My husband and I are moving. I am packing boxes. Yesterday I packed two full boxes of diaries, memoirs and biographies of women who walked west with the wagon trains in our country's great migration. I have collected these, and poured over them. I have tried to imagine the trip. I learned that the man who would stop the train while his wife gave birth was called a "Yankee husband". In all of these accounts, the women note carefully how many miles they travelled each day. And for a long time I wondered how they knew.
It should not surprise that the Romans had an odometer. It was a wheel somewhat like a surveyor's wheel that dropped a pebble into a container on each revolution. Benjamin Franklin invented an odometer while serving his country as Postmaster General. He wanted to do smart route planning - an activity that USPS is engaged in to this very day. The first wave of Mormon emigrants designed and built an odometer that operated on the cogged wheel system. Mounted on a wagon wheel with a known circumference it counted revolutions which could be converted to miles.
Most of the wagons that swarmed over the prairie did not have an odometer. They used a tried and true method: tie a red rag to the wagon wheel and count the revolutions. Who pulled rag-count duty? How long was each shift? Incredibly most of those who started out arrived safely in Utah, Oregon, California. They were tough and determined - walking in shoes with thin leather soles and sleeping on the ground. On a good day they made 12 miles. On average, 360 revolutions of the wheel of a Conestoga wagon made a mile. That's 4320 revolutions. Who kept score?
PS The Mormons' first odometer was installed on a wagon in North Platte, Nebraska. There is a plaque at the North Platte Regional airport marking the location of the inventor's shop. North Platte has featured often in American history, most notably as home of the North Platte Canteen in World War II. More about that next time.