Steam Locomotive Driver Wheel Types

Steam Locomotive Drive Wheels

As with any component of a steam locomotive, the design of the driving wheels changed over the years as a result of advancements in technology. Obviously, the main purpose of the driving wheels of a steam locomotive is to support the weight of the locomotive and transfer linear force from the pistons into rotational force applied to the rails. However, there are many other important aspects of steam locomotive driving wheels that may not be immediately obvious. For example:

  • The drivers must include counterbalancing to offset the weight of the side rods.
  • The diameter of the drivers affect the locomotives top speed and pulling ability. The driver diameter is used in the equation for tractive effort.
  • The drivers are made of a "wheel" and a "tire". The inner wheel was cast out of steel and outer tire wears out and must be replaced periodially.
  • Most drivers have flanges. Some drivers, called "blind" drivers do not. Blind drivers may be used on locomotives with very long, ridig wheelbases.
  • A driver experiences tremendous amounts of both torsional and lateral force. If a driver developed cracks, it was usually the main driver to which the piston rods were attached.

Pretty much from the beginning of steam locomotives, the drivers were cast with solid spokes connecting the inner hub to the outer rim. A "tire" of stronger steel was heated and press-fitted onto the outer rim of the wheel.

Toward the end of steam, newer technologies were used to construct the inner portion of the driver wheels. The main reasons for the change in technology were to strengthen the driver and to provide better counterbalancing of the main rods. Both of these issues were addressed using "disc drivers" instead of spoked drivers. There were four types of disc driving wheels for steam locomotves. Each was made by a different company and each varied slightly from the others in their appearance. The four types were:

  • Boxpok Disc Drivers
    • Manufactured by General Steel Castings of Granite City, IL
    • Patent numbers US1960039 and US2042160
  • Scullin Disc Drivers
    • Manufactured by Scullin Steel of St. Louis, MO
    • Patent number US2177693
  • Baldwin Disc Drivers
    • Manufactured by Baldwin of Eddystone, PA
    • Patent numbers US2065217 and US2065217
  • Universal Disc Drivers
    • Manufactured by LFM (Locomotive Furnished Metals)

Oddly, as locomotives were shopped and had their wheels upgraded to disc drivers, the new disc drive wheels were not always applied to all of the wheels of a locomotive at the same time. A photographer named Eilenberger recorded Grand Trunk Western locomotive No. 6039 (a Mountain) at Elsdon engine terminal in March 1939 with boxpok drivers only on the second driver axle, while on September 21, 1941, it had the boxpok drivers on at least the second and third axles (and possibly the first, which is obscured in the photograph), but not on the fourth.

Mixed Driver Photos

Spoked Drivers

C&O 1601 Driver. 2018 Wes Barris photo.

Traditional drivers of steam locomotives were cast as a spoked wheel. This design was strong and functional. Counterweighting was added to compensate for the weight of the connecting and main rods. As you can see in the photo, large, heavy rods required a large counterweight. This design successfully served its purpose for most of the steam era.


Boxpok Drivers

Boxpok Type A Disc Driver (center axle).
Boxpok Type B Disc Driver on UP 4014. Photo by Wes Barris.

The word "Boxpok" is actually a shortened combination of two words: "Box" and "Spoke" or "Box-Spoke" and was a proprietary name for the General Steel Castings design. However, I'm not sure the words "box" or "spoke" were ever actually used to describe a "Boxpok" driver. This type driver had fewer "spokes" than conventional locomotive wheels and were construction out of box-like sections. The design proved to have greatly improved lateral strength and rim stiffness. Viewed from the side, the opening between the spokes was egg-shaped, rather than wedge-shaped. Being hollow made it easier to apply counterbalancing. Apart from the egg-shaped holes, the outer surface was smooth with no lips or raised edges.

The earlier, Type-A Boxpok wheels had a fewer number of larger holes. The later, Type-B Boxpok wheels had more, smaller holes.

The boxpok drivers proved an important modification in high-speed service. Many railroads employed Boxpok disc drivers during the 1930s and 1940s including the Union Pacific on their Big Boys.


Scullin Disc Drivers

Scullin Disc Driver

Scullin disc drivers were introduced in 1932 which preceeded the Boxpok design. Scullin drivers were lighter than Boxpok drivers and as a result were easier on the tracks. They had a much lower mass than traditional spoke-and-rim castings. They are easily identified by their small round holes. They also had fewer holes than traditional Boxpok Disc Drivers. They were used primarily on NYC streamlined Hudsons.

  • Streamlined NYC Hudsons
  • One class of SLSF Mountains 4300s and half of 4400s, 1522?
  • One class of NYC Mountains


Baldwin Disc Drivers

SLSF Northern 4501. Frisco, TX Wes Barris photo.

Baldwin Disc Drivers looked very similar to Boxpok Disc Drivers. The most obvious visual difference are:

  • The raised lip around the egg-shaped holes of the driver
  • The inset part of the casting between the holes


Universal Disc Drivers

Universal Disc Driver, AT&SF 3415. Photo by John Bush.

The Universal type of disc drives were rare. If this design was used it was when a locomotive was rebuilt. The Universal Disc Driver had larger, more triangular shaped holes than the other types of disc drivers.


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