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In Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, the main character Phileas Fogg misses his train in the American north and ends up hitching a ride on a curious invention, as described here:

There Mr. Fogg examined a curious vehicle, a kind of frame on two long beams, a little raised in front like the runners of a sledge, and upon which there was room for five or six persons. A high mast was fixed on the frame, held firmly by metallic lashings, to which was attached a large brigantine sail. This mast held an iron stay upon which to hoist a jib sail. Behind, a sort of rudder served to guide the vehicle. It was, in short, a sledge rigged like a sloop. During the winter, when the trains are blocked by the snow, these sledges make extremely rapid journeys across the frozen plains from one station to another. Provided with more sails than a cutter, and with the wind behind them, they slip over the surface of the prairies with a speed equal if not superior to that of the express trains.

(From Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days from Sterling Publishing, New York.) enter image description here

Picture from the Golden Picture Classic edition, Tom Gill illustrator.

Did this invention actually exist, or did Jules Verne make this vehicle up? I have read that authors from this era often invented strange contraptions to make the story more interesting, especially if the story took place in America.

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  • Image Aug 28, 2017 at 20:03
  • @KeithMcClary - That is the same book but not the same publishing that I mentioned. This is the one I quoted from.
    – ezra
    Aug 28, 2017 at 21:02
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    "Sand yachts" with wheels rather than skids were also in use during Verne's lifetime. See britishlandsailing.co.uk/land-sailing-is-not-a-recent-discovery which claims they were first invented by the Chinese, c. 600 AD, and used in Europe and America from the 18th century onwards.
    – alephzero
    Aug 28, 2017 at 23:58
  • There is an active "ice-boating" club on Burlington Bay (aka Hamilton harbour) most winters. Aug 29, 2017 at 21:22
  • authors from this era often invented strange contraptions to make the story more interesting -> that definitely applies to Jules Verne !
    – Evargalo
    Oct 26, 2023 at 8:23

5 Answers 5

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Yes, and this wikipedia article and this other one describe it. The first article talks about ice boats in America (invented in Poughkeepsie, etc), but the second makes it clear that the Dutch had this technology down cold a very long time ago. Verne, one suspects, read 19th century equivalents of Wikipedia for plot elements; maybe he read an equivalent of the first article I cite and was hooked by the American connection, and so put it in his novel.

Added: Of course, Verne's version travelled over land, and real ice-boats over frozen water. As Pieter Geerkens remarks, ice boats are very rapid, as (I suppose) the drag on the runners on ice is far less than the drag on the hull in the water.

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    You might want to note the speeds of ice-boats, far in excess of the wind-speed for most points of sail. Aug 28, 2017 at 2:47
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    And I thought Poughkeepsie was just an invention of the authors of Allie McBeal ... Aug 28, 2017 at 22:09
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    "...had this technology down cold..." - booooo. :-) Aug 29, 2017 at 2:40
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    The bad pun made me shiver....
    – nijineko
    Aug 29, 2017 at 3:04
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    It's instructive to consider where the "drag" force comes from; it's not just that water provides more friction than air and ice. An object moving through a fluid must move that fluid aside! A boat that displaces, say, 50 tons of water that moves its own length in one second is a device that moves 50 tons of water a second, every second; that's a lot of work compared to moving 50 cubic meters of air per second. Aug 29, 2017 at 14:50
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Here's a reference to an attempt to use a "ski sledge" by Fridtjof Nansen during his crossing of Greenland in 1887. This is fourteen years after the book was published, so this obviously isn't the inspiration for the plot point. But at least someone tried it, though in a more ad hoc fashion than described in the book.

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    Thanks for the answer, Steven. Not exactly what I was looking for, but a good resource nonetheless!
    – ezra
    Aug 28, 2017 at 2:32
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To add context to other answers, there's also Arthur Ransome's book "Winter Holiday", mentioning "ice yachts" sailing over a frozen lake in England. Though the book was published in 1933, its inspiration was the Great Frost of 1895, when there was even held a silver cup ice yacht competition on Windermere. (See Arthur Ransome wikia)

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  • I'm glad you mentioned this: my wife wanted me to put it in my answer, but I wavered. That's the story where Flint says "I'll be a Dutchman!" isn't it? Aug 29, 2017 at 13:39
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Actually, I'd say it's doubtful that a wind-powered sledge can be practical on snow. Other answers have linked to ice- and ground-based wind-powered craft. However, both of these have practical ways to counter lateral forces. Where a conventional boat has a keel, an ice boat has skate-like "runners" that resist lateral movement, and "ground boats" can use wheel traction to counter the lateral forces. A "snow keel" would, however, have orders of magnitude more drag. So one would have to conclude a wind-powered sledge can only efficiently travel downwind and cannot take an angle to the wind like a real boat can.

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  • While lateral forced are an important consideration, a) I don't think your concern is pertinent, since e.g. slalom ski demonstrates that snow can actually resist such lateral forces very well without incurring much friction, b) the text says explicitly “with the wind behind them”, so even if this only worked properly downwind it wouldn't imply that these sledges wouldn't have been practical (e.g. in a region of mostly constant wind direction – drive a couple of one-way transports during winter, bring sleighs back empty – pulled by dogs or wait till summer, dismantled, via train). Aug 29, 2017 at 15:41
  • @leftaroundabout Regarding (a), while it's true that slalom skiing requires significant lateral forces, it also requires very skilled maneuvers that dig those skis into the snow at the right angle. Ice is still provides orders of magnitude more traction, just look at the stunts figure skaters are able to do on ice, the turns are much tighter there than in slalom. Regarding (b), well, while a limited downwind-only craft could work, it's not clear that it could be economical; i.e., pay for its construction and upwind hauling in ticket sales. If it can't do that why would anyone build it?
    – EnTaroAdun
    Aug 29, 2017 at 16:42
  • @EnTaroAdun Skaters are beyond competition sure. But a more interesting comparison is the turns made by snow skiers versus keeled water vessels (with comparable weight). I don't think there would be a huge difference. Since it looks like the latter rather easily sail a side wind, the former can do the same.
    – kubanczyk
    Aug 30, 2017 at 12:52
  • @kubanczyk Well there's probably no way to tell without building one - and that's my main point, you can't use the example of ice boats to justify that snow boats would necessarily work as well. Intuitively, I feel a snow keel might not work because snow is fluffy and would readily pack together rather than provide resistance. It's easier to push a shovel through snow than through water, for example (well, depending on the angle).
    – EnTaroAdun
    Aug 31, 2017 at 19:22
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It is an interesting proposition, as Jules Verne is well known to have had some hits long before their time. Many or most of his creations were not fulfilled, though some like "steam balloons" are often reinterpreted with further refinement. Steam balloons were actually suggested first by an Englishman about 1817, so also it is hard to tell how much of Verne's creations are not adaptions based upon previous works.

I recall one of his stories had everyone sleep out of the house on raised beds while in the tropics. Some issues for the notion, such as there were no guard rails and it was quite a fall, what if it rained, and bugs. The mosquito trouble would be a big handicap.

Point is that we should analyze in detail, and other answers are pretty good as to prior attempts. Ice is far better on average since the base is much more uniform, thinning ice not-with-standing. Ice roads of Canada, Russia, and other locations in season heavily use lake, river, and even sea ice where suitable. There are three companies that make up most of that business in Canada, all in Alberta as recalled.

Sails complicate the technique. In the past there were few other options, though. Man sleds are well known, and not just in Antarctic and Arctic. I recall reading that sleds were a very popular way to transport goods in the steppes and taiga as there were no taxes collected. Roads and waterways are easily taxed. Sleds are almost impossible in most locations. Again as recalled, a sail of sort in open territory helped greatly when the wind was in the right direction.

However, there are difficulties. Rivers and lakes are usually easily crossed, providing it has been cold enough. Wind, though, is a double edged swords. If it is cold and windy enough, exposed flesh can freeze very quickly. As mentioned by others, snow and ice cover varies enormously. A sail and runners (for keel) complicates things still further. In some parts of Russia, such as west and south west of the Lena Delta, often do not get enough snow to support a sled. Since you have less options, the patchy ground and interrupting vegetation makes land sailing a trouble.

The land yacht was about the same, after its apparent invention circa 1600. It could be done on beaches, especially if the wind was right (see the painting 'ship of fools'), and maybe had some potential in the Basin & Range areas of the US, such as the dried mud Black Rock Desert or the Bonneville Salt Flats which are billiard table flat playa, but this type of topography is not the norm. Some dry places such as in the Salton Sink are of the Mojave Desert, land yacht were used to some effect. More recently the recreational activity of parasailing has become popular as a sport.

My guess is that the smuggling issue was the heyday of sailing overland with snowy ground. This is not unknown elsewhere, and indeed is nearly universal in advanced trading networks. For example, in the book Salt, A World History by Mark Kurlansky, pg.165 mentions that the Austrian salt monopoly was used to maximize tax revenue. To circumvent this, smuggling networks were formed using a variety of high mountain trails and passes. This salt was sold at considerably lower cost since there were no taxes paid, and thus the tax revenue disappeared.

Pg 165

Transporting on land was expensive because tolls were established along the roadways for wagons carrying salt. The inevitable response was a network of paths over rugged mountain passes for smugglers carrying illegal salt, which they could sell for less because they paid no tolls.

Pg 163

In the seventeenth century, an archbishop named Wolf Dietrich tried to dominate the salt market by dramatically lowering the selling price for salt from his mines, especially Durnberg. For a time Dietrich made tremendous profits, some of which were used to build grand baroque buildings in Salzburg. Bavaria retaliated by banning trade with Salzburg, and this eventually led to a "salt war", a conflict which Dietrich lost... after five years in prison, died in 1617.

You get the idea. Trading has always been potentially a dog-eat-dog world, and just because someone lived 5,000 years ago did not mean they didn't or couldn't trade.

I forgot the source of the sledding trading empire, open to half the year in places (some of the rivers availability periods are a couple of months or so). Further, the dominant river pattern in the Northern Eurasian Plain are north south instead of the preferred east west. The plain is nearly 5,000 miles (8,000 km) long east/west, and averaging about 600 miles (1,000 km) wide north/south. More than half often has sufficient winters.

An advantage of smugglers and traders are that they could move with the wind to a degree, stop at villages as the winds allow. Since the prices would be right, and large centers avoided, the otherwise isolated population would be
very supportive. Many would be client tribes, which had to pay resented tribute. We could label it a 'Robin Hood' economy, vaguely similar to pirate economies in the Caribbean in parts of the 1700's, but not the Port Royale, Jamaica type, rather the small outpost which does business with pirates to varying success in fencing the goods, supplying the industry, and other recreation services.

Trading networks would be erratic, yet profitable to active, dynamic and weather hardened smugglers. For an active researcher, these trading networks are of key focus. Similar to the maroons runaway slave trading networks done by Dan Sayers are another template. While hard to do excavations due to limited site presence and excavation presence, the potential is there.

Basically we have 1) the need 2) apparent research already done 3) large profits available for past participants. I find it difficult to believe that were there a way, it would be done. Low hanging archaeological fruit it is not, but in better understanding defused and decentralized clandestine activity is something to count on in the future.

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