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Wind-powered car sets speed record, but gimme a wind wagon any day

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They suggested in a paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that with all the interest in climate change and weather extremes globally, maybe the WMO should set up something similar. You can find a PDF of the paper here.

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The WMO didn't wait for the paper to be published. In 2006 it "volunteered" him to maintain the WMO's archive. If you want to find information about the world's coldest or hottest temperatures, or the strongest tornado ever recorded anywhere on the planet, the web site he maintains is the go-to place.

Peppard's Folly

While he was researching one of his books, he says, Peppard's Folly came to his attention.

"He sailed from Kansas City all the way to Ft. Kearny on the Platte River, then down to within 50 miles of Denver," Cerveny recounts. Unfortunately, a dust devil splintered the wagon. Peppard and his crew had to walk the rest of the way to Denver.

Cerveny says he was captivated by Peppard's story. Why? "He sailed the wrong way. The prevailing winds across the Great Plains go from west to east," he explains.

And none of the newspaper articles describing the feat mentioned anything about tacking the wagon, merely following the Oregon Trail.

Cerveny and some students built a half-scale model, based on the best design information they could find. It wasn't easy. Some of the articles described a steering mechanism that was physically impossible to achieve, then or now. So Cerveny & Co. came up with a suitable work-around.

Once the wagon was finished, he recalls, "I thought: This thing will need a lot of wind to run." But he found that the 40-pound mock-up (the Dust Devil 1) could readily climb a hill in 15 mile-an-hour wind. Accounts from back in the day said the original wind wagon needed 300 pounds of ballast to keep its wheels on the ground.

Now, for the full-scale model

Since the half-scale trial, Cerveny has landed a set of 1860s steel-rimed wheels and axles. He and some grad students are building a full-scale model now (the Dust Devil 2), with an eye toward testing it this summer.

If all goes well, he and his crew aim to set sail from Kansas City during the spring of 2010, the 150th anniversary of Peppard's "cruise," and follow the Oregon Trail, as Peppard did.

Any science here? Some. The wagon will carry weather instruments. From a climatology standpoint, the prevailing winds blow in precisely the wrong direction to make the crossing. "We're trying to find out how these people could do it," he says.

And who's paying for all this? So far, it's all volunteer work. A university alum donated the wheels.  Cerveny adds that he might look for some corporate sponsors. The big square sail will have a lot of room for logos. Hmmm. Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Prairie Schooner?

This could be the start of a new sub-sub-sub discipline in science. Archeo-resconstructo-climatology? Or climo-reconstructive archaeology? Whatever, it's all in the spirit of historical reconstructions with a dash of science thrown in.

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