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Odometer tallied the progress of pioneer wagons

BYU professor and student make replica of remarkable invention

BYU student Joseph Jacobsen, left, and professor Larry Howell show their replica of the odometer.
BYU student Joseph Jacobsen, left, and professor Larry Howell show their replica of the odometer.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU

PROVO — A legend about the man who kept records in the first Mormon pioneer company says William Clayton was such a stickler for detail that he tied a red bandanna to a wagon wheel and painstakingly counted how many times it went around to measure the trek's progress.

William Clayton clearly was a fussbudget about pioneer mileage in 1847, but a guide with his measurements of the Mormon Trail was published in St. Louis in 1848 and became invaluable to pioneers and to the 49ers of the California Gold Rush.

There's no evidence Clayton ever used a red bandanna, but he was the one who persuaded Brigham Young to form the team that engineered an ingenious wagon-wheel odometer. The original pioneer odometer has been lost to history, but Brigham Young University mechanical engineering professor Larry Howell has created the first working replica of the remarkable device.

"Other people have built replicas," Howell said, "but none have been to the actual dimensions. One of the myths about the odometer was that the dimensions were unknown."

Howell dug through the journals of Clayton and Orson Pratt and said that with those first-hand descriptions of the wooden gadget and his own knowledge of gear design — he teaches a gear design class at BYU — he realized an exact replica was possible.

Howell usually pushes the envelope of modern mechanical engineering, working on things such as microprocessors and fitting working mechanical devices on microchips. But he was intrigued when he learned about the odometer.

He'd seen an old odometer at the Museum of Church History and Art of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City that was proclaimed in church history books to be the one built by Clayton, Pratt and a craftsman named Appleton Harmon. At first, Howell thought he'd try to add to a book called "Landmarks in Mechanical Engineering."

Then he learned that former BYU professor Norm Wright had proved the museum piece wasn't the Young-Clayton-Pratt odometer — and that no replica with the right dimensions existed.

"I've been a nerd for a long time," Howell said, "but the novelty of these guys conducting a research-and-development project in the wilderness really intrigued me."

The red bandana story could be true. As the pioneers moved across Iowa after the Mormons were ejected from Nauvoo, Ill., Clayton became frustrated that his estimates of daily pioneer progress were regularly lower than those posited by others.

"He doesn't say it like this," Howell said, "but it's clear he's getting some grief for his lower estimates."

So one day Clayton counted the revolutions of a wagon wheel and did the calculations based on the diameter of the wheel. He found 360 revolutions equaled one mile. He counted all day. At the end of the day, he gathered everyone's estimates and, Howell said, "sure enough, he'd been the one who was right."

Clayton pestered Young for a machine that would take accurate measurements, and Young turned to Pratt, who designed the odometer based on Clayton's needs. The group resembled a modern engineering team, with Young as manager, Pratt as engineer, Clayton as customer and Harmon as craftsman.

"You quickly realize this was an absolutely brilliant man," Howell said of Pratt, "that people don't realize what a genius he was."

A wagon wheel was outfitted with a piece that, at the end of each revolution of the wheel, turned a tooth on the odometer attached to the wagon. Every six turns equaled one mile. With 60 teeth on the gear, the device was extremely accurate

A second gear counted every 10 miles, but Clayton and Harmon didn't follow Pratt's specifications for that part and rain caused it to swell and break.

Still, Clayton's job became a lot easier. Since he kept track of the exact distance and time on the trek, the odometer acted as a crude speedometer, too. The pioneers made roughly two miles per hour, which means Clayton had to check the odometer only every 30 minutes or so.

"That's better than a red bandanna," said Joey Jacobsen, the BYU student Howell enlisted to manufacture the replica of the odometer.

Jacobsen made no attempt to use old tools to make the replica, which is 18 inches long, 15 inches high, 3 inches thick and is made up of four gears turning on three shafts.

"No way," Jacobsen said, "we used any modern tool we could find."

The exercise still gave him a new appreciation for the inventiveness of the pioneers.

"I'm impressed they made it, especially on the trail," Jacobsen said. "It's one thing if they had a shop in Nauvoo, but to make it nights and mornings out of the back of a wagon?"

Clayton returned the 1,032 miles he'd measured from Salt Lake City to Winter Quarters, Iowa, in 1848. Young sent him to St. Louis to publish "The Latter-day Saints' Emigrants' Guide." The booklet was so popular there was at least one unauthorized version. Three other guides either relied on Clayton, borrowed heavily or plagiarized.

The odometer, Clayton and his guide provided incredible detail to pioneers who used the trail over the next several years and led much of the Gold Rush right through Salt Lake City on its way to California, a financial boon to the fledgling LDS community.

"The pioneers were cash-strapped and now you have these 49ers with cash coming through who need repairs and supplies," Howell said. "

Howell will present his research at a "History of Mechanisms Symposium" in Philadelphia in September. His work has been peer-reviewed and will be published in the proceedings of the symposium by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.