Farm Collector Blogs > Looking Back

Dashing Through the Snow ... On Screws

by Sam Moore

Tags: conversion kits, early 20th century life, Sam Moore,

Sam Moore   
Sam Moore   

By now, most Rusty Iron fans have probably seen the video of the Fordson tractor and the Chevrolet car rigged up with spiral tubes instead of wheels to pull them through snow.

(If you’ve missed it, jump over to “Snow-Motors Inc. Conversion” and you can watch the entire film.)

However, there’s some misinformation on some sites where it’s claimed that the thing was invented by Henry Ford and that Ford himself is the tractor driver in the film.

Now for the truth about the snow gear and the film.

In the March 29, 1906, issue of The Automobile there was the following tidbit titled, “To the North Pole by Auto.” Under a dateline of March 26 from Minneapolis, the story reads:

A special to the New York Times says that Charles E.H. Burch and Frederick R. Burch, Minneapolis men, will attempt to reach the North Pole in an ice automobile of their own invention. The vehicle is supplied with all the comforts one might expect to have in a houseboat. The inventors have engaged in exploration in Alaska more than once, and it was for the purpose of making trips on the trackless wastes of Alaska in quest of mineral wealth that their idea was perfected and a working model was built.

After they had the vehicle in working order, the idea of a polar exploration suggested itself and the brothers announced that while their original plan was not to discover the pole there was no reason why they could not make the trip if the proper interest was shown in the expedition. They have the automobile in operation at Lake Calhoun, where it was inspected yesterday by interested residents of Minneapolis. It is built like a large streetcar and is heated by hot water. The Burch brothers assert that they have selected a route to the pole that is as sure as their means of locomotion is certain. They believe they will be able to obtain ample financial backing for the venture.

The Burch brothers were actually from Seattle, Wash., not Minneapolis, and Charles’ initials were E.S. and not E.H. as stated in the article. In 1901, Charles E.S. Burch was awarded a patent for what he called an “Ice Locomotive.” The patent drawing (see below) shows the huge “streetcar”-like contraption with which the Burch brothers proposed to reach the North Pole.

The 1922 patent that Fred Burch assigned to the Armstead Snow Motors Corp.
The 1922 patent that Fred Burch assigned to the Armstead Snow Motors Corp.

No further record of the proposed trip has surfaced. Both Frederick Cook (in 1908) and Robert Peary (1909) claimed to be first to reach the Pole; both claims are disputed. However, the Burch brothers did remain active in the snow vehicle field. In 1908, C.E.S. Burch received a patent for an “Automobile Sleigh,” a smaller machine shaped like a large automobile, with a pair of horizontal screws under the rear and a single, large, steerable ski at the front under the internal combustion engine.

In 1917, Fred Burch patented a small, open motorized vehicle with large drive drums around which the helical vanes were welded, and that more closely resembled the Fordson tractor in the film. Another patent was issued to Fred Burch in 1922 that improved upon his 1917 design and shows a small roadster-type automobile mounted on the drums. This patent was assigned by Burch to Armstead Snow Motors Inc., New York City, N.Y.

Armstead actually built the Fordson tractor and the Chevrolet car conversions shown in the film, which was a promotional piece put out by the Armstead firm. The tractor driver in the film is, of course, not Henry Ford.

The screw theory for propelling a vehicle over snow or ice wasn’t Charles Burch’s idea. William Harvey, Toronto, Canada, patented an “Ice or Snow Locomotive” in 1898, as did John and Nils Peterson in 1899. Both machines featured long, horizontal screws as drivers, as did many other snow vehicle patents over the first half of the 20th century. I even found a 1925 patent to convert an ordinary bicycle into a screw-driven snow vehicle. A runner was attached under each wheel, with the rear one containing rollers and gears that drove a trailing screw. As the bike was pedaled, the rollers were turned by the rear wheel, and in turn drove the gears that turned the screw and supposedly pushed the bike through the snow.

The idea isn’t dead by any means; here’s a video (courtesy YouTuber 01e9)  that shows a modern machine with the same drive screws that’s apparently made by ZIL for the Russian army.

It’s amazing what can be found in the archives of the U.S. Patent Office.