Type to search

The Idea Behind the Rotary Snowplow Train was Conceptualised by a Dentist

BY Bir Singh June 29, 2018
Rotatory snowplow

Rotatory snowplow train. (SBB Historic / Wikimedia Commons)

Discovery of the wheel by the prehistoric man defined forward motion of material objects. More than that, in course of time, the circular motion would become a leitmotif of development in the field of mechanical engineering. Wheel, in a way, has come to stay. Rotary mechanics is ruling the roost in the present day 21st century now. Things were different in the 2nd half of 19th century.

The industrial revolution had climaxed and phased off. Cold countries were beset with the problem of blizzards and heaps of snow blocking railway tracks. Who would have thought that a dentist, who knows the power of drilling machine to make a hole in substance as hard as tooth enamel, would think of drilling hole into a problematic snow wall?

Conceptualization of the Rotary Snowplow train

So, it was left to a Canadian dentist J W Elliot, in the year 1850, to conceptualize a drilling machine that would demolish mounds of snow on the sheer strength of rotary motion. Orange Jull, another Canadian, in winter of 1883-1884, worked on Elliot’s concept, prepared a working model of Rotary Snow Plow, and tested its working efficiency on sand dunes. Jull then sold the design rights of this plow to Leslie Brothers who manufactured Rotary Steam Shovel on a commercial scale in 1883.

Before ‘Rotary’, wedge snowplows were in currency. They were disadvantaged with their limited capacity (failure against deep snow) to clear railway track of the accumulated snow. Even as it cleared the way, right and left flanks of rail track would be covered by the deflected snow, creating difficulties for the commuters to board and de-board the train and the track managing staff had difficulty in approaching the rails. Shoving had to be done in a way that flanks of track were not impinged upon and the deep and tenacious snow/ice on the main pathway was adequately demolished and removed.

Wedge snowplows

Before the invention of rotary snowplows trains, wedge snowplows were in popular demand. (Cornell University Library / Flickr)

Rotary Snowplow train arrived on the scene as a fitting answer. An assembly of spinning fans running on the power of steam was the earliest model, which graduated to diesel variant in course of time. Since it couldn’t move on its own, it needed to be pushed or trailed in attachment with the chugging railway engine.

Once attached and moving, its rotating assembly digs into the snow and crushes it to a pulp. Smashed ice is then directed into a chamber at the back and from there it is thrown to a safe distance on the right or left flank (as desired) in a thick and fast stream that looks like a tornado. Behind the spinning vortex rotating fan sits an operator (and his team) who controls the working of plow depending on how deep and demanding the snow obstruction is.

The train cabin is designed to dovetail with all types of train locomotives (diesel, electrical etc). While at work, plow cab may be attached to the front or to the back of the train. Up to two cabs can go with one train, one in the front and another at the back. The double cab arrangement is suitable for extremely heavy snowfall conditions. Plow in front clears way on the journey to a destination, and the one at back helps during the return journey. The back cab then becomes frontal and operational while the other – non-operational, trails at the back.

Rotating snowplow train in action.

Photo of rotating snowplow train in action, 1908. (Anders Beer Wilse / Norsk Folkemuseum)

Operation and maintenance

Plow train may have the power generating engine of its own, or operate on power borrowed from the host locomotive. In the former case, the engine may be powered by steam, diesel or electricity. Blades of the plow cut into snow much in the same way as blades of an aeroplane turbine cut into air mass. Cut snow mass is similarly directed to an exhaust pipe to be jettisoned outside as aeroplane does to the sucked in air. Sucked in snow mass is led to a chamber wherefrom it is thrown to the desired direction and desired distance. Both the machines, aeroplane turbines and snowplow work by creating a spinning vortex of air and snow respectively.

Rotary snowplow train.

Rotary snowplow train. (Tourner And Thorpe / British Library)

Giant of a machine, the rotary snowplow is nicknamed `the war wagon’ seeing its ruthless onslaught in blizzards and extremely harsh snow conditions. A 16 feet high unit can bore through 12 feet high snow mound with felicity and precision. Its two fans juxtaposed one behind the other, run at a furious speed of 60-90 RPM (revolutions per minute) in opposite directions. The net result is that the 11-foot fan blades of cab stab deep into the snow bank and pulverize it before throwing it out of the main pathway.

Plow train can move at a slow linear speed of 4 to 8 miles per hour, a clear advantage over wedge plow which must necessarily be pushed at a faster speed by the host locomotive to generate a greater momentum for the wedge (which is already weighty and massive) to enable it to hit the snow pool hard. A fast mandatory speed of wedge makes it dangerous on bends as it may ram into peripheral installations if not lifted up in time. Hence, in spite of the huge cost of running and maintenance, rotary snowplow remains in reckoning even as other snow knocking machines and gizmos have arrived in the market as formidable competitors.

Significantly, rotary snowplow is lightweight as its working doesn’t depend on mass or weight quotient. Yet, prudence has forced many to resort to the low-cost machines, solo or in combinations (wedge plow in combination with a bulldozer for example). Rotary plow nevertheless still remains numero uno when it comes to beating the snow logjam hard and upfront. Rotary is virtually irreplaceable as work left unfinished by it can’t be completed by lesser machines.

Demonstration of rotary snowplow train.

Demonstration of rotary snowplow train at Lago Bianco, Switzerland. (Kabelleger/David Gubler / Wikimedia Commons)

Competitor snowplows like snow blowers and snow jets, and even scaled down versions of rotary (like those have only one rotating fan instead of two) may generally cater to snow blocks at a lower cost. But the master of the game, rotary snowplow, still remains the master. Like the aeroplane among all modes of transport, the otary snowplow is matchless among snowplows of all other shades, denominations and description.

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “Super-Trains of the Past: Trains with Jet Engine“.

Recommended Read:
1. Train: The Definitive Visual History (Dk Smithsonian) | By Dk
2. The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America | By Christian Wolmar

Recommended Visit:
California State Railroad Museum | California, U.S

Fact Analysis:
STSTW Media strives to deliver accurate information through careful research. However, things can go wrong. If you find the above article inaccurate or biased, please let us know at [email protected]


Leave a Comment