Howe Truss

By on January 18, 2011 -- Modified on December 28, 2018

The Howe Truss was designed by William Howe in 1840. It used mostly wood in construction and was suitable for longer spans than the Pratt truss. Therefore, it became very popular and was considered one of the best designs for railroad bridges back in the day. Many Howe truss bridges exist in the North West United States, where wood is plentiful.

How the forces are spread out

Here are two diagrams showing how the forces are spread out when the Howe Truss is under a load. The first shows the load being applied across the entire top of the bridge. The second shows a localized load in the center of the bridge. In both cases the total load = 100. Therefore, you can take the numbers as a percentage of the total load.

Similar to all the major truss designs (Pratt, Warren, K Truss, and Howe), when the load is centered on the bridge the forces are much greater on the internal truss members than if the load is spread out along the top of the bridge. The same principle applies if the load was coming from the bottom of the bridge. I use diagrams showing the load applied to the top of the bridge, because this is how I most often test my bridges. I load my bridges from the top.

When you are designing your bridge, I recommend that you use the Bridge Designer program from JHU and plug-in your design. Load the design in the same way your bridge will be loaded as specific in the rules and guidelines you were given to build your bridge.

Howe Truss in model bridges

One thing that you have to keep in mind when thinking about the common truss designs, including the Howe, is that they were designed a long time ago. They were designed when bridges needed to fill a specific role, and for the particular resources that people had available. For instance, the Howe truss design used a lot of wood as opposed to the Pratt which used more iron. This made the Howe popular earlier on when iron was expensive to produce.

The Howe truss used wooden beams for the diagonal members, which were in compression. It used iron (and later steel) for the vertical members, which were in tension. The Pratt truss was the opposite. Thus, because the diagonal members are longer, the Howe truss used less of the more expensive iron material. It made good use of the cheap wood which was readily available.

For model bridges, we typically only use wood. Our compression and tension members are both made out of wood. If you wanted to be fancy, you could use string or metal wire for the tension members. Nonetheless, in reality, the reasons why the Howe design became popular are not applicable to model builders. It remains a solid engineering model design, but I think I would prefer the Pratt truss over the Howe.

Additional Resources

Pictures of Real Howe Truss Bridges
History of Howe Truss

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35 thoughts on “Howe Truss”

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  1. Thank you for all this lovely information on Warren, Howe, and Pratt trusses. In high school we are learning each and your cite has helped me complete my tasks and goals.

    By Brett West -- April 24, 2019
  2. Hello, what program do you use to create those simulators(?) that shows the distribution of force.

    By Marc -- March 8, 2019
    • There’s a very similar program at https://ei.jhu.edu/truss-simulator/ which runs inside your web browser. Compared to Garrett’s diagrams here, the colours are the other way round — red for compression and blue for tension.

      By Mungo -- March 31, 2019
      • Thank you for sharing. This looks very interesting and I’ll have to check it out more.

        By Garrett Boon -- April 1, 2019
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