The Traveler: A Basic Measuring Tool

Last Updated 1/31/2024

By Jubilee P. Reid

Mounted on the Timeline Wall at the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum is an iron tool consisting of a wheel attached to a handle. This device is called a “traveler” and was used mainly by wheelwrights. The wheel is 8 inches in diameter and measures 9 inches from the center to the end of the handle. It has markings every eighth inch of its 24-inch circumference, with five curved spokes and a rotating arrow indicator to count the number of revolutions. This tool has many names including wheel race, tyre runner, follower, tracing wheel, and various spellings of traveler. Not all travelers have inch markings as that is not necessary for their use. They can be made from wood, brass, or iron.

Travelers have been used since early times for measuring purposes such as determining the circumference of barrels, wheels, and trees. Wheelwrights used this tool for measuring wagon wheels to calculate the correct length of iron for the tire. Many wheelwrights would make their own basic travelers without inch markings or a rotating hand. Factory-produced cast iron travelers were often more detailed. Travelers, in varying forms, are still used today. A surveyors’ wheel for measuring distance is essentially the same device.

This traveler was manufactured by the Wiley & Russell Manufacturing Co. and was marketed as “The Green River Tire Wheel.” Drawings of this traveler appear in woodworking dictionaries.

The Wiley & Russell Manufacturing Co. of Greenfield, Massachusetts was established on April 1, 1872 by Solon Lysander Wiley (1840 – 1926) and Charles Pickney Russell Jr. (1840 – 1923) for the purpose of manufacturing equipment for wheelwrights, farriers, and blacksmiths. They also produced a large amount of tap and die equipment for the thread-cutting industry which makes threads for screws. The company operated for 40 years until April 2, 1912 when they merged with Wells Brothers & Co. to form Greenfield Tap & Die which became the largest tap and die company in the United States.

The Russell family was prominent in the development of Greenfield, Massachusetts and was involved in national politics and many business ventures. Charles Russell’s uncle, John Russell, founded the first cutlery business in the United States, said to be the largest in the world, and he produced the well-known Green River Knives. The John Russell Cutlery Company relocated in 1870, and Wiley & Russell Manufacturing Co. operated from their vacated shops. Solon Wiley was a mechanic and a Union veteran of the American Civil War; he served for 11 months as a corporal in Company A of the 52nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry before returning to the town of Greenfield.

The Green River, a tributary of the Deerfield River, was an important part of Greenfield’s industry as it provided hydropower for the mills. “Green River” was used in the names of many pieces of equipment manufactured there.

The museum’s traveler is worn and chipped, likely having seen much use before being donated to the museum. Travelers were a fundamental instrument in the wheelmaking industry; the principle on which they function is foundational to many tools of today.

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