More is Less

Our son David inherited his grandmother’s 1969 white Pontiac convertible with red vinyl upholstery. It was sexy, but it was a beast, a gas-guzzler and perfect example of the dangerous designs Ralph Nader successfully fought against during the same era. Just to list a few of its more egregious features, it had a rigid frame, lap belts, bench seats, tiny rear view mirrors, manual windows and door locks, carburetor, spongy suspension and a big V-8 motor that drank a half-pint of fuel every mile. Its heating, air conditioning and ventilation system hardly functioned and the radio was a joke. The bumpers could not withstand a 5 mph collision. It did have power steering and power brakes – drum brakes. It was huge.

In 2015, when we sold the Pontiac, I still owned a 1992 Camry station wagon I had bought used many years before. In the 23 years between 1969 and 1992, all major mechanical, safety and comfort issues had been addressed. It had a transverse V-6 engine with fuel injection driving the front wheels that delivered 25 mpg on the highway (its in-city mileage is not that great because of the big engine, but still was more than twice that of the Pontiac). It had a driver’s side air bag, over the shoulder seat belts, individual adjustable front seats, electric windows and door locks, rear window wipers, big motor-adjusted mirrors, cruise control, an impact-absorbing frame, highly effective rust protection, ABS disk brakes, impact-resistant bumpers, a modern suspension system, and an excellent radio with tape and CD players. It was quiet, comfortable, capacious, compact and reliable. In short, it was a fully modern car.

In the twenty-three years between 1992 and 2015, what important features have been added? More air bags, endless electronics and other small refinements, some very nice but of minimal importance and at a substantial increase in maintenance. All aspects have been refined, but there have been no innovations that increase safety, durability or efficiency remotely comparable to the dramatic changes that took place between 1969 and 1992. In addition, the progress made in compacting the car between 1969 and 1992 has been reversed. We are now used to tall huge vehicles instead of the low and wide huge vehicles we loved in the 60’s.

This is an example of one way in which “progress” is a misnomer: adding expensive, high-maintenance incremental changes to mature products. An important factor in the escalation of medical care in advanced societies is expending large sums to add a small increment of time at the end of life. I am very glad I have a titanium knee and a piece of cow in my heart, because otherwise I would not be nearly as active as I am, and might well have expired. But these surgeries cost tens of thousands of dollars, and it is simply impossible to extend such benefits to billions of people; we can’t even do so for a large fraction of our own citizens.

And can anyone argue that the difference between iPhones six and seven is remotely comparable to the difference between a flip phone and an iPhone? Or between no cell phone and a cell phone?

Another form of spurious progress is the loss of functionality in the service of reducing costs. Not only is ours a throw-away economy, but the products often break down after only a few hours or even minutes of use. In countless cases, new products are less reliable, less durable and less functional than those they replace.

We purchased a cheap set of wooden lawn furniture made with some kind of tropical hardwood (Americans import 95% of the tropical hardwoods, a large fraction of which are harvested unsustainably). To reduce the assembly cost of the chairs, the slats that formed the seats were designed with joints that were guaranteed to fail if a robust adult sat on them. Edward O. Wilson once commented that cutting tropical rain forest for profit was like burning a Renaissance painting in order to cook dinner. Our tropical chairs made a nice fire one chilly evening.

To keep the economic growth engine running, governments, corporations and consumers (previously known as citizens) need to buy more stuff. Some of the new stuff is indeed useful, notably electronic devices. Even in that case, functional innovations are becoming marginal, and sometimes (as in the case of Microsoft operating systems) run in reverse.

There are exceptions. One is scientific instruments, where innovation and refinement allow us to uncover entirely new layers of natural phenomena, genome sequencing and deep space imaging being only two examples. Another is technology that has enhanced the arts.

It’s too bad all this extra stuff isn’t making us happier: even though  at the moment Americans are the safest people who have ever lived on earth, we don’t feel safe. And the religion of growth is making us much less safe in the long run.

As I argue in other essays, the survival of human civilization requires moving from the economy we have to one where growth is parceled out in ways that are productive, equitable and sustainable.

This will require a fundamental shift from an emphasis on competition to one of cooperation, sharing, redistribution and making hard choices to shed amenities we can’t support. No one has yet figured out how to make these hard choices in a way that will be acceptable to a free people in a liberal economy.

My wife and I, my daughter and her family, and almost everyone I know continue to consume like mad, just like everyone else who can afford it and way too many who can’t (our son is admirably abstemious). We don’t know what else to do, and I suspect you are in the same boat.

It is time to put the sapiens back in Homo sapiens, but it will require us to work together, give up many luxuries, and base our actions on science. This is not exactly a recipe for getting elected to public office.

The Genetics of Steam Locomotives

My experience with and understanding of 20th Century steam locomotives is very limited relative to a locomotive historian, but probably encyclopedic for the average person, especially since no one born after 1960 has seen an operating steam locomotive on a main-line railroad in the U.S. or Canada.

This essay is mostly about wheels, so we need some nomenclature. Per a 2016 Scientific American article, there are three types of wheel: the sort used in a motor vehicle, where each wheel rotates independently on an axle; a wheel set, in which two wheels are rigidly connected to an axle; and a caster, in which the wheel’s axle is offset from a pivoting vertical axis.

Typical railroad car wheel set
Typical railroad car wheel set

Trains run on wheel sets. A frame holding one or more wheel sets and pivoting around a vertical axis is called a “truck” in the U.S. and a “bogie” in the UK. Most railroad cars have two trucks or bogies with two and occasionally three wheel sets each. In Europe, where curves were sharp, cars tended to be shorter than elsewhere, and could be mounted on two wheel sets supported by frames that were rigidly attached to the “wagons”, that is, with no bogies, just a box on four wheels.

Model of a typical British goods wagon
Model of a typical British goods wagon

Locomotives are classified by their wheel arrangement. In Europe, they count the axles, while we count the wheels – so Honneger’s “Pacific 2-3-1” is a 4-6-2 in the U.S. Each wheel arrangement had a name, the Pacific type being perhaps the most common. The numbering system assumes that the locomotive has the usual three or four groups of wheels, and so always has three or four numbers. If any group is missing, the system inserts a zero. For example, you can have a 4-6-2, an 0-6-2, a 4-6-0, an 0-6-0 or a 4-6-6-2.

Pilot Wheels

The front set of wheels supports the front end of the locomotive, and guides it around turns. The rear set supports the rear portion. The center one or two sets are the driving wheels that are powered by the pistons.

The portion of the locomotive’s weight that is carried by the drivers is the result of some complex tradeoffs. The primary tradeoff is between power and steering. “Switch engines” that shunted cars around in freight yards and dock sides had only driving wheels, and often carried their water and fuel without a tender. This maximized its tractive force, but the downside was that it could only operate at very slow speeds. Why is this?

Model of a B&O dockside locomotive
Model of a B&O dockside locomotive

There are two reasons. First, on a turn the heavy locomotive “wants” to continue in a straight line. Without a properly designed front set of wheels (called the “pilot wheels”) the locomotive will lurch around corners and start oscillating from side to side, causing it to derail and damage the tracks. But it doesn’t even need a curve to start oscillating (”hunting”): minor imperfections or simple random motion can set up the oscillations. You need wheels up front that guide the locomotive back to its center position as soon as it tries to rotate sideways, and that help pull the front end to the side when negotiating a curve. Switch engines waddle down the tracks.

By mid-19th Century, the standard locomotive was the ten-wheeler, with six driving wheels, four pilot wheels and no trailing wheels. It struck a good balance of weight between the pilot wheels and the drivers.

Baltimore and Ohio 1907 Ten-Wheeler
Baltimore and Ohio 1907 Ten-Wheeler


The middle number or pair of numbers refers to the driving wheels, or “drivers.” These are the big wheels driven by the pistons that provide the traction to pull a train of cars. They carry as much of the locomotive’s weight as possible, because the pull of a locomotive is about one-fourth the weight on the drivers. The weight on each pair of drivers is in turn limited by the weight-bearing capacity of the rails and roadbed.

You can’t indefinitely add driving wheels, because the locomotive has to negotiate curves, especially at track switches. Three ways were used to extend the wheelbase: make the flanges of the inner wheels a little narrower than the rail gauge; allow the front and rear drivers to move a small amount from side to side (typically held in the center by springs); and/or eliminate the flanges on the middle drivers. The practical limit of the wheelbase is typically about 25 feet. But there were exceptions, like the Union Pacific 9000 class 4-12-2. It worked in the prairies, where the turning radii were large, but not on the mountain routes.

Union Pacific 4-12-2
Union Pacific 4-12-2

To extend the wheelbase, you could use several smaller wheels or fewer larger ones. Locomotives with five or six drivers on each side were made, but they were rare: four on each side became standard in the latter days of steam power, each typically six feet in diameter. The largest locomotives, such as the 4-8-8-2 cab-forward articulateds on the SP the so impressed me as a child, have two complete sets of driving wheels, one of which pivots relative to the other (hence the term “articulated”), thereby doubling the wheelbase.

With more drivers, the weight of the rods connecting the wheels to the piston and to each other limits the maximum speed of the locomotive. That is why the fastest trains used locomotives with only four drivers. The 4-4-2 “Atlantic” locomotives used by the New York, New Haven and Hartford between New York and Boston, was scheduled to reach speeds exceeding 100 mph. It made the trip in about the same time as today’s Amtrak trains. Other locomotives could go this fast, but were not operated at maximum speed.

New York, New Haven and Hartford 4-4-2 "Atlantic" type
New York, New Haven and Hartford 4-4-2 “Atlantic” type

Trailing Wheels

Early locomotives had a narrow firebox that fit between the drivers, so it didn’t need trailing wheels. An older freight locomotive might have four pairs of small drivers and a pair of pilot wheels, creating a 2-8-0 wheel configuration called a Consolidation, like the little engine that hauled my mother and me from Aberdeen to Council Bluffs that stormy night I described in an earlier essay. The Ten-Wheeler (shown earlier) had four pilot wheels and six larger drivers for higher speeds, and like the Consolidation, no trailing wheels.

The power of a steam locomotive also depends on how much heat can be produced in the firebox, which in turn depends on the area of the fire in the firebox. Increasing the area of the firebox made it too wide to fit between the drivers, requiring a trailing truck to carry its weight (see the 4-4-2 Atlantic, above).

Here is another tradeoff, this time between traction and power. The more weight carried by the trailing truck, the less weight on the drivers. The first trailing trucks had two wheels, with four becoming standard in later locomotives. On most locomotives, the firebox was set entirely behind the drivers, but on articulated locomotives, the firebox typically extended over the rear-most drivers – a result of the longer boiler and commensurately larger firebox.

Southern Pacific cab-forward 4-8-8-2
Southern Pacific cab-forward 4-8-8-2

To pull trains over the Sierras, a route with many tunnels and snowsheds, a crew would have to wear gas masks to avoid being asphyxiated by the locomotive’s smoke. This problem was eliminated by turning the locomotive around. The distinctive 4-8-8-2 cab-forward design was possible because they burned oil (which could be piped to the front). The 4-wheeled truck under the firebox now became the pilot truck.

Understanding the basics of wheel classification can tell you a lot about the age, purpose and power of a steam locomotive.