BYU Professor Mixes History, Technology to Replicate Pioneer Odometer

In the mid-1800s, pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked, and thanks to a handmade wooden odometer attached to the wheel of one of their wagons, today we know they walked exactly 1,032 miles.


Combining early pioneer accounts with his knowledge of gear design, Brigham Young University mechanical engineering professor Larry Howell has built a working replica of the odometer used on the Mormon Trail. A study of the research he conducted to build the replica will be published in the proceedings of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers'"History of Mechanisms Symposium" to be held in Philadelphia in September.

"When I realized that although the pioneers were in tough circumstances out in the wilderness they took the time to do a research and development project to help other people, I wanted to do my own project to recognize their contribution," Howell said.

As an engineer Howell has always had an innate desire to solve problems and push the boundaries of technology. His research usually focuses on designing machines that are so tiny a person needs a microscope to see them, but several years ago a trip to the Museum of Church History and Art of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints piqued his interest in the much larger odometer and how it worked.

Although the pioneer odometer was not the first odometer ever built, Howell was impressed with how its design, implementation and accuracy paved the trail for western emigration.

As he investigated the odometer he found that it was designed and built by a team, much like an engineering project is accomplished today. Brigham Young sponsored and managed the project, Orson Pratt acted as the design engineer and Appleton Harmon was the craftsman. William Clayton, whose role ultimately decided the success or failure of the odometer, defined the needs of the project and kept records of the building process.

Read more in the BYU News

Return to College News page.