Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Bettendorf Steel Gear Wagons

In February of 2013, I profiled several patents that International Harvester Company (IHC) had taken out on a steel wagon gear.  As unique as the designs were, though, they were far from being an exclusive idea.  Some readers may be asking, "What does this have to do with America’s early western wheels?"  Believe it or not, metal gears were introduced to U.S. markets at least as early as the Civil War.  Metal wheels, even earlier.  So, following the history of our first transportation industry, we’ll occasionally look at the background of other metal wagon gear makers – hence the topic of this week’s blog. 

Since IHC wasn’t formed until 1902, they were clearly not the first to explore opportunities with metal gears.  Initially, the interest in metal gear designs was a product of weaknesses found in wood.  After all, timber had a tendency to check (crack/split), was not always well-seasoned, could include imperfections such as knots, would shrink and move with shifts in environmental conditions, was highly subject to rot, weathering, insect damage, etc.  Wood was also in high demand.  In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, it was a prominent raw material for an endless array of industries.  As a result, the more desired hard and soft woods needed for wagon-making were not always plentiful; especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Trade publications from those timeframes regularly discussed real and feared shortages of quality wood stock.  As a result, the continued development of metal gears and wheels became a focus for a number of firms.

Even with the advantages of a metal gear – such as manufacturing consistency, efficiency, strength, durability, and resource availability – the designs were never well accepted by many wagon buyers.  They did, however, meet with more success as a farm truck.  By their nature, farm trucks were highly utilitarian.  They were typically sold with lower and wider wheels and seemed to fit a broad range of needs on the farm.  As such, they were marketed as being ideal for hauling fruit, baled hay, wood, wheat, and livestock while also serving well as a city dray, sheep wagon gear, spray truck, or logging camp wagon. 

 This rare, surviving card from the Bettendorf Axle Company was used to promote their steel wagon and truck gears.

One of the early companies dedicated to the use of metal in wagons was the Bettendorf Axle Company in Davenport, Iowa.  Dating to 1895, the firm was founded by William Peter Bettendorf and his brother, Joseph.  Like many others born during America's Industrial Revolution, William had a knack for ingenuity.  In fact, by the time he was in his early thirties, he was a seasoned entrepreneur and inventor.  Among his wagon-related innovations were patent applications for a pressed steel, riveted wagon gear filed as early as 1891.  The May 1893 issue of “The Hub” includes a few more details and I thought I’d pass most of that article along this week...

The Bettendorf Hollow-Steel Wagon Axle

“Radical departures from old methods and forms are not uncommon in these days of advancement in the vehicle industry, but it is seldom that one so marked as that shown by the Bettendorf hollow-steel wagon axle is presented.  In this there are the combined axle and sand-board and combined bolster and stakes for the front, and a combined axle, bolster and stakes for the back as shown by the illustration.

The Bettendorf hollow-steel axle is made of No. 11 mild sheet steel of the best quality, care being taken to secure first-class material.  Two sheets are used in the manufacture of an axle; one is pressed into shape to form the front and another the back, when they are firmly united and constitute the completed article.  This is a rough description of their method of construction, which is as follows, more in detail:  The metal is first sheared to shape from the flat sheets; the shearing is so done as to leave plenty of metal for the ends of the axles and for the formation of the stakes to be turned up.  During the same process of shearing, holes are punched in the sheets for riveting them together.  The sheets are then shaped in a hydraulic press to the form required for the front and back of an axle, flanges being turned over for the bed of the bolster and the flat side of the stakes.  These fronts and backs are then placed together, and while held under a hydraulic pressure of 300 tons to the square inch, are riveted in a manner original with Mr. Bettendorf, and also secured by patents.  By this method of riveting, the metal is drawn from one of the sheets through the hole in the other sheet and flanged over its entire circumference.  This obviates the necessity of using separate rivets and causes the fastenings to be homogenous parts of the whole.  The union of the two steel sheets is thus almost as perfect as if they were welded, the axle being the only part left hollow.

The machinery by which these axles and bolsters are manufactured was specially designed and built by Mr. Bettendorf.  It consists of hydraulic presses, gas heating and welding furnaces, hydraulic forge and steam hammers, all adapted peculiarly to the purpose and rendering the manufacture of the axle simple and economical...

Every operation is conducted with cold metal, except the welding of the bearings and bending of the stakes...

At present, the manufacture of only 3 ¼ x 10 inch axles, with narrow track, will be undertaken.  This covers the standard sizes of wagons in common use.  Other sizes, however, will be manufactured hereafter, as the demand warrants or the condition of trade requires.”

The Bettendorf Steel Wagon Gears were touted as weighing less and being more durable than wood running gears of similar strength.

William Bettendorf’s early career included stints at Moline Plow Company, Parlin & Orendorff Company, and Peru Plow Company.  In the midst of his day-to-day work, in 1885, Bettendorf was granted a patent for a metal wheel.  By 1886, he had secured enough financial backing that he and his brother began manufacturing the wheels in greater quantities than what had been possible while at Peru.  This new firm was ultimately referred to as the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company.  Bettendorf continued to refine both his inventions and the machines that built them.  So enamored was he with product development that by the mid-1890’s, he established another business referred to as, the ‘Bettendorf Axle Company.’  It was this company that built the steel gear wagons with hollow, self-oiling axles, a pressed steel seat, and special steel reinforcement on the box.  By 1905, the company was sold to International Harvester Corporation which continued to market the brand as the “New” Bettendorf Steel Gear Wagon. 

Bettendorf Steel Gear Wagons were typically equipped with wood wheels while their farm trucks were fitted with steel wheels.

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