Steel Tape

Back Home Next

Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


Worcester Telegram, February 7, 1915

The fact that Worcester and the immediate vicinity is the birthplace of the sewing machine, labeling machine, and many other necessary inventions, is known to everyone living in the Heart of the commonwealth, but there are many smaller articles which, though unheard of, hold high positions in their respective industries.  Among these is the steel tape used by surveyors and civil engineers.  The first practical steel tape was perfected by Daniel M. Wheeler, Worcester, in 1870.

Steel tape has probably been used for surveying purposes more than 100 years, but it never was of stable composition and wore out soon, previous to 1870.  In the early part of 1870, a long strip of hoopskirt wire was marked off for measuring bridge spans.  The graduations on this tape were scratched on with a nail and the marks were soon made indistinct by wear.  Later in the same year Mr. Wheeler obtained some hoopskirt steel from the Washburn-Moen Co. and put a drop of solder at each foot marking the graduations on this solder.  The tape was 100 feet long.

An engineering magazine, published in New York, recently printed an interview with L. A. Nichols, president of the Chicago Steel Tape Co., in which Mr. Nichols said:

"Mr. Wheeler has such satisfactory experience with his tape, he had several made, and I, being one of Mr. Wheeler's party, made some myself.  The tapes were crude and the graduations were marked on the solder run on the steel.  The tapes, so are as my knowledge goes, were the first tapes ever made with graduations marked on solder or babbitt material run on the steel."

"Since that time I have used the tape in preference to chains and, upon hearing favorable comment from other engineers, I concluded it was a worthy article of commerce.  In 1900 I advertised to manufacture this tape and place it on the market, although as far back as 1880 I had made a few and sold them to my brother engineers.  After I announced that I was about to manufacture the tapes, in 1900, the name was changed to 'Chicago Steel Tape'."

"Prior to this, however, if the word steel could be considered in the light of any preparation of bronze and iron, I believe I have read somewhere in a translation of some foreign work, that a standard measure made of metal was used in the construction of the Roman aqueducts."

To The Telegram, Mr. Nichols said:  "I graduated from Massachusetts agricultural college in the pioneer class of 1871, and in the early spring, I thing it was in February, I obtained a position as leveler in the party of which Mr. Wheeler was the leader.  The party was working on the construction of the Massachusetts Central railroad from Hudson to Rutland.  After I had been with the party about four months, Mr. Wheeler resigned and I was promoted to take his place at the head of the party."

"Mr. Wheeler at that time was a resident of Worcester and had a local business in that city, and when he resigned he went back to resume his business.  When I joined Mr. Wheeler's party they were using the first steel tape I had ever seen, that is, the first steel tape with the graduations marked on solder run on the steel.  It made an excellent substitute for the chain, and I became an immediate convert to it in preference to the chain."

"As soon as Mr. Wheeler left and I assumed his duties, I went through the same processes, under his direction.  I went to the Washburn-Moen mills and obtained some hoopskirt wire an made some other tapes for my personal use.  I was so enraptured with the advantages of these tapes for use in field work that I afterward made a number for my own use, and in the year 1900 I financed a company to start making these tapes and selling them.  I have since developed a large business in the line in connection with other surveyors' accessories.  The steel tape was first put on the market by the Chicago Steel Tape Co."

According to the city directory of 1870, Mr. Wheeler lived on Mulberry Street.  He removed to a house on Prescott Street in 1875, and in 1882 he left Worcester for parts unknown.  Mr. Wheeler was in business with Albert C. Buttrick, who died last spring.  Mr. Buttrick lived at 52 May Street.



Back Home Next