Portable Steam Engine Provided Reliable Power

The invention of the portable steam engine heralded a new era of reliable power

The Gaar-Scott Improved Traction Engine, from about 1889

The Gaar-Scott Improved Traction Engine, from about 1889

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At the close of the 19th century, the American farmer was frustrated by his inability to increase production. Clearly, there was a limit to what man and beast could achieve. The invention of the portable steam engine, however, heralded a new era. 

The evolution of the portable steam engine did not reach farm communities until late in the development of the steam engine. But the need was clear: Farmers in the 19th century were desperate to improve efficiency through mechanization.

The steam engine had been in development for almost two centuries before it became a viable alternative to manpower in increasing farm productivity. The steam engine was first realized as a benefit to agriculture with the development of the Cable Cultivator in the United Kingdom. That engine pulled a cable, which in turn pulled a cultivator across a field. The steam engine was an ever-advancing source of power for locomotives, ships, and later, farm equipment.

By the early 1800's, steam engines were commonly used as a source of industrial power. However, they were not yet portable. This excerpt from a Dec. 3, 1883 article in Scientific American makes clear the broad need for portable steam engines.

"People have found that in most varieties of hard labor, it is easier to employ the active of the elements than it is to drudge and toil themselves. Hence it is that the steam engine, which is after all that has been said by the carbon and calorie and pressure engine, the only reliable power which can be used in any and all places - is being applied to almost every conceivable variety by manual labor. It compelled the hammer and drives the plow; it has been harnessed to the car, and hitched to the plow.

"All the drudgery which our forefathers performed with their own muscle is now done to a greater or less extent by this ready slave of the human intellect. Muscles tire, but the steam engine never grows weary. So long as it is supplied with food and drink, and properly cared for, it will exert its energies night and day without rest or sleep, obedient to the slightest beck of the grinding spirit, the engineer.

"Hence the want of small portable engines is seriously felt by the public. The farmer wants them to thresh his grain and cut his straw, to saw his wood and, as soon as they are properly constructed, to draw his plow. The mechanic wants them for the various operations of his workshop, the manufacturer in a similar way want those that require but little room and can be easily moved about as he may change his residence, and we hope to see the day when they will be made so cheap and portable that almost everybody will have their steam engine, that it will become almost a necessity of the household."

The benefits of steam power to the farmer were best seen in threshing. Threshing in the traditional manner required grueling amounts of physical labor. But the evolution of the steam engine saved labor, livestock and increased crop yield. George Hartman, who grew up on a Nebraska farm, was interviewed by the Works Progress Administration in 1938. He gave the following account of his early experiences with threshing on a Nebraska farm:

"I have seen many changes come about here in Nebraska. In the early days, the farmers used to thresh their wheat by flailing. That is, men with something like carpet beaters would beat the wheat and thresh it that way. Men would become very fast and proficient and hit the wheat in rotation faster than one could count. The first threshing machine had no wheels and had real horses to furnish the power. The first steam-threshing machine was a blessing to the farmers, as it saved many horses from dying. It was nothing for a farmer to lose a horse or two at threshing time, as the terrible heat of the summer would kill them off at threshing time."

The contribution made by steam power to threshing is best seen in the histories of two manufacturers who developed steam engines that would later become portable and self-driven: The Case Corporation and the Frick Manufacturing Company.

In the early 1800s, Jerome Increase Case sensed the need for a machine to assist farmers in threshing. His crude "ground hog" thresher was developed in the 1840s. By 1848, Case threshers were readily available, complete with horsepower unit, for between $290 and $325.

The first Case steam engine was produced in 1869. Ultimately, 36,000 were manufactured. "Old No. 1," now on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., was wheel-mounted but still drawn by horses, and used only for belt power. Sales of Case steam engine threshers increased steadily through 1878, when a total of 220 units had been sold. The Mounted Woodbury, the Sweepstakes Thresher, the Agitator Thresher, and later, the Dingee Sweep, were representative of Case's technological advancement.

While the Case Corporation made significant contributions to threshing and threshing technology, Frick Manufacturing and its development of the steam engine were equally important.

George Frick's steam engine gained notoriety in 1876, when his steam-powered traction engine earned a gold medal for excellence at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The "eclipse" logo of the Frick name became synonymous with an engine that could reduce manual labor, and provide "portable" power to the fields and forests.

An early Frick steam engine had a cylinder bore of six inches and a 13-inch stroke. It was rated at 10 horsepower and reached speeds of 75 to 90 rpm. Frick engines were transported on wagon wheels and "belted" to a thresher or farm equipment. The company introduced the portable steam traction engine, allowing a steam engine to be driven to and from the work site. An advertisement for the Eclipse Engine during that era:

"Look out For The Road Locomotive. The Eclipse Traction Engine Is Furnished With Link Motion And Steering Apparatus. When Horses Are Not Desired, Can Be Run Forward Or Backward And Stopped Instantly."

By 1888, the Frick Traction engine had made the rounds of state and county fairs, taking 39 prizes in one year alone, a hefty record at a time when transportation and manpower prevented simultaneous exhibits.

During the 1880s, the Frick company also entered into the refrigeration industry, and remains a leader in that field. Although the company discontinued tractor manufacture by 1930, its early history remains significant, particularly in the era when portable steam engines were developed. "No name in American agricultural implements stands higher or has survived longer than that of Frick," according to a 1940 article in the "Pennsylvania Farmer." FC 

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, VA. For information about his recent book, The Autograph Source, contact him at 1008 Weeping Willow Drive, Chesapeake, VA 23322.