The Roughometer Readings of 1936

1936 was not only the year that Jesse Owens won his four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, it was also the year that King Edward VII abdicated so that he could marry Wallis Simpson, and that England beat the All Blacks for the first time at Twickenham (13-0).

My maternal grandfather was 53 years old and about to see the beginning of yet another World War, after surviving four years in the trenches of Belgium from 1914-18.

While these events are the background of international and personal stories, roading must have figured in all these people’s lives. We know for example, that some considered that Ashburton’s roads were excellent in comparison with neighbouring counties of the time, yet for others, road conditions were more concerning.

1-a-letter-to-the-editor-from-a-disgruntled-farmer-complaining-about-the-state-of-the-roads-from-the-ashburton-guardian-november-2-1898-p3.png

An anonymous letter of complaint to the Ashburton Guardian editor, published on November 2, 1898 and modestly titled “Bad Roads”, described the extra pain received by a patient as a result of the state of an (unspecified) road when being transported by ‘cab’ to the Ashburton hospital.

2. Advertisement in The Press May 8, 1935 showing the Vauxhall Six model that was most likely to have been used for the roughometer tests, for sale at $35,24

First motorcars

In 1898, two Benz vehicles were the first motorcars imported into New Zealand, brought from Paris by William McLean MP. Rules specified that this new technology was to be lit at night and was not allowed to go faster than 19km/h, so the anonymous letter writer presumably refers to a horse drawn cab rather than to these new motorised monsters. It is likely, however, that complaints about ‘roading’ have been around ever since people unwittingly followed the first animal tracks over the edge of a cliff, or similar.

One of the many treasures held in Ashburton Museum’s archive map collection are a couple of graphs or charts showing the ‘roughness’ of the road from Picton to Bluff in 1936. Something of an irony given New Zealand’s frequent earthquakes.

4. Blueprint roughometer readings, probably in number of bumps per mile, for the Christchurch to Dunedin section of SH1 in 1936.

Until I saw this graph, I had never heard of a ‘roughometer’. Today’s roughometers are sophisticated technology designed for measuring various sorts of pavement, such as the surface condition of a road. This is often measured in the amount of movement of a vehicle’s axle in mm/km but in the 1930s it was measured in inches per mile travelled.

An article published in the Evening Post of October 8, 1931, explains in detail how two newly purchased roughometers worked. These may well have been used to produce the graphs shown. In essence, a vertical rod was attached to the front axle of a ‘standardised’ vehicle, the rod of which moved up and down every time a road bump was encountered. Then the number of bumps were counted and recorded.

Road roughness is clearly related to comfort, and all the associated costs of vehicle maintenance, road repairs and so forth. Today, the ‘fifth wheel bump integrator’, that uses sensitive accelerometers, is the name of just one of the sophisticated devices that does this measuring. Clearly, measuring road bumps is not as simple as it was in 1898 or even 1936.

The Museum’s roughometer graphs show, that in 1936, at a speed of 20mph in a Vauxhall Six, the Rakaia River Bridge was not for the faint hearted – it was (disputably) the bumpiest part of the road between Picton and Bluff. Interestingly, all the bridges were bumpy. But at least the use of the latest motor vehicle of the day would have ensure that the vehicle springs were greased before measurements were taken and that tyre pressures were standardised.

3. The Rakaia Bridge was the roughest section of road between Picton and Bluff in 1936 as seen in this graph.

How rough is rough?

So, how rough is rough? No doubt, this will always be a subjective measure for many people. While the needs for transporting a patient to hospital on a bumpy journey are different to those for a keen mountain biker riding for a thrill, I wonder whether today’s road roughness travelling at 100 km/h, is the same as the bumps travelled at 20mph in a 1936 Vauxhall Six, or at 5km/h in an 1898 horse drawn cab?

By Glenn Vallender

Images:

  1. Two women out driving in a car on Ashburton roads, early 1900s. Effie Totty is on the left. ©Ashburton Museum.
  2. A letter to the editor from a disgruntled farmer complaining about the state of the roads, from the Ashburton Guardian, November 2, 1898, p3.
  3. Advertisement in The Press May 8, 1935 showing the Vauxhall Six model that was most likely to have been used for the roughometer tests, for sale at $35,242.00 in today’s money, without a roughomenter.
  4. Blueprint roughometer readings, probably in number of bumps per mile, for the Christchurch to Dunedin section of SH1 in 1936. The average is about 80 bumps per mile (1.6Km). Incidentally, the blueprint (Cyanotype) was invented in 1842 by John Herschel. ©Ashburton Museum.
  5. The Rakaia Bridge was the roughest section of road between Picton and Bluff in 1936 as seen in this graph. ©Ashburton Museum.

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