building” (p. 259).

Diatribes, of course, need not be fact-based, whether they be anti-car or anti-horse. Were horses really as dangerous as cars? In his recent treatise Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt notes in passing that

in the New York of 1867, horses were killing an average of four pedestrians a week (a bit higher than today’s rate of traffic fatalities, although there were far fewer people and far fewer vehicles). (p. 9)

Fearful if true! While reading Greene’s Horses at Work for my review (as well as a book on the same topic, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century by Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr), I was on the lookout for evidence to confirm or refute Vanderbilt’s statistics, which he sources to a 1992 book titled Ways of the World: A History of the World’s Roads and the Vehicles That Used Them.

As it happens, McShane and Tarr agree with Vanderbilt that horse-drawn vehicles were dangerous, writing that “Per vehicle, nineteenth-century horse-drawn vehicles caused more accidents than motor vehicles would later, an appalling accident toll, at least in New York City” (p. 54). Not all accidents are fatalities, though, so this isn’t complete vindication.* And it turns out that Greene disagrees with Vanderbilt. She writes:

Few accident statistics predate the earliest twentieth century, and much evidence is anecdotal. . . . The cited dangers of horse-driven traffic must be understood within the context of nineteenth-century traffic control, of which there was none. Cities did not institute systems of traffic police and mechanical signals until the twentieth century. . . . New York City gave right of way at intersections to north- and southbound vehicles, mandated signaling by drivers, forbade stopping and parking except in designated areas, and limited speeds to five miles per hour for business vehicles and eight miles per hour for passenger ones. Speed limits could not be enforced because there was no way to measure speed anyway. Since the streets were congested, speeding was rarely an issue. It is hard to imagine that horse-drawn vehicles traveling two to five miles per hour were dramatically more dangerous than heavy metal cars and trucks traveling ten to forty miles an hour.

So maybe horses are innocent after all. Clearly there is room for further research. If you’d like to see some nineteenth-century horse-drawn vehicles in action, the Library of Congress offers video of traffic in New York’s Herald Square in 1896, near New York’s Dewey Arch in 1899, and on South Spring Street, Los Angeles, in 1897. On the verge of the twentieth century, there’s “What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York,” in which, against a background of equine transport, a young woman has an adventure with a street grate that prefigures Marilyn Monroe (but with sturdier and more abundant undergarments). There are also two movies of traffic in New York’s Broadway in 1903, a very long film of San Francisco’s Market Street in 1905, and for good measure here’s some footage of the Place de l’Opéra in Paris in 1900. Alas, in none of this documentary footage are the horses wilding. In the absence of any death and dismemberment, I found myself noticing that New York City streets seemed much more expansive then that now. It took a moment for me to figure out why, but then it came to me: there wasn’t any curbside parking. You can pause a horse at the side of the street while you make a delivery, but you can’t leave it in harness unattended for any serious length of time. It’s a living animal. So here’s an easy proposal for returning spaciousness to New York’s streets: restrict parking to stables.

* UPDATE (Dec. 2): In a comment added below, author Clay McShane has written in to say that the accident statistics in his and Joel Tarr’s book are in fact for fatalities, not merely casualties, and that the major issues are kicking and biting.

Step into my landau, baby

There’s a consensus that sometime this century, the flow of oil out of the ground will peak. Some think it has already peaked; others that the peak is yet to come. What will happen when supplies of oil start to dwindle? People have started to wonder, including a writer named James Howard Kunstler in a book titled The Long Emergency. I haven’t read it, but his prognosis appears to be dire and includes something called a “die-off,” which doesn’t sound pleasant. Yesterday, in a bid for reassurance, I read a dismissive review of Kunstler’s book that I found through Arts and Letters Daily. I wasn’t reassured, however. The reviewer claimed that Kunstler’s “concern with oil depletion is overblown” because

the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) recent assessment in the World Energy Outlook 2005 finds that the world has sufficient oil to carry on at its present rate of growth at least out until 2030 (although the agency believes that this would be unsustainable on other environmental grounds).

I don’t feel altogether certain that I’ll be dead by 2030, so this wasn’t quite the warm blanket of denial that I was craving. Also, I wasn’t confident that the reviewer understood thermodynamics any better than I did, which is not very well, especially when he insisted that “total entropy on the Earth is not increasing . . . [b]ecause excess entropy is carried off by radiation into outer space.” Outer space? What about the greenhouse effect—does it trap entropy as well as heat? Don’t systems gain in entropy as heat is added to them, and isn’t that the net effect of the greenhouse gases, in preventing the release from Earth of heat?

Best to march quickly past the real physics, and get to the heart of the matter: dollars per gallon. Naturally, as my anxious mind contemplated the fate of a world in which fuel increased indefinitely in price, I wondered: How expensive would gas have to be for people to decide they’d rather take a horse-and-buggy than an automobile?

At first I thought that I would do this by adding up all the costs associated with keeping a horse—hay, blacksmithing, saddles, stableboys, much higher frequency of street cleaning—and compare them to those of keeping a car. In the former Soviet Union, there used to be whole academic departments devoted to making an inventory of all the society-wide costs and benefits of an item, in order to set, by fiat, its price. We are all Hayekians now, though, and believe that the best way to process all the raw data of abundance, scarcity, damage, benefit, consumer whim, and real convenience is by seeing what people actually pay.

As it happens, in New York today, it is possible to hire for a brief trip either a horse and buggy or an automobile. They aren’t exactly comparable; the buggy is a luxury item, and I suspect that it dawdles to seem more leisurely. Nonetheless both the buggy-owners and the cabbies must take the measure of a much wider range of expenses than I ever could, even with the assistance of the internet. I thought I’d start with their numbers, making a few adjustments along the way.

If you want to take a horse and buggy ride in Central Park today, it costs $34, and in twenty minutes you go one mile. Three miles an hour seems awfully slow—improbably slow. The websites of various companies that cart brides and grooms to and from church promise speeds no higher than four to seven miles per hour, and they seem to be offering their slowness as a selling point. In today’s world, the hirer of a buggy is probably paying mostly for the twenty minutes—for a share of the horse and buggy’s day—rather than the one mile. In a post-gasoline world, buggies would presumably go as fast as was financially and legally prudent. I’m guessing that I can safely double the speed advertised and say that a horse and buggy in Central Park could go six miles an hour without increasing its underlying costs. So I’m jiggering with the data, and guessing that for the same $34, you could get a horse and buggy to go two miles in twenty minutes.

To go two miles in Manhattan by taxi costs you $2.50 plus 40 cents for every one-fifth of a mile—in total, $6.50. (For ease of math, I’m leaving tips out of both sides of the equation.) Let’s estimate that cabbies get about 24 miles per gallon, and that they go about 20 miles an hour in the city. That means the trip consumes about one-twelfth of a gallon of gasoline and takes about six minutes.

Horse & buggy Car
$34 $6.50
20 min. 6 min.
Hay 0.0833 gal. gasoline

There’s one more arbitrary number to come up with. How valuable are the fourteen minutes you’d lose by taking the buggy? That’s hard to figure; it probably depends on how valuable your time is. People with a low hourly wage will probably walk rather than hire either vehicle, so let’s say $20/hour. The value of those 14 minutes will therefore be 14 min./60 min. times $20/hour, or $4.66.

Let x equal an increase in price per gallon of gasoline. Then as gas becomes more expensive, the price of the automobile taxi will be $6.50 + 0.0833 x. The price of the buggy will be $34 plus the loss of time, valued at $4.66. A person would just as soon hire a hire a cab powered by a horse as one powered by an internal combustion engine when the total prices are equal, i.e.,

$6.50 + x/12 = $34 + $4.66

x = (34 + 4.66 – 6.5) 12

x = 385.92

When gas costs $385.93 more per gallon than it does today, then, you’ll probably start taking the curricle.