Working Out the Kinks of Steam Plowing

Steam plowing moves past John Fowler’s two-engine system of steam cultivation

Steam-Plowing the Rusty Iron

A Fowler 11/13-tine turning cultivator is about to start its next pass across the field. The driver has yet drop the cultivator into work by pulling on the lever. The cultivator is seen here operating with 11 tines, as no tines were fitted to the wing brackets mounted on the frame near the center of the wheels. This was standard practice when the ground was very hard. 

Photo courtesy U.K. Steam Plough Club archives

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As mentioned in my column in the May issue of Farm Collector, John Fowler was a pioneer in steam cultivation. In the mid-1850s he experimented with a two-engine steam plough system where portable engines stationed on each side of a field pulled the plow back and forth between them. While there were advantages, especially in setup time, the expense of the extra engine initially put a damper on this steam plowing system.

The soft iron wire cable that was used with all cable systems was a big problem. It wore quickly, affording only about 200 acres of use. In 1857, Fowler finally managed to get a steel cable made, extending cable life to more than 1,000 acres.

Fowler kept improving his machinery, which was built for him by others, and he experimented with self-propelled engines during that time as well. In about 1860, Fowler began manufacturing his own equipment and became one of the big names in cable tillage equipment.

When self-propelled (or traction) engines became practical, it eliminated the need for horses to move the gear and made the two-engine arrangement more practical. The system became the norm throughout Great Britain and was still used by some contractors into the 1960s.

“A roughish job”

A rig consisting of a single engine and movable anchor was popular for a while (see Early Days of Steam Plowing in the U.K.).The anchor and engine were placed on opposite headlands and the plow or cultivator was pulled back and forth between them with the engine providing power in both directions. As the implement approached the anchor it tripped a clutch, causing a winding drum on the anchor to turn with the haulage rope, pulling the anchor forward the required distance by another rope attached to a ground anchor, tree or post ahead of the moving anchor.

The popular two-engine system required an engine on each headland, each equipped with a winding drum. The most popular position for this drum was horizontal under the boiler, although engines with vertical-, side- or rear-mounted drums were made as well. One manufacturer even had his large winding drum encircle the engine boiler.

A description of the system’s operation is given in Harold Bonnett’s excellent book, Saga of the Steam Plough. “Steering a plough was a roughish job,” Bonnett writes. “The best the steersman might expect was a straw-filled sack as a sort of countrified cushion tied to the otherwise hard wooden seat. The tension on the hauling rope tended to reach the plow in a series of surges or jerks. A yard before the end was reached, the ploughman steered the furrow wheel up on to the land, then quickly turned the wheels in the opposite direction, just before the plough stopped, so that as soon as its direction was reversed by the pull of the other engine, the implement moved over, forwards, up the field and onto the next furrow course.

“The ploughman then got down, walked to the other uplifted end which would now be almost touching the engine, and (as the opposite engine immediately) began to haul the plough back, the upended side of the plough was pulled down. This ‘Pulling Down’ was heavy work even if two men rode the plough, and cases of rupture were frequent. As the engine at the other side of the field increased the pull and the shares (bit) into the new cut, the slack rope was picked up and dropped into the carrier; then the crew nipped alongside and clambered back into their wooden (seats), and so the work went quickly on.”

Versatile steam plowing system

Plowing was only one job for the steam tackle. Heavy cultivators were used to break up plowed and fallow land. A varying number of tines were mounted on a heavy frame with two wheels at the rear and a single steering wheel at the front. A seat and steering wheel were provided for the operator. An ingenious “Y” hitch at the front allowed the cultivator to be easily turned at the end of each pass.

A rope from the engine was attached to each leg of the “Y.” While being pulled, the leg under tension was pulled straight ahead, while the other leg pointed off to the side and pulled along the slack rope. At the end, the pulling engine stopped and the opposite one took up the slack. This caused the tines to lift and pulled the steering front wheel around, guiding the cultivator onto its new path. The operator then had only to drop the tines and away they went.

Fast but dangerous

Steam cultivation was surprisingly fast, especially compared to horse cultivation. For one thing, the implements were larger. Instead of one or two furrows, five or six were turned in a single pass. Speed was another factor. Plowing speed was customarily 3 or 4 mph, while cultivators were usually run at 4 or 5 mph.

There was danger, of course. A cultivator hitting a large rock at 5 mph could easily throw the driver. The operator of the pulling engine had to be alert at all times. If, because of terrain, the implement was out of sight, a flagman was stationed so he had both the pulling engine and the implement in sight. I once read a story of a crew that set out one morning to cultivate a large field near the coast. Heavy fog limited visibility to only a few feet. The cultivator disappeared into the fog. When it emerged at the other end, the implement was upside down and the operator was nowhere to be seen. He was found dead in the middle of the field; the cultivator had struck a rock, overturned and dragged the poor fellow for some distance with no one the wiser.

And, as may be imagined, the steel cables were under great tension. If they suddenly parted, the ends could whip and curl across the ground, mowing down anyone in the way.

Scrapping for cash

The end of steam plowing came during the 1920s when use of the gas tractor became more widespread. However, it was the Great Depression that really sounded the death knell. Peter Longfoot, a respected British author and the editor of Steam Plough Times, the quarterly journal of the Steam Plough Club, sent me the following note:

“What actually happened was that when the Depression of the early 1930s was at its height, nearly all the old and worn-out early tackle was scrapped (only about five engines remain from before 1885). Most of the scrap was exported to Germany. Anything that could be got operational in the Second (World) War was worked and hard. The heaviest scrap drive we had was between 1947 and 1952-’53, and much equipment was lost at that time. But there were still sets at work commercially into the early 1960s, by which time engines were being collected and demonstrated. So, in truth the operation of steam cable plowing sets has never actually died out.”

The Steam Plough Club puts on a number of working demonstrations of cable plowing and cultivation at various rallies in the U.K. each year. In 2012 the club’s premier events will be the Great Challenge at Oxfordshire, Aug. 18-19; Hands On Weekend at Avon Dassett, Warwickshire, Aug. 25-27; and Great Dorset Steam Fair, Aug. 29-Sept. 2. 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. 

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