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The Old Time Water Wheels of America,
By Joseph P. Frizell, 1893













Note. -This Society is not responsible, as a body, for the facts and opinions
advanced in any of its publications.


(Vol. XXVII.-April 1893.)




By Joseph P. Frizell, M. Am. Soc. C.E.
READ APRIL 19TH, 1983.


In no way is the progress in any branch of art or industry more strikingly illustrated than by a glance at the methods in use a century or more ago. The annals of the American Society of Civil Engineers are supposed to be a repository of American practice and American methods in engineering. The writer, therefore, deems it no un worthy task to collect for preservation therein such examples as he can of the motors and methods employed by our ancestors of the preceding century in availing themselves of the power of water.

Had the task been attempted earlier, it would have been done better. The old millwright was busy, practical man. He had little leisure, inclination or ability for putting his knowledge on record in an intelligible manner. He made little use of books in his vocation. He learned his trade as an apprentice. He imparted his knowledge to others apprentices by example and word of mouth. Of the crude results of his labors very few examples now survive.

The sources of information available to the writer are: (1) Such isolated examples as have come within his knowledge and recollection. (2) The drawings and sketches extant in old books, which are usually mere hints and indications, requiring to be carefully studied and pieced out in order to yield any intelligent notion of methods of construction. Of these the book of Oliver Evans exceeds all others in value. (3) Suits at law for the interpretation of old grants of water, in which he has been employed as expert, sometimes involving an injury into the methods and appliances in use at the date of the grant., From the testimony and traditional knowledge of old millwrights, and such meager records as are available, some knowledge can be obtained.

The writer is quite well aware that this is a very hasty and incomplete summary of the subject; in fact, little more than a beginning. It is expected, however, that every man who takes it upon himself to comment on the subject will contribute something of his own knowledge, and that, in this way, this paper will result in putting on record a much larger body of information than it contains.

Up to the beginning of the present century the chief and almost the only application of water power was for grinding grain and sawing lumber. Occasionally a wheel was set up, to create a blast for a foundry, or for fulling cloth, or the carding wool, the spinning and weaving being carried on in the household.

A Breast Shot Water Wheel

A wooden water wheel consists in general of five principle parts, the shaft, the arms, the shrouding, the soling, and the floats. It is only in the latter element and in the mode of letting on the water that any distinction exists between the overshot, the undershot and the breast wheel. The shaft was an oak log 18 to 30 inches in diameter, dressed to a square, circular or polygonal form, with iron bands and gudgeons. There were two methods in use of attaching the arms to the shaft. The method of clasp arms was not so common in this country as that although much used in Europe. The shaft was squared at the place of application of the arms, or, if octagonal, was made square by the insertion of corner blocks. The arms were halved or locked together and set firmly upon the shaft by means of wedges. The admitted of some adjustment of the wheel with reference to the shaft. This was a very strong and durable arrangement for wheels up to 14 feet in diameter. Beyond that size the four pieces forming the arms would not give sufficient support to the shrouding, and the additional pieces were inserted, with the blocks on which they were footed. These were notched to the timbers and fastened with pins or keys.

The second method of inserting the arms is compass arms. Though the shaft is here represented as round, it was more commonly dressed to a polygonal form - six or eight sides, rounded at the ends to receive the bands. The arms were inserted in mortises passing through the shaft. They were notched and locked together in the center of the shaft. This method required the length of the mortises to exceed the width of the arms by an amount sufficient to admit of their insertion. The widest vacancy thus made was closed by a heavy oak key solidly confining to the arms. A wheel might have six arms, each of the three pieces forming the arms being cut away to the extent of two thirds of its width. The same construction is used for a wheel of eight arms, each of the four pieces being three fourths cut away. When the number of arms exceeded eight, the additional arms were inserted into the arm next to it diagonally in the middle.

All wheels run upon iron gudgeons inserted into the ends of the shafts. These are cast iron gudgeons. The part inserted in the wood is a cross of four feathers coinciding with a shaft in diameter. It is confined by heavy bands, driven on hot. A wrought iron gudgeon it is inserted in a mortise cut from the outside of the shaft to a depth sufficient to bring the gudgeon to its proper position. After driving on the bands, the mortise is closed with keys and wedges driven with great force. The wood is further compressed by driving thin wedges into the end of the shaft.

The shrouding consists of segmental pieces of 3 or 4 inch plank, forming a ring like the fellows of a wheel. They are attached to the arms in different ways. Halved and pinned or forked which creates a wheel with radial floats. With shrouding of sufficient thickness the arms are attached with mortise and tenon, which simplifies the insertion of the floats. The shrouding pieces are halved and pinned to one another at their ends, and where the soling is wanting the joints are strengthened with splicing pieces.

The floats were sometimes inserted in grooves cut in the shrouding, sometimes merely "sprigged" to the shrouding and confined at their ends by blocks of one inch board, fitted in an nailed to the shrouding. In the earlier forms of breast and overshot wheels, they were inserted as flat floats, rather than elbow buckets. They were different in the later forms, as will appear further on. The space contained between two consecutive floats was called a bucket.

In the high breast wheel and the manner of letting on the water, the part loaded with water is surrounded, at a distance of about 3/4 of an inch, by a tight drum of planking called the apron. This prevents the water from spilling freely out of the buckets as they descend. To transform this into an overshot wheel it would only be necessary to remove the apron, reverse the direction of the floats and carry the water over the summit. The overshot wheel did not usually have an apron, as that forces the water to leave the wheel in the same direction as it approaches. both the overshot and breast wheel ran at a speed much in excess of what would be considered economical in modern practice.

The undershot wheel in common use for grist mills, the floats being radial, the arms are forked on the shrouding. The floats are set in dovetail grooves cut in the shrouding and confined with keys, the expectation being that they would yield instead of breaking when foreign matter was caught between the float and the sill of the race. The whole structure is evidently made light and elastic with the view. The floats moved with a velocity about two thirds that due the head of water, instead of half, which is all that modern views of hydraulics would allow.

These wheels never required more than two sets of arms. They were never geared to more than two run of stones, and the width required was from 2 to 6 feet.

The counter gearing was the style of gearing in use for two run of millstones is the "big face wheel" which gears with the two "wallowers." On the same shaft with the wallower is the "little face wheel." This gears with the "trundle," which is attached to the spindle of the millstones. The velocity of millstones was about 100 turns per minute for a 5 foot stone, more for a smaller stone, less for a larger, a rough rule being to give the circumference of the stone a velocity of 1,500 feet per minute. The gudgeon of the wallower shaft, next the main shaft, rested on a sliding block, which enabled the wallower to be drawn out of engagement with the big face gear, leaving one stone idle. It will surprise some readers to learn that gudgeons of horizontal shafts ran on stone bearings. Oliver Evans gives directions for the selection of these stones: "hard and free from grit." He also enjoins great care, to prevent the heating of gudgeons, as it is liable to crack the stone on which they run.

This was the traditional gearing for a two run mill. Mills, by this and closely analogous methods, were fitted up and operated for generations and centuries; and no man entertained a doubt that they embodied the perfection of mechanism.

Tub wheel

Another wheel much used for grist mills, viz, the tub wheel, so called because it ran within a circular enclosure of thick planking put together in the form of a tub, without bottom. It runs upon a vertical shaft, and, with a head sufficient to give the necessary velocity, drives the stone without the intervention of gearing. More commonly a spur gear and trundle were used as drive the millstones. The wheel is 7 feet external diameter, with a head of 10 to 12 feet. The floats are radial and are fastened to starts inserted in the shrouding pieces by means of dovetail tenons and keys. The water was let on through a spout leading from the flume to the wheel.

A wheel of this construction was running at Lowell machine shop some 30 years ago, and isolated specimens are still extant in old mills. Sometimes the circular rim was made lighter and attached to the floats forming a part of the wheel and revolving with it. Often the floats were set in an inclined position, more nearly perpendicular to the direction of the water issuing from the spout. Ordinarily a small wooden pipe was inserted in the top of the spout close to the flume, reaching to some height. The precaution was necessary, to prevent the collapsing of the spout on the sudden closing of the gate from the partial vacuum created by the momentum of water.

A flutter wheel was simply a tub wheel without the rim, or perhaps more properly, a tub wheel without the tub. Two examples of this form of wheel was used in saw mills, which was their principle application. The wheel used for giving motion to the saw. This had to be small diameter in order to give, under any ordinary head, the required speed of about 120 strokes per minute to the saw. The body of the wheel is represented as a solid piece of 27 inches in diameter. At one end a gudgeon in inserted, at the other end a crank for giving a reciprocating motion to the saw frame, by means of a long wooden rod called the pit man. The floats are secured in forked starts set in the body of the wheel by dovetail tenons and keys. The weight of the water was considered advantageous as giving a more equable motion to the saw. The water was let on from an opening at the bottom of the flume. Another arrangement of sluice for applying the water, allowing it to fall down an inclined chute through a gate opening formed to give it the proper initial direction. An old method of lifting and dropping a gate, the agate stem passed through a guide. A chain for lifting the gate was attached at a point near the top. The chains pass in opposite directions around a drum and are fastened at the back. the operation of the gate by means of the lever is obvious.

The flutter wheel used in a saw mill for running back the carriage. It is 4 1/2 feet in diameter to the extremity of the floats. Its construction is the same as that of the tub wheel already described, except that the shaft is squared where the arms on, and the latter are applied.

The mechanism of the primitive saw mill now as much an antiquity as the old domestic spinning wheel. In the water wheel powered saw mill using a flutter wheel, the saw stretched in its frame, ran in grooves in the fender posts. These were attached by hook tenons to the beams of the mill and were adjustable laterally by wedges. The carriage which supports the log it runs upon the ways consisting of narrow plank set edgewise in notches by a trundle on the same shaft with the rag wheel. This wheel has an iron ratchet ring in its periphery, and is provided with teeth in the manner of a face wheel. The vertical shaft of the flutter wheel carries at its upper end a lantern which remains in gear with the face wheel, the flutter wheel conforming to the movements of the carriage. A series of teeth is inserted in the bottom of one of the side timbers of the carriage frame. They are alternately on opposite sides of the way on which it run and fit the latter closely. The way is interrupted at the point where the trundle engages with these teeth. A lever worked by the top of the saw frame imparts a rocking movement to a shaft with a projecting arm to which the hand pole is jointed. This pole carries an iron "hand" at its opposite end resting on the rag wheel. This wheel is provided with a pawl which prevents it from going backward, advances the carriage slightly at each stroke of the saw. The hand pole is attached to the arm by a pin, and by means of a series of holes in the arm the feed can be varied according to necessarily. One end of the log rests upon the head block, fixed upon the carriage, the other on the tail block which is adjustable to suit the length of the log. "Dogs," attached to the blocks, are driven into the log to hold it in position. When the tail block closely approaches the saw, a projection on the carriage strikes a trigger which lifts the hand pole and pawl off the rag wheel, turns a light stream of water on the flutter wheel and the carriage runs gently back till the saw, which does not stop, enters the recess in the head block. The attendant then releases the dogs, adjusts the log with his mill bar to a new position, drives the dogs, drops the hand pole, and the work goes on.

There are several forms which the breast wheel assumed early in the present century when textile manufactures began to extend. It was at a later date that iron shafts were introduced. In this form many specimens still survive, though no new ones are constructed. It was not far from 1845, that the breast wheel in New England began to be replaced by turbines, and as the substitution is not yet complete, it is apparent that the wheel must possess merit in order to hold its ground so long.

In this form the wheel has a width, or as we should say, length, greatly exceeding the old grist mill wheels, the one wheel being something over 20 feet long. It has four sets of arms and shrouding. The shrouding at one end is made much heavier than the others, and on this is bolted a series of segments forming a toothed ring through which the power is transmitted to a pinion called a jack gear. The arms radiate from cast iron hubs or discs fixed upon the shaft. The larger ends of the arms enter recesses in the hub and are strongly secured by hard wood wedges, then covered by a plate united to the disc by bolts and nuts. The soling is secured to the shrouding by wood screws or lag screws. The buckets differ from the older form of wheel in being made on two parts - the start, which is radial to the wheel, and the float, which is usually in a direction nearly tangent to the soling. This bucket does not empty so soon as the older form. In the construction the floats and starts can be inserted in grooves cut in the shrouding, the soling being applied afterwards. In that the soling is put in first, forming a continuous drum or barrel before inserting the buckets.

The admission of water is controlled by horizontal sliding gates, the wheel having three sets of three gates each. Each gate is attached by two rods to arms on the rocking shaft, which is controlled by a regular in the manner indicated. In wheel of more recent construction, the method of admitting the water is employed, a heavy web of rubber cloth or leather is wound upon the iron cylinder and uncovering the orifices according the the requirements of the work. This method, however, does not appear to offer any advantages over the old arrangement of sliding gates. On the contrary, the latter appears to offer more ready adjustment of the velocity to sudden variations of power.

Ancient Gearing. - Large face wheels were made of two thicknesses of 4 inch plank, each wheel requiring 12 pieces called "cants." The pieces were all circled to the proper radius. Six of them were scribed, halved and pinned together into a continuous ring; the remaining six were butted together, forming another ring; which was confined to the former by a great number of wooden trenails. A face, some 6 inches wide and projecting 1/2 inch. was formed on this later ring, in which teeth were inserted. A set of arms was inserted in the shaft as already described for water wheels. To these the wheel was adjusted by suitable notches and shoulder and secured by pins.

The lantern was formed of two discs united by the rounds which served as teeth. Each disc was made of two thickness of plank or boards pinned together and strongly banded. These wheels were attached to their shafts or spindles by wedges.

The Construction of the Spur Gear. - This is gathered from descriptions of old gearing. A series of thick wooden staves or segments is bound together by iron hoops at the ends, leaving the central part free for the mortises in which the teeth are inserted. The segments are cut with the grain parallel to the axis of the wheel The wheel thus formed is mounted on the arms in the manner indicated. A mode of constructing large spur wheels more common in Europe was the following; two sets of arms were mounted upon a square shaft in the manner of a clasp arm. To these were applied shrouding pieces, as in the case of the water wheel, forming two rims at a suitable distance apart. Between these rims was inserted a series of segmental blocks, the grain radial, a tooth being formed on the outer end of each block. The whole was firmly bound together with bolts and straps.

Old time water powered grist mill, though not comprehended in the title of this paper, will be of interest in this connection. It is borrowed from Fairbairn's "Useful Information for Engineers," and represents a corn mill erected in England in 1730. It is said by Mr. Fairbairn to correctly represent the state of art with reference to mill gearing at that time. It shows that our American millwrights were not much behind their fellow craftsmen of England at that early date.



F. COLLINGWOOD, M. Am. Soc. C.E.- I would like to ask Mr. Frizell whether he has paid any attention to cast iron wheels? As a lad, I remember there was a foundry near where I lived where a great many cast iron wheels were made. That was in 1845.

J. P. FRIZELL, M. Am. Soc. C.E.- Do you refer to breast wheels or overshot wheels of cast iron?

Mr. COLLINGWOOD.- They were small wheels, not over 4 feet in diameter, with curved buckets cast in iron.

Mr. FRIZELL.- Many turbines have been and still are made almost wholly of cast iron. Some very efficient wheels are made in this manner. A preferable method, in my opinion, is, to make the floats and guides of wrought iron or steel. These are set up in the molds before casting, and on pouring in the molten metal they become solidly united with the cast iron parts.

Mr. COLLINGWOOD.- I asked the question because it seemed to me that was probably the beginning of the introduction of the turbine, which has finally displaced the wheels that are described in this paper.

Mr. FRIZELL. - Water wheels wholly of cast iron are not now, and never have been, to my knowledge, made. I use the term "water wheel," now, in distinction from "turbine," to indicate a wheel running on a horizontal shaft, with a diameter nearly or quite equal to the fall, sometimes greatly exceeding the latter, the water acting on the wheel mainly by gravity. Such wheels continued to be made after the substation of iron for wood in construction. The shaft, and what we might call the "hubs," that is, the members which unite the radial arms with the shaft, called rosettes or centers, were of cast iron; the remaining parts of wrought iron or wood. Wheels of this construction still continues to be made in Europe. As late as 1886, as elaborate German work, by Bach, was issued, devoted mainly to these wheels.

One of the largest and most elaborate wheels of this class, made wholly of iron, was erected at Greenock, in Scotland, some time previous to 1850. It was some 70 feet in height. Its construction was similar to that of the Columbia bicycle, the weight of the water acting directly on the gears and producing no torsional strain on the shaft. For aught I know, it may be still in operation.

The extension of the iron industry, and the substitution of iron for timber, was not, as had been suggested, the sole cause of the replacing of these wheel by turbines. Other reasons contribute largely to this result. These wheels were bulky and occupied valuable space. In our rigorous northern climate they had to be housed in to protect them from frost. I imagine that a turbine 5 feet in diameter would furnish as much power as the enormous breast wheel that I have just referred to. There was still another reason of great force. These wheels revolved with a slow speed. The Greenock wheel referred to would not probably make more than two revolutions per minute, and an ordinary 20 foot breast wheel not more than seven or eight. To bring this speed up to the requirements of modern industry involved changes and transformations consuming much power. So that although the old overshot and breast wheel might, and no doubt often did realize quite as large a percentage of the power of the water as the modern turbine, the losses incident to the intermediate gearing made the net result materially less. When we reflect that, as compared with the great wheel at Greenock, a modern turbine of 5 feet diameter, would not only furnish the same power, but would run with a speed of 200 or 300 revolutions a minute, we perceive the enormous practical disadvantage under which the great wheel works.

For operations requiring a very slow movement, there is no question that water wheels may be made to use water with an efficiency quite equal to that of the turbine, or even greater. The Sagebein wheel, invented in Europe, some 20 years ago, yielded by actual test, and under the hands of an experimenter no less distinguished than M. Tresca, an efficiency of 93%, a result never equaled or closely approached by any turbine. This wheel had a diameter many times the fall, and revolved with a very low velocity, not more than 4 feet per second at the circumference - this wholly unsuited to most modern requirements.

There is one use to which a wheel of this kind may be applied in which it will probably never be superseded by the turbine, viz, the raising of water for irrigation or other purposes. A wheel of large diameter working on a very low head, too low to be available for a turbine, is provided with a series of small vessels, which fill when at the lowest point and at the summit of the wheel, discharge into a spout leading to the irrigation ditches. Many such wheels are found in great numbers in India, China, Southern Italy and Spain. Being used exclusively in hot countries, they require no protection from the frost. It is said that more water is raised by this means than by any other device known to man.

T. C. CLARKE, M. Am. Soc. C.E. - I remember seeing the old fashioned wheels. It may be of interest to call the attention of the Society to the reason, which I do not see given in this paper, why all these wheels have gone out of date and have been superseded by the turbine. It is because the age of iron had suppressed the age of wood. In the old days they made what they could in wood; the facilities of the country in working in iron were not sufficient to make the modern turbine, even if it had been invented. After the invention of modern machinery the wooden wheels were superseded by iron, just as you have seen the iron plows take the place of wooden plows on the farm.

Mr. FRIZELL. - I think the reason why these great wheels have been superseded is not altogether on account of materials, etc.

Mr. CLARKE. - That confirms the view which I suggested. It would be impossible to make a turbine or Pelton wheel out of wood; you have got to learn how to work the iron before you can make these modern wheels at all.

JOSEPH T. DODGE, M. Am. Soc. C. E. - This being the first time I have happened to attend a meeting here I feel a certain embarrassment about making any remarks, but I remember the use of a wheel with cast iron curved buckets placed inside of a rim, which was used specially to run the carriage back where they were sawing lumber. The spout conveyed water down at an angle of about 45 degrees, striking the curved buckets at a right angle as nearly as possible. Those curved buckets were supported by an outer and an inner rim. The overshot and undershot wheels were also in use, as has been described. That, of course, refers to the time between 1830 and 1840. I recall how the wheel was propelled in one saw mill. The saw was an up and down one; the wheel consisted of two rims with straight floats between; the water was delivered at an angle of 45 degrees, striking the flat faces and working the crank which operated the saw. That is the way the country saw mills were operated. The overshot was used too, in some cases.

O.F. NICHOLS, M. Am. Soc. C.E. - The Burden overshot wheel at Troy, which has, I think, been mentioned, should rank among the old American wheels. IT was constructed of metal, and its diameter was very great about 60 feet. The conditions under which it was used are still maintained, and the wheel is now in use. These conditions were very peculiar. There was a comparatively slight flow of water reaching the site of the wheel through the tail race, and falling 60 feet over the wheel. This was an uncertain flow, reliable when you could have it, but you could not always have it, and at very low stages of the river every drop of the water was allowed to pass over the wheel. The wheel was 22 feet wide on the face. It had 36 buckets, each 6 feet deep, and, of course, every time it turned around there was a great deal of work done with a relatively small amount of water.

Mr. Frizell has spoken about the necessity of housing in; as to the space occupied by this Troy wheel, the wheel was placed in a niche or cranny of the rock that could hardly be used for any other purpose. They simply housed in a corner in the rock in which this wheel was placed. I doubt if the space could have been as well utilized in any other way. Working under a continuous supply of water, efficiency of this wheel would be very great indeed, perhaps surpassing that of some of the modern turbines. The burden Iron Company advise me that the wheel was built in 1851, is still in operation and is rated at 200 horse power.

The turbine wheels of modern times are among the most efficient of prime movers, and skill and ingenuity have so developed and improved these machines that they have been introduced to the exclusion almost of all the other forms which utilize peculiar surroundings, as at Troy. The modern wheel is compact and convenient; you can use several smaller wheels in the same space occupied by one large one.

I recall an instance in ordinary railway experience where it was desirable to furnish the power for drills, etc., in tunnel boring, and where it would have been very difficult to obtain or set up steam apparatus or indeed any machinery, and very expensive to transport it to the tunnel sites. In one or two instances we arranged to use a large overshot wheel. The reason for selecting this character of wheel was that, having a pretty good grade in the river, a mountain torrent, we could use a closed tube under very light pressure, carried at very light grade, about one half of one per cent. This was enough to carry the water along the bank of the river, and then we simply extended this pipe or tube until we had reached the level of the top of the wheel. The wheel was made in sections and could be moved from one place to another and had no expensive foundations. A turbine wheel in such cases would be out of the question. I wish Mr. Frizell had given us some instances and illustrations of the more celebrated of the older wheels. I know that the wheels he speaks of in Europe have been illustrated, and I wish the Troy wheel might have been pictures, and its efficiency, present condition and relative usefulness made know; it was certainly one of the older of the powerful American wheels, and the forerunner of the more compact but not more efficient turbine.

Mr. LEVALLE. - I hope I do not impose on the kindness of the members. In France, especially on the Seine, where the current is very rapid, they have large wheels made like those of a steamboat; these are in the front. The paddles are very long and instead of moving the boat, the boat is anchored and the wheel is let loose and it is moved simply by the velocity of the current, and this is utilized for small industries, for turning a lathe, or for grinding coffee, or probably chicory or whatever goes into the coffee. I do not know whether these have come to the knowledge of Mr. Frizell. I think it would be interesting to know. I think they would be of value to small industries. I do not suppose they could be applied in this country to large industries.

Mr. COLLINGWOOD. - In reference to those wheels, I saw a great many of them in going down the Danube; these were quantities of those wheels. I think they were used for all milling purposes, I think for grinding corn.

A. McC. PARKER, M. Am. Soc. C.E. - I have seen water wheel much of that pattern used in Colorado for irrigating purposed. A wheel was put in a stream so it could turn, and as it turned it had boxes on the outside of it, each of which took up a small amount of water which was thrown into a flume and used for irrigating purposes.

L. L TURNER, Assoc. M. Am. Soc. C.E. - I remember an instance of what might be called an automatic water wheel running a small saw mill which I came across in a small stream high up in a Swiss mountain district. I was curious, also wanting to rest, so went into the saw mill, but could find no one operating it. There was, however, a vertical saw industriously cutting through a log. I waited a little while to see what would happen. Attached to the end of the log was a small stick nailed at right angles to it; when the saw reached this end, the stick of wood struck a lever, releasing a gate in the flume; the gate fell and the mill stopped. When the proprietor returned from his morning's farming he would turn over the log, lift the gate and the mill would start in again and work until another board was sawed off. Two boards a day or perhaps three.

*Additional discussions on this paper received before July 1st, 1893, will be published in a subsequent number.

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