A wheel tapper is a railway worker employed to check the integrity of train wheels and that axle boxes are not overheating.
Typically employed at large railway stations and in goods yards, they tap wheels with a long-handled hammer and listen to the sound made to determine the integrity of the wheel; cracked wheels, like cracked bells, do not sound the same as their intact counterparts. They also check that the axle boxes are not overly hot by using the back of their hand.
Although wheeltappers still operate in some eastern European countries, in western nations where modern planned maintenance procedures and line-side defect detectors, such as hot box detectors, have mostly obviated the need for the wheel-tapper, the job is mostly associated with the steam age.
Wheeltappers were vital to the smooth running of the railways as a cracked wheel or overheated axle bearing would lead to delays and the loss of revenue. These were particularly common in the 19th century, when axle bearings were lubricated by grease. Equally, in this period, metallurgy was a more haphazard science and thus it was impossible to test steel wheels for cracks, thus the role of the wheeltapper was of crucial importance.
The (presumably spurious) humorous story of a wheel tapper who didn't know why he was tapping the wheels originates with Rudyard Kipling in Delhi. A German version of the story was told by the German humorist Sigismund von Radecki.
- Oh, Mr Porter! a 1937 movie in which Will Hay plays a wheeltapper at the outset of the story
- The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club television programme
- Jon Tooke. "Bogies". www.wsr.org.uk. Stephen Edge. Retrieved 2010-02-21.
- Railway signal: or, Lights along the line: Volume 12 Railway Mission, London - 1894 "It was as instinctively the duty of a Christian to check evil as it was that of a wheel tapper to report a hot box,"
- Public utilities fortnightly: Volume 33 1944 "The late Rudyard Kipling once told a story about a native wheel tapper who worked in the railroad terminal at Delhi. Because someone had set him to work tapping locomotive wheels without telling him why, he had been hammering away at ..."
- Hospitals: the journal of the American Hospital Association: Volume 22 American Hospital Association - 1948"The first was an "ignorant wheel tapper" who routinely and carefully tapped all wheels of the trains just as he had been told. He tapped wheels and drew his pay for many years without ever learning the reason for his tapping"
- Sigismund von Radecki Das ABC des Lachens: ein Anekdotenbuch zur Unterhaltung und Belehrung 1953 "Ein alter Mann kommt mit einem langen Hammer und klopft nach der bekannten Methode die Räder ab." ..."Der Mann: „Nächsten Juli werden's fünfzig Jahre." Passagier: «Dann sagen Sie mir, bitte, — was ist eigentlich der Grund, weshalb die Räder so beklopft werden?» Der Mann (kratzt sich den Kopf) : «Ich will verdammt sein, wenn ich's weiß!...»