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When Dan spotted a resilient wheel at Hershey recently, it was a real treat for me, because I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of these prewar wheels with their own suspension; I even wrote a brief history of them in Hemmings earlier this year. After considerable research, I came to the conclusion the idea originated with one Joseph H. Hardwick of Cleveland, Tennessee, who filed what appeared to be the first patent (#990,649) for a spring wheel in 1910.
But the fall 2010 newsletter of the Horseless Carriage Foundation has blown that notion right out of the water. The issue, with period content drawn from 1907 for the fall theme, quotes from the January 16, 1907, Horseless Age:
VOORHEES RUBBER MANUFACTURING COMPANY,
Bostwick Avenue, Jersey City, N. J., show materials for making rubber tires. At this stand is shown the new Pullwin Wheel, tires for which are made by the Voorhees Company. This wheel is something of a novelty; it is the invention of Herbert S. Pullwin, and put on the market by the Pullwin Wheel Company, of Meriden, Conn. The wheel is of rather small diameter, with a steel rim of channel section, sides extending out. A floating rim of channel section, whose sides extend in and of such a diameter as to slide over the wheel proper, takes the road shocks. Between these two rims are some twenty-eight nests of spiral springs, the small spring within the large to take the slight shocks before engaging the large spring.
And sure enough, there it is, an even earlier take on the resilient wheel.
With Pullwin’s name to work with, I found a slightly earlier mention of his invention in the October 25, 1906 The Automobile, with these disheartening words:
The idea of using spring wheels to give resiliency necessary to carry an automobile comfortably over rough roads, instead of using pneumatic tires, has occurred to many inventors, and many different applications have been patented, but great difficulty has been experienced in practical work.
Are you kidding me? These were a common idea in ’06? Why did I find nothing in my patent and literature searches last time? Now I was beginning to wonder if they predated the pneumatic tire itself, which started to become common in automobiles in 1903 or 1904.
The description continues:
One of the latest of these, and one that the manufacturers state to be thoroughly practical and to have been well tried out in actual road work, is the H. S. Pullman patent spring wheel, built by the Pullwin Wheel Company, of 37 Colony Street, Meriden, Conn. The accompanying illustrations show the construction of this ingenious wheel quite clearly.
The ordinary wood wheel has a steel rim, and over this there is a steel channel or rim which is normally held in a position concentric with the fixed rim by spiral springs, but which is permitted to move against the springs when the weight of the car is resting on the wheel. Driving stresses are transmitted through four steel studs which project through the rim of the wheel and carry hardened steel rolls which engage with crossbars on the inner side of the outer rim. The effect of the whole arrangement is that of an inner wheel separated by springs from an outer wheel. A rubber cushion covers the outer rim or tire and this can be renewed with ease when it becomes worn. The springs used are of specially tempered steel wire and are exceedingly durable. They are copper plated and enameled to prevent rusting and are scientifically proportioned to their work. As a practical test, some of these springs were compressed and extended to their full capacity 1,500,000 times, the manufacturers state, without perceptible decrease in their efficiency.
Anyway, back I went to my studies, and discovered I’d committed one of a researcher’s cardinal sins: Once I had what I thought was a cutoff date, I truncated my investigations, and stopped looking earlier than 1910. It turns out I was off by at least a century.
In America, I was quickly able to go back another 25 years. While the notion of using spring wheels for carriages, bicycles and trains had apparently been kicking around for years, (Englishman) Thomas Lake Aveling’s 1886 US patent 342,314 for a “Wheel for Road-Engines,” appears to be the ancestor of what I think of as the “modern” automobile resilient wheel in America.
But that’s the colonies. Starting from first principles, I easily pushed the date back to 1827, when the Society of Engineers (London) published a treatise On Elastic Railway Wheels in their 1865 Journal, and mentioned in passing,
The idea of an elastic wheel is by no means new. Patent office records show that with the first notion of propelling carriages by the adhesion of the wheels on which they rested; men sought to increase that adhesion by enlarging the surface in contact with the ground, either by using a very broad wheel, or by adopting certain expedients which would permit the wheel to depart slightly from a true circular shape, and become more or less oval. The walls of this room would hardly afford space for the illustration of these schemes. I have, therefore, confined myself to the illustration of those only which are in practical every-day use, and I shall merely glance at the past history of the elastic wheel theory at present. James Neville, a clever London engineer, appears to have been the first person to take out a patent for the introduction of elasticity into wheels. This patent is dated January 13th, 1827, for an improved steam carriage for running on common roads. The driving tyres are to be made from 5 in. to 6 in. wide. When the carnage is intended to ascend very steep hills, elastic steel plates, about 18 in. long, and the same width as the tyre, are to be attached to the peripheries of the driving wheels. These plates are to be made rough on the under surface by means of projecting steel screw heads, and they are to be affixed at one end to the tyre by counter-sunk screws, so that when not compressed they will form tangents to the circumference of the wheel. The elasticity of these plates will enable them, says the patentee, to assume the circular form of the wheel when leaving the ground, while their extended surface will prevent the wheels from slipping.
At this point I felt I was getting back toward the ancestor of all self-propelled road vehicles, the 1769 Cugnot steam tractor. With no earliest date in sight, I started to get a little closer still, back to a difficult-to-follow argument in the pages of an 1825 issue The Repertory of Patent Inventions, where it appears one Rev. Moses Isaacs has been issued a patent “for improvements in machinery, which, when kept in motion by any suitable power or weight, is applicable to obviate concession by means of preventing counteraction, and by which the friction is converted into a useful power for propelling carriages on land, vessels on water, and giving motion to machinery,” a patent which included a spring wheel. Unfortunately for the good Reverend, there was an even earlier, 1809 patent “some of which the Reverend Patentee has borrowed after the fashion of the Jews towards the Egyptians, and others by no means correspond to the intelligible part of the title.”
That referred to an item belonging to J.W.J. Boswell, who described a
…Spring wheel [which] would possess the very singular property of preventing all loss of momentum from common obstacles and ruts; for when the rim struck an obstacle, the re-action, instead of destroying part of the momentum of the carriage, would only cause the spring spokes to bend towards it; and when the axle was past the obstacle, the recoil of this bending, which would then take place, would add as much to the velocity of the carriage as the bending before took from it.
Now I was getting down to the bitter end. John Whitney Boswell’s invention is described in a monograph entitled Observations on Wheel Carriages, Beads, and the Draught of Horses; Investigations of the Mechanical Modes of Action of the Horse, and of the Size and Breadth of Wheels ; and Descriptions of Three new Species of Wheels, contrived to facilitate Draught, and to preserve the Roads: with some Remarks on Axles and Boxes, and an Account of a proposed Improvement in Harness in The Repertory of Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, 1810. “The third species of Wheels which will be now described, occurred to me many years ago,” Boswell wrote, dishearteningly. (Species two was the dually, by the way.)
It is designed so as to add the advantages of springs, before explained, to the wheel; and this union produces benefits which springs and wheels placed separate could never effect, however skillfully constructed. The two other new constructions for wheels just described, are calculated for great loads, and of course for slow draught; but the spring wheel is designed for swift motion, for which it will be shewn to have peculiar advantages.
The spring wheel is represented in Fig. 14. Each of its spokes is formed of a single elastic plate of steel, of the usual temper for coach springs, bent into a segment of a circle, greater or less as jt is intended to be more or less stiff. These spring spokes are to be arranged at the nave alternately in separated rings, so as to form the combination called double dishing: to shew which, two of them, the nave, and part of the felloe, are represented at Fig. 15; besides which, one of them is drawn separate, to exhibit the cross piece at the top by which it is to be fastened to the nave. These cross pieces are to be rounded and to lie in grooves cut across the nave; two rings driven over their ends at the opposite sides of the nave will keep them on tight; and these rings may be drawn together by screw bolts for more security; the spring spokes may be also fastened more firmly in the save by the part which projects beyond, the cross piece being driven into it and wedged, if it should not be thought that the binding this would occasion would make them liable to break short close to the nave; their other extremities may be rivetted or screwed to the inside of the fellies, placing a piece of thick sole-leather between them and the fellies, if any noise is apprehended from their motion, which last was the only inconvenience that an eminent coach manufacturer, to whom I mentioned the plan, could think of to object to it, and which seems to be fully obviated, by thus making one end of each spring rest on leather, while the other is sustained by a large surface of wood at the nave.
The man liked his commas. Fig. 14 describes almost perfectly the wheel for Model Ts from the Teens that Dan saw at Hershey.
How many years earlier it was that the idea first appeared to Boswell, a contributor to Nicholson’s Journal and associated with Trinity College (Dublin), I can’t say. It is worth nothing that Nicholson’s, a leading philosophical (science) journal, was read by many of the brightest minds of the day – aerodynamic studies therein were part of the Wright brothers’ curriculum. I have no evidence one way or another that he ever mentioned the spring wheel in Nicholson’s, but Boswell was recognized as an inventor and innovator (he did some original work on steam engines). His ideas would have been disseminated and taken seriously, and he even touched on the aesthetics of the spring wheel: “The appearance of the spring-wheel would also be in its favour, as the forms of its spokes are conformable to those curves which the best judges have preferred for beauty of effect.”
Could he have been the inventor? After pushing the date back a further 101 years, the trail has really run cold, this time and I’m not prepared to say no. But I’m not prepared to say yes, either.
Inventors have never given up on the idea (see Michelin’s Tweels) and new patents are filed regularly. I’m not the only one having trouble finding all the prior art, either: patent (7,810,533) was issued on October 12, 2010, for an “internal wheel suspension and shock absorbing system,” wherein the inventor, Dave L. Wichem of St. Louis, says, “Initially, as early as 1908, inventors addressed how to suspend a wheel internally with springs in various configurations, generally radially, to cushion the wheels against road impacts in early automobiles and casters.”
Sorry Dave – you’ll learn. The damn things probably go back to Rome.