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:

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.