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2016-05-27 11:32

CELEBRATING ODOMETER DAY: A look at the insides of a 1949 Ford instrument cluster's components. Image: Ford

Pretoria – The humble odometer, often taken for granted, is a device that measures the distance travelled by your car. Every kilometre is clocked – every family holiday, every road-trip, the work commute, the school run, every single journey you have taken - which is why it is no surprise that this simple, standard device has its own celebration in May each year.

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The modern odometer was developed by Mormon pioneers William Clayton and Orson Pratt. They developed a system of wooden cog wheels attached to the wheel of their wagon that counted off quarter-miles, half-miles, and whole miles. Their invention was dubbed the “roadometer” and was used for the first time on 12 May 1847.

Odometer history timeline

While Clayton and Pratt are credited for inventing the modern odometer, its development began centuries before. The earliest record of a mechanism for measuring distance travelled, dates back to 15BC – making the odometer’s history a long one.

A 1969 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 instrument cluster. Image: Ford

  • 15BC – Vitruvius, a Roman architect, described a machine for measuring distance. A wheel of known circumference was mounted to a frame. When the frame was pushed a small pebble would drop in a container after every full revolution, measuring the distance. This invention may date back to Archimedes, some 250 years before.
  • 78AD-139AD – The odometer was also independently invented in ancient China by Zhang Heng, who also invented the seismograph for measuring earthquakes.
  • 1628 – Thomas Savery, the inventor of the modern steam engine, invented an odometer for ships. 
  • 1645 – Blaise Pascal invented the pascaline, a mechanical calculator that used the same mechanical principals found in modern odometers. 
  • 1775 – One of the founding fathers of the United States, famed inventor Benjamin Franklin developed a simple odometer in order to analyse the best routes for delivering mail. 
  • 1847 – William Clayton and Orson Pratt developed the modern odometer. They called it the Roadometer.
  • 1903 – The first odometer for automobiles was developed by brothers Arthur and Charles Warner, and was patented as the Auto-Meter.
  • 1920s – Stewart-Warner odometers were standard on the majority of cars made in the United States.
  • 1970s – Digital odometer displays were used for the first time. 

The digital odometer in Ford's Ranger Wildtrak bakkie. Image: Ford

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Ford odometer records

Ford super-users have been known to log some impressive numbers on their odometers. Recently an N3TC route patrol Ford, which responds to road accidents, emergencies and vehicle breakdowns on a 428km stretch on the N3 highway, reached the 1-million kilometre milestone.

In 2010, driver Phil Marsella set an incredible record when his Ford F-250 clocked 1.6-million kilometres in just four years after driving off the showroom floor. Marsella racked up the distance by transporting Greyhound race dogs across America. To put his record into perspective, imagine driving from Johannesburg to Durban and back, every day for four straight years.

We use the odometer to determine fuel efficiency, to measure how far we have travelled and to calculate how far we still need to go on those long road-trips.

So on the 169th anniversary of the modern odometer this May, remember this simple, trusty little device that has been with you over every kilometre of your journey.

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