Wood Science Research - Not Trendy, But Necessary

Lead Author: Dr. Jim Bowyer

Publish date: 05.19.2006

 

In colonial America, wood was the foundation on which society was built. Buildings and furniture, spinning wheels and looms, dishes and pails, wagons and carriages, dingys and ships, bridges and sidewalks, plows and hay rakes, milling machinery and sawmills, and products of every kind and shape were made of wood. Wood was also a major fuel source, used for heating and cooking and as the principal fuel of industry.

 

Wood use was not based on research, but rather on wood’s abundance, range of inherent properties, ease of conversion to useful products, and long history of use in places of origin for Americas immigrant population.

 

As the colonies gave way to rapidly expanding cities, and as populations expanded, wood abundance in many areas turned to scarcity as unrestrained wood use, combined with land clearing for agriculture, resulted in greatly diminished forests. But as wooden wagon trains carried homesteaders steadily westward, new forests were encountered and clearing of forests continued. Wood for fencing of pastures alone required enormous volumes of timber, with some 3.2 million miles of such fencing estimated to have been in existence in the mid 1800s. Development of the steam engine led to the need for great quantities of additional wood – for steamboat fuel and for railroad ties and trestles, and it provided a means of moving large volumes of wood to population centers. As earlier, wood research did not provide an underpinning for wood use.

 

One of the early drivers of inquiry into whether things might be done to increase the efficiency of wood used was the tendency of wood to rot. The huge volumes used for fencing, ties, trestles, bridges, and telegraph line poles required replacement after only a few years of use due to natural deterioration. As noted by MacCleery, just replacing railroad ties on a sustained basis required from 15 to 20 million acres of forest land in 1900. Interest in finding a way to preserve wood to eliminate or slow decay processes provided an impetus to an early field of inquiry in what would later become known as the field of wood science.