The Beginning of the End for Steam Traction Engines

Steam traction engines had decided disadvantages, including scarce timber and expensive coal, which led to their decline.

1916 Case 12-25

The belt pulley and clutch side on a 1916 Case 12-25 owned by Jim Reber, Huntington, Ind.

Photo by Sam Moore

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By the time the “Gay Nineties” rolled around, the strong patents held by the Otto Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on internal combustion engines had expired. As a result, “mechanicians” and tinkerers all over the country began experimenting with gas traction engines.

Virtually every threshing machine manufacturer had developed and was successfully selling steam traction engines and had little interest in the new technology. Many threshermen believed steam was the only power for threshing and scoffed at the idea of gas engines being as good.

Still, steam engines had decided disadvantages. In most grain-growing areas, timber for fuel was scarce and coal was expensive. An extra man, a team and a water wagon were needed to haul the 20 or so barrels of water used by the engine every day – and water was scarce in some areas. It required a half-hour or so to get steam up in the morning, flues clogged or leaked and had to be cleaned or replaced, grates burned out, and boilers sometimes exploded, while in cold weather pipes could not be allowed to freeze.

The Paterson tractor

Oddly enough, J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. – probably the largest maker of steam traction engines at the time – was the first to leap into the unknown waters of gas traction. David Pryce Davies, a young draftsman for Case, is credited with designing the company’s first gas tractor in 1892. Usually called “the Paterson tractor,” because the 2-cylinder horizontally opposed engine was based on a patent issued to James and William Paterson of Stockton, California, the frame and wheels were essentially the same as those on a Case steam traction engine, while the machine featured a canopy and a huge flywheel on each side.

It was tested on a nearby farm, but as both carburetion and ignition were in their infancy in that era, mechanical problems caused the idea to be discarded. Case engineers, however, continued to work on the new technology and, as the 1913 Case catalogue (the first to feature gas and oil tractors) pointed out, “had expended more than $100,000 in experimental work (on tractors).”

Built under contract

In October 1910, a Racine, Wisconsin, newspaper reported on Case’s “new traction engine that burns coal oil,” and cited Davies, by this time “tractor development engineer,” as saying he was sure they had a good product that could be run by anyone.

Case’s first tractor, the Model 60, was built under contract by Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co., with almost 500 made from 1912 to 1916. The Model 60 engine had two parallel cylinders of 10-by-12-inch bore and stroke and weighed nearly 13 tons. The Model 60 was tested on D.P. Davies’ nearby farm; a photo shows it pulling a 10-bottom plow. Engine cooling was similar to that on many early tractors; engine exhaust was routed through a large pipe above a tower radiator, creating a draft that pulled cooling air up through the radiator, while a pump moved the water through the system.

A simple transmission gave two forward speeds and reverse, while the spring-mounted differential gears were the same as those used on Case steam traction engines.

Lubrication was by mechanical oilers that fed oil to the engine bearings and then to the exposed drive gears and pinions, after which it was discarded on the ground as no crankcase sump was used. In 1915 the tractor, then known as a model 30-60, cost $2,500 ($59,760 today) plus shipping.

Speed “extravagant and unproductive”

At about the same time, Case began to offer a smaller Model 40 that was built into 1918 and was quite popular, (more than 4,200 were sold). The Model 40, soon to be known as the 20-40, was basically a smaller version of the 30-60. It was built in-house, although a Milwaukee firm, Davis Motor Co., furnished the engines for about the first year, after which they too were built by Case. The 2-cylinder opposed engine had a 7-3/4-by-8-inch bore and stroke and featured a cooling system similar to the one used by its big brother. Engine lubrication was force feed, with a geared pump circulating oil from a closed sump. The bearings on the running gear all had grease cups for lubrication.

The final 2-cylinder Case tractor – a Model 12-25 – was introduced in 1913 and it was a beauty. Except for its large, cleated drive wheels, the 12-25 put many 1913 automobiles to shame, appearance-wise. It was long and low – only about 6 feet in height – with an automotive-style radiator in front and the entire engine compartment covered by a tastefully striped hood and sides. Only a belt pulley on the off-side and a large flywheel on the near side marred the smooth lines of the tractor.

The engine was nearly the same as that used in the 20-40, except for a 7-by-7-inch bore and stroke, and cooling was by thermo-syphon circulation through a fan-cooled automotive radiator. Power was taken from the engine by a “high-grade nickel steel” roller chain to the 2-speed transmission that gave speeds of 1.75 and 2.2 mph. The 1917 Case catalog noted that, “Some light duty tractors we know are so designed as to operate up to 4 miles an hour. This policy we believe is wrong, as it is most extravagant and is unproductive of the best results.” The 12-25 weighed 9,225 pounds and sold for $1,350.

Steering ahead of its time

One feature of the 12-25 that was discussed in the 1917 catalog seems to have been standard equipment: a self-steering device to be used when plowing. Similar to all such devices, a heavy steel wheel ran on an arm attached to the tractor’s front furrow wheel and jutted out ahead of it by 8 or 10 feet. As the wheel ran against the furrow wall, it guided the tractor.

The interesting thing is this catalog comment: “With this mechanism, the operator can move about the tractor or plow as he pleases, while his work continues. All he has to do is to set the wheel of the steering device in the furrow, and he is then free to leave his seat for whatever work is necessary.” As a more or less experienced plowman, I have to wonder at that statement.

All three of these early Case tractors competed in the Winnipeg, Manitoba, tractor demonstrations and won gold medals, putting J.I. Case T.M. Co. firmly in the tractor business to stay. FC


Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.