Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The dangers of link and pin couplers

From: "Wendell Huffman" wwhuffma@clan.lib.nv.us

Something I overheard the other day prompted me to wonder what we really know about the dangers of link and pin couplers.

We've all no doubt heard the story about railroad superintendents asking to see the hands of prospective brakeman, with the punch line that the number of missing fingers revealed their work experience. As we've all no doubt come to realize, many of the stories we hear about the past are false-perhaps invented to make a good point, but not actually true. So, what do we really know about this?

In my years of reading old newspapers looking for stories relating to the railroads and railroaders, I don't recall a single story about smashed hands or fingers. True, this may only mean it was so commonplace that it didn't merit reporting. (Though I do recall a newspaper story about fingers cut off in a sawmill.) But there are countless stories in the press about brakemen and switchmen being run over and maimed (or killed). A story from my family tree is of an ancestor who served in the Civil War without a scratch and subsequently lost his foot the first week he worked for the Wabash-a foot, not a finger.

It seems to me the ancient railroaders were as smart (or smarter) as their modern counterparts. And brakemen were generally armed with a club-for adding leverage to the brake wheel. The only time I ever coupled a link pin coupler I used my club to hold the link-and I'd think the real brakemen would have done the same. (And you could always hold it with the pin itself).

I wonder if the real issue with link and pins was with uncoupling, not coupling-trying to uncouple a moving train so as to kick a car off into a siding. What I overheard (and I don't know that it is true) is that one of the first improvements with the link and pin was a lever to lift the pin-specifically to make it easier to uncouple a moving train. If true, that would imply that brakemen were indeed trying to uncouple moving cars. Scampering along the ties between moving cars-especially if there was the added complication of a switch nearby-while reaching to pull a pin would have been a significant danger.

Anyway, I ask if any of you have really seen evidence of the smashed finger(s) and what can be offered about the facts in the matter.

Wendell W. Huffman
Curator of History
Nevada State Railroad Museum
2180 South Carson Street
Carson City, NV 89701
(775) 687-8291 v
(775) 687-8294 f

24 Comments:

Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: Bob_Spude@nps.gov

Wendell Are you just looking for smashed fingers stories? During the preparations for the May 10 ceremony Durant's director's car mashed a brakeman inbetween it and a coach, ending his career (the brakeman's not Durant's). There are other tales: the brakeman who fell off the roof on the Promontory and was crushed by the wheels of a car; the conductor who threw a bum off the car then leaned out to his detriment when a bridge beam coming the other direction ended his (the conductor's) career, and on. This was dangerous work.

Bob Spude – Historian – Cultural Resources Management – National Park Service – Intermountain Region – 505.988.6770 Voice – 505.988.6876 Fax

The National Park Service cares for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage.

7/11/2006 7:18 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman" wwhuffma@clan.lib.nv.us

Yes, exactly. I am looking for smashed finger stories. Only one of your stories is (apparently) a coupling story, and it is a smashed body story, not a smashed finger story.

—Wendell

7/11/2006 7:18 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

If loss of fingers was actually commonly occurring when coupling or uncoupling using the link and pin design, it would seem like the immediate result would be lots of inventions of tools to hold the pin and/or link in place to avoid the danger. Were there such tools? If the problem was real, the patent literature should be a fertile source of information about the problem and apparatus invented to allow safer link and pin coupling and uncoupling.

Do any of the later patents for coupler designs to replace link and pin couplers cite avoiding finger crush injuries or amputations as a benefit of the new invention?

For example, Eli H. Janney's 1873 U.S. Patent #138,405 for "Improvement of Car Couplings" does not cited prevention of injuries as an advantage. Perhaps someone familiar with 19th century patent law and practice can comment as to whether prevention of injuries would be expected to be cited to show usefulness and/or non-obviousness. It certainly would be in a modern patent.

7/11/2006 7:19 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves" caliron@cwnet.com

Challenge was, links broke, usually on the bended end. Most of the links I find are broken on the bended end, and nearby, from time to time, one can find the rest of the car – link pocket, draw bar, trucks, iron, etc. Never have found a finger.

—Chris Graves

7/11/2006 7:19 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Kevin Bunker" mikadobear45@yahoo.com

The irony involving knuckle couplers like Janneys or MCBs (or later derivations) is that it is/was entirely possible for a careless crew member to lose a hand or suffer a grievous injury by having a hand in the way of knuckle couplers about to join. This usually happens when someone's positioning a knuckle that hasn't fully opened or pushing a whole coupler one way or the other toward center as the approaching car or locomotive is too close for a safe exit.

—KVB

7/11/2006 10:02 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: KyleWyatt@aol.com

When I was reading 1870s Monterey newspapers about the Monterey & Salinas Valley RR there were more than a couple of articles about mashed fingers and hands in coupling accidents (although off hand I don't recall any lost appendages, much less lives). This might be because railroading was new to what was by this time a small backwater town. One prints the news one finds, I suppose.

One article was the inspiration for one of the new maniquins in the California State Railroad Museum, a brakeman coupling the Monterey & Salinas Valley combine to the locomotive Sonoma (of the North Pacific Coast - but the M&SV had a similar one). The article recounted how "Panama Jim the Modoc brakeman" had his fingers mashed in coupling. Lest you think it is just brakemen, there were a couple of instances where the M&SV conductor suffered the same injury. the injuries were generally described as painful, and the injured party might (or might not) be off for a couple of days. Keep in mind this is narrow gauge equipment, smaller and lighter than standard gauge.

As to link & pin couplers with lift levers, I know the Sams coupler (patent #494,941) had such levers, at least as applied on the Carson & Colorado and the Virginia & Truckee. However the patent papers do not illustrate it. The feature that IS illustrated is how the coupler is designed for automatic coupling, with the coupler pocket and pin shaped to hold a link up to slide into an opposing coupler pocket, and the coupler head and pin designed so the opposing pin can be set in an open position, and dropped into place by the jar of coupling. This suggests that coupling was indeed the biggest concern.

As to patent descriptions, they are mechanical descriptions of operating parts and characteristics, not sales tools. Safety is not a patentable feature. It does not surprise me that the safety aspect are not listed.

In addition to patent #138,405, other some Janey patents are: #156,024; #212,703; and #254,093

Other patents of California interest include:
#98,058 by Albert S. Hart of San Francisco in 1869
#353,519 by Alban N. Towne of San Francisco (and the CP) in 1886
#427,758 by Simeon Jasper Ford of Placerville in 1890
#518,140 by Ford again in 1894.

A coupler I'd like to learn more about - and hopefully find a patent for - is the Potter drawhead - see attached from the 1884-1888 Car Builder's Dictionary - with a bit of added captioning. This coupler was used by the CP & SP, the CM&StP, the CB&Q, probably the C&NW, and perhaps more. It's operation is better illustrated by the upper engraving (which also matches the style used by CP & SP). The coupler had a fixed link on one side and a normal pin on the other, so a fixed link would mate with a normal pin on the facing coupler. To couple the cars could be pushed together and the two fixed links could be swung into place via the side openings. Not only was this far safer, it also gave two links in the coupling for more strength. When faced with a normal link-pin coupler, there was a pocket in the center for normal coupling. This coupler was common in the early-mid 1880s, and is shown on several contemporary Central Pacific car drawings such as the combination box car and the flat car in the National Car Builder.

—Kyle

7/12/2006 9:15 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman" wendellhuffman@hotmail.com

Thanks for the comments.

I'm not trying to make a case one way or the other; just asking about the evidence – and seeing some for the traditional view.

—Wendell

7/12/2006 9:19 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: Bob_Spude@nps.gov

I did a quick check of 1869 Corinne newspaper notes last night. There is plenty of mention of accidents but no detailed description of a lost appendage. My gut feeling, did it happen, yes, was it newsworthy maybe on a slow news day. And, of course, those slow news day newspaper issues are no longer extant.

A scan of Wyoming newspapers might enlighten since Wyoming was one of the first to pass liability laws – forcing the UP to pay workers injured on the job.

—Bob Spude – Historian – Cultural Resources Management – National Park Service – Intermountain Region – 505.988.6770 Voice – 505.988.6876 Fax

The National Park Service cares for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage.

7/12/2006 9:21 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Safety would be cited in a patent as an advantage of the invention in order to fulfill the legal requirement for "usefulness."

As the U.S. Patent Office explains, "What Can Be Patented: The patent law specifies the general field of subject matter that can be patented and the conditions under which a patent may be obtained. In the language of the statute, any person who 'invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent,' subject to the conditions and requirements of the law. ... The patent law specifies that the subject matter must be 'useful.' The term 'useful in this connection refers to the condition that the subject matter has a useful purpose and also includes operativeness, that is, a machine which will not operate to perform the intended purpose would not be called useful, and therefore would not be granted a patent."

Here are examples of more than 3,000 railroad patents that cite "safety."

7/12/2006 9:42 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

[The above is not legal advice, for which you would need to seek the services of a qualified patent attorney.]

7/12/2006 9:56 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Larry Mullaly" lmullaly@jeffnet.org

Last fall I copied a twelve-page report at the National Archives in Washington DC entitled: "Central Pacific RR Branches and Leased Lines: Statement of each casualty within the State of California resulting in injuries to persons and the extent thereof, from January 1 to December 31" for the year 1878. Focusing only on injury or death sustained by CP employees the following picture emerges:


Injuries

Total number of Central Pacific employees injured 99 100%
Injuries caused by coupling cars 36 36%
Hand injuries ranging from
crushed hands to amputated fingers 26 26%


Deaths
CP employees killed 14 100%
CP employees killed while coupling 2 14%


Cause of accident and extent of injuries attributed to coupling cars:

Coupling cars: hands slightly injured
Coupling cars: fingers slightly injured
Coupling cars: hand crushed
Coupling cars: finger slightly injured
Coupling cars: finger broken
Coupling cars: arm and hand injured
Coupling cars: chest injured
Coupling cars: finger amputated
Coupling cars: head slightly injured
Coupling cars: instantly killed
Coupling cars: thumb injured
Coupling cars: hand crushed
Coupling cars: finger slightly crushed
Coupling cars: thumb slightly crushed
Coupling cars: fingers slightly injured
Coupling cars: thumb slightly injured
Coupling cars: fingers of left hand bruised
Coupling cars: fingers crushed
Coupling cars: foot slightly bruised
Coupling cars: thumb fractured
Coupling cars: slight bodily injuries
Coupling cars: fingers slightly injured
Coupling cars: thumb slightly injured
Coupling cars: head slightly injured
Coupling cars: finger amputated
Coupling cars: fatally injured
Coupling cars: two fingers amputated
Coupling cars: fingers slightly injured
Coupling cars: back slightly bruised
Coupling cars: head slightly bruised
Coupling cars: side slightly bruised
Coupling cars: thumb bruised slightly
Coupling cars: hand crushed
Coupling cars: finger slightly bruised
Coupling cars: leg severely bruised

Thanks to my wife Alice who tabulated this material. There is other interesting material on these lists regarding passengers and trespassers, but that is another story ...

—Larry Mullaly

7/12/2006 10:20 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman" wwhuffma@clan.lib.nv.us

Clearly Larry is on the right track toward getting real numbers. With his lead and Randy's suggestion I turned to my copy of the 1887 California RR Commissioners. For the SP/CP, and for 1887 only, there were 462 accidents. 85 were coupling, of which 65 involved hands or fingers. I suspect "coupling" accidents means just what it says – i.e. it does not include uncoupling accidents. I say that because there was one accident called specifically an "uncoupling" accident, and a handful of fell between cars which may have been uncoupling accidents. So, I am confident that in this case, the traditional story of maimed hands is based on fact. Someday when I have the time I will gather all the California accidents for that year (including the other railroads) and divide them all up to see whether there was any one class of accident (by nature of event) which had greater incidents than coupling accidents.

—Wendell

7/13/2006 1:21 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Were link and pin couplers still being used on the SP/CP in 1887? What coupler designs were used at various dates for SP/CP passenger and freight cars?

7/13/2006 1:33 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman" wendellhuffman@hotmail.com

Kyle might have better information, but my impression from by newspaper research is that the CP – and presumably SP – began trying various automatic couplers on their freight cars in the mid 1880s, but there were link and pins well into the 1890s. They did have Miller platforms/couplers on their passenger cars before the mid 1880s. Interestingly, there were a few "automatic coupling" accidents in that 1887 list. That suggests that they were distinguishing accidents using the automatic couplers from the others – and that therefore the others were most likely link and pin.

—Wendell

7/13/2006 6:48 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: KyleWyatt@aol.com

I don't believe the CP and SP switched to knuckle (Janney-type) couplers until forced to by the Safety Appliance Act in the mid-late 1890s. A quick survey of freight car diagrams from two of Tony Thompson's recent SP freight car books turns up some interesting details. Most of the diagrams were drawn in 1894-1895. In the samples I reviewed, the first knuckle coupler turns up in January 1895 (on a proposed new car to be rebuilt from an older car), but as late as November 1895 many older cars are still being drawin with link-pin couplers.

Since Miller hook couplers were considered automatic couplers under the federal law, I think conversion of passenger cars was even later. I note a November 1895 drawing of a passenger fruit car included Miller platforms and couplers.

—Kyle

7/14/2006 6:38 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: KyleWyatt@aol.com

As I recall, CP started using Miller hook couplers and Westinghouse straight air brakes on passenger equipment in the early 1870s (1872-73?). Partly this was a response to competition – the Califonria Pacific (before being swallowed by the CP) was running fancier cars with air brakes and Millers and showing up the CP.

Automatic air brakes, which started being applied to freight cars in the early 1880s, created their own stresses on couplers from buffing action when car brakes applied at different rates and pressures. Then there was the conversion to quick action brakes in 1889-90. SP wrote to Westinghouse complaining about trains of mixed cars with quick action and plain triple valves breaking in two and asked for a solution. The Westinghouse reply – convert everything to quick action.

—Kyle

7/14/2006 6:44 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "John White" jwengine@hotmail.com

The classic mashed finger story was related by Lorenzo Coffin, I am sure I used it in my Passenger Car or Freight Car books, more recently in Invention & Technology Winter 2006 P. 54. Coffin became obsessed with intro safety couplers and succeeded after years of work. Not sure just when the story first appeared. Check R R G weekly accident reports for other examples.

—Jack

7/16/2006 5:58 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

"The Strongest Handshake in the World" by John H. White, Jr.
Invention and Technology Magazine Winter 2006, Volume 21, Issue 3.

7/16/2006 6:03 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

The February, 1881 CP/UP timetable/map boasts of using "the Miller Platform and the Westinghouse Patent Air Brake."

"Five Hundred Miles the Shortest Route. Twenty-four Hours Quickest Time. Secure Speed, Comfort and Safety by taking the Union and Central Pacific Line, which runs the Miller Platform and the Westinghouse Patent Air Brake giving the Engineer instant control of the Train, and is the most perfect protection against accident ever invented."

7/16/2006 8:52 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: KyleWyatt@aol.com

Central Pacific started using Miller platforms and hook couplers, and Westinghouse straight air brakes, on passenger cars in the early 1870s (1872-73?). Virginia & Truckee followed suite by 1875.

—Kyle

7/17/2006 6:35 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Kevin Bunker" mikadobear45@yahoo.com

Hmmmm, I had not noticed the Potter 3-link drawhead before, especially in relation to the CP/SP. Looking hard at the diagram you provided, I can only imagine the beating the interior side of the two links might have taken against the outer vertical and somewhat sharp edges of the pocket as the couplings swung laterally while the cars were transiting sharper curves. While I undertand that the drawhead itself was free to swing back and forth on its axis draft pin, there would still be some restriction. Interesting, too, that the drawhead tongue was not sprung in any way. Because I've paid very little attention to the technological aspects of link-and-pin draft gear, how rare or common was it to have spring-loaded draft stems in the numerous designs in popular use throughout the nation?

I'm wondering what the railway mechanical press had to say about these Potter affairs, again as to the successes or failures.

—KVB

7/18/2006 1:40 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Kevin Bunker" mikadobear45@yahoo.com

Hmmmm, I had not noticed the Potter 3-link drawhead before, especially in relation to the CP/SP. Looking hard at the diagram you provided, I can only imagine the beating the interior side of the two links might have taken against the outer vertical and somewhat sharp edges of the pocket as the couplings swung laterally while the cars were transiting sharper curves. While I undertand that the drawhead itself was free to swing back and forth on its axis draft pin, there would still be some restriction. Interesting, too, that the drawhead tongue was not sprung in any way. Because I've paid very little attention to the technological aspects of link-and-pin draft gear, how rare or common was it to have spring-loaded draft stems in the numerous designs in popular use throughout the nation?

I'm wondering what the railway mechanical press had to say about these Potter affairs, again as to the successes or failures.

—KVB

7/18/2006 1:40 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "John White" jwengine@hotmail.com

There is a fair amount of data on the Potter coupler in my freight car book (p. 491) that includes a drawing found at the Maine Historical Society and the patent information.

—Jack

7/18/2006 1:44 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: kwyatt@parks.ca.gov

So the Potter drawhead is patent #29,815, in 1860. That's actually rather earlier than I had anticipated. Many thanks, Jack, for the reference.

I note Wilson, Walker & Co. of Pittsburgh made a wrought iron version used by the Central Pacific, per an 1880 catalog of the company at the De Golyer library. Sure would be nice to see the catalog page.

—Kyle K. Wyatt

7/18/2006 1:46 PM  

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