What Is a Steam Roller?

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

The term “steam roller” (or “steamroller”) is typically used to refer to any sort of road rolling device, regardless of how it is powered. Road rollers are heavy construction equipment used to level and smooth surfaces such as airstrips and roads.

Today, it is very rare to see a road roller actually powered by a steam engine. Instead, most road rollers have internal combustion engines that run on fuels such diesel or, less commonly, gasoline or kerosene.

Some construction and industry museums have examples of antique steam rollers on display. Classic steam rollers can also be seen at steam festivals and fairs, having been preserved by enthusiasts.

History of Steam Rollers

A classic steam roller produced by the German locomotive manufacturer J. A. Maffei.
A classic steam roller produced by the German locomotive manufacturer J. A. Maffei.

The earliest road rollers were drawn by horses or pushed by hand. Just like modern road rollers, they relied on a heavy cylinder or drum that was rolled over the surface that needed to be compacted. However, the weight of the drum was limited by the strength of the people or animals pushing or pulling the roller. When the steam engine was developed during the Industrial Revolution, early 19th-century inventors and engineers began creating prototypes of road-rolling vehicles powered by steam.

In the late 1860s, the British company Aveling & Porter patented the steam roller and manufactured the first commercially-successful steam rollers, exporting it around the world and quickly replacing horse-drawn road rollers.

Steam Rollers and Traction Engines

Modern road rollers are usually diesel powered, but are frequently referred to as steam rollers.
Modern road rollers are usually diesel powered, but are frequently referred to as steam rollers.

Victorian-era steam rollers were very similar in design to traction engines (steam-powered tractors), except that steam rollers featured a heavy roller (or two adjacent rollers) in place of the front wheel and axle, while the back driving wheels of a steam roller were smooth, rather than treaded.

Some traction engines could be converted into steam rollers by replacing the treaded tires with smooth rollers, allowing them to alternate between hauling goods and smoothing road surfaces.

Use of Steam Rollers

Traction engines (steam-powered tractors) are very similar to Victorian-era steam rollers, except that they feature treaded tires rather than smooth, heavy rollers.
Traction engines (steam-powered tractors) are very similar to Victorian-era steam rollers, except that they feature treaded tires rather than smooth, heavy rollers.

By the mid-20th century, the steam roller had largely been replaced by the road roller, as internal combustion engines became robust enough to handle heavy work. In some countries, however, steam-powered rollers were still in use for road construction and maintenance into the 1960s and even 1970s.

The correct term for the diesel or gas-powered vehicles used today is “road roller,” because they are no longer steam powered. However, the steam roller is an iconic piece of equipment, and thus people often use the term generically to refer to any road-rolling device.

Modern Steam Rollers and Variations

Steam rollers are used to smooth the surface of roads and other asphalted areas.
Steam rollers are used to smooth the surface of roads and other asphalted areas.

The modern road roller is used to prepare roads and foundations at various stages of construction, as well as flat surfaces such as soil, concrete, and gravel. There are many different types of modern road rollers, with various designs to suit their intended function. Single drum, tandem drum, and pneumatic tyre rollers are the most common configurations, with the latter used to knead and seal road surfaces such as asphalt.

A steam roller may be used to smooth out airstrips.
A steam roller may be used to smooth out airstrips.

There is a huge amount of variation in the size and weight of road rollers. Some pedestrian-operated, walk-behind rollers weigh as little as 100 lbs (45 kg), while large ride-on rollers can weigh as much as 22 tons (20 tonnes). Road rollers are very slow-moving vehicles, with top speeds of around 6 mph (10 km/h).

Some of these vehicles use water or other lubricants to prevent hot asphalt and materials on the roadbed from sticking to the rollers. To make them even heavier, the drums of certain vehicles can be filled with water, as it is the weight that makes the machines effective levelers and compactors.

The heaviest road rollers are used for tasks such as landfill compaction, and can weigh up to 60 tons (54 tonnes). Also known as roller-compactors, these vehicles vibrate during operation to further compact the ground. Vibrating roller drums also allow smaller vehicles to carry out the compacting work of a heavier vehicle. Compactors often feature padfoot or sheepsfoot rollers, which have smaller surface areas and thus provide additional ground compression.

Did You Know?

  • The new age neoclassical band Mannheim Steamroller got its name by combining “Mannheim roller” (a German music technique) and “steam roller.”
  • The rock band Buffalo Springfield named themselves after a popular American steam roller manufacturer, the Buffalo-Springfield Roller Company.
  • The word “steam roller” has entered common usage to describe a certain personality type. People with “steamroller personalities” use aggression to achieve what they want and dominate other individuals.
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for InfoBloom about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education.
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for InfoBloom about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education.

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    • A classic steam roller produced by the German locomotive manufacturer J. A. Maffei.
      A classic steam roller produced by the German locomotive manufacturer J. A. Maffei.
    • Modern road rollers are usually diesel powered, but are frequently referred to as steam rollers.
      Modern road rollers are usually diesel powered, but are frequently referred to as steam rollers.
    • Traction engines (steam-powered tractors) are very similar to Victorian-era steam rollers, except that they feature treaded tires rather than smooth, heavy rollers.
      Traction engines (steam-powered tractors) are very similar to Victorian-era steam rollers, except that they feature treaded tires rather than smooth, heavy rollers.
    • Steam rollers are used to smooth the surface of roads and other asphalted areas.
      By: sima
      Steam rollers are used to smooth the surface of roads and other asphalted areas.
    • A steam roller may be used to smooth out airstrips.
      By: pagomenos
      A steam roller may be used to smooth out airstrips.