Early Days of Steam Plowing in the U.K.
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The roundabout system worked pretty well, although it took a lot of time to set up and a lot of manpower to move the rope pulleys and porters. If the plow hit an obstruction, the ropes sometimes broke (and I’m sure the corner rope pulleys were jerked out of position when that happened). The system required a lot of rope or cable; one farmer reported using 2,000 yards of cable to cultivate a 50-acre field.
There were also proponents of direct haulage of plows and many attempts were made along those lines. The weight of the engines and the difficulty of maintaining traction on soft ground, as well as unsatisfactory drive trains, were big drawbacks. Direct haulage never seems to have caught on in Great Britain as it did in the Western Hemisphere.
Evolution of the mole
Born in 1826, John Fowler had seen the widespread starvation that resulted from the Irish potato famine. He determined to do something to help the cultivation of Ireland’s wet, boggy land. To drain wet fields, farmers had long used mole plows (a bullet-shaped share or plug at the lower end of a thin vertical blade). When pulled through a wet field, the mole plow’s thin vertical coulter blade made a slit in the soil, while the bullet-shaped plug made a tunnel-like hole in the ground. Water ran into the slit and through the hole to the edge of the field. Moles made in this way weren’t very long-lasting and soon collapsed or filled with silt.
Fowler came up with the idea of hooking a long rope strung with a series of round baked clay tiles behind the mole plug, forming a pipe drain that was much more durable than a regular mole drain. His first effort, demonstrated in 1850, was pulled across the field by long ropes on capstans powered by horse- or man-power. Pulling the mole plow and the tile through the ground required a lot of power, so Fowler began to experiment with steam engines.
From these early experiments, Fowler became involved in steam cultivation, and the art of cable plowing and cultivation developed from there. At the suggestion of Essex farmer David Greig, Fowler developed a balance plow with two opposing sets of four bottoms on either side of a central wheeled axle. The plow could be tipped on its axle and pulled in either direction while throwing all the furrows one way, eliminating the hassle of having to turn a heavy plow at the furrow ends.
In the spring of 1856, Fowler demonstrated his roundabout cable system on heavy ground, using a Ransomes & Sims 6 hp portable engine and his own double-drum windlass wound with an iron wire rope. Anchors were dug in at the field corners and the rig worked like a charm, turning one acre per hour. The biggest drawback was the large amount of labor needed to dig new holes for the anchors as the furrows advanced across the field. Soon a 4-wheel, weighted anchor cart was developed. It required little digging and could be easily moved with horses.