This paper was written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ASME Rail Transportation Division, which was founded in 1920 and held its first meeting in St. Louis. It attempts to paint a picture of the U. S. railroad freight car and the engineering processes involved in its design and construction in 1920 and compare this with today’s designs and practices.
Progress in freight car design has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The steel freight car had largely replaced its wooden predecessor by 1920 and the basic design of many cars was already in place. Exceptions being the Spine Car and the Well Car, which were entirely unknown in 1920. The Box Car has diminished greatly in importance and more specialized cars are now common. One important difference is that welding is now used extensively in freight car construction whereas in 1920 riveting was almost universal.
An important change is the availability of electronic instrumentation to measure, record and analyze the load environment of cars. This has allowed the development of performance-based specifications and these have largely replaced the prescriptive standards used in 1920. CAD and FE analysis have revolutionized the way in which cars are designed, allowing much more refined analysis which has led to far lighter car designs. In 1920 virtually all Engineers were white men — this too is changing.