Early Ohio Traction Engineering

Traction engineering was attempted in Ohio about a decade earlier than Robert T. Rhode once believed.


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Just when we think we have it all figured out, along comes information that makes us revise what we thought we knew. Until I read The Ohio Farmer for July 21, 1860, I thought the earliest attempts at traction engineering in Ohio dated to the late 1860s.1 After all, the great mechanical engineer, Charles M. Giddings, wrote that, in 1868 or 1869, C. & G. Cooper asked a farmer living near Mt. Vernon, Ohio, to apply for a patent for the farmer's invention of a horse-steered traction engine and to assign the patent to Cooper. Giddings said it was 'doubtless the first attempt of any thing of the kind in the west.'2 What I found in The Ohio Farmer, however, pushes back the date of Midwest traction engineering by at least a decade.

Newark Machine Works

An advertisement on page 231 for the Newark Machine Works of Newark, Ohio, shows a cut of a portable engine, but the fine-print caption states, 'Price, Mounted, $700; Self-Propelling, $900.' Does 'self-propelling' mean that Newark Machine Works was building a traction engine in 1860? You bet it does! Included with the ad was this testimonial dated Nov. 4, 1858, from Joseph McCune of Warrenton in Jefferson County, Ohio: 'I have run the Engine out to the Cadiz Fair, and back, a distance of 46 miles. If you have ever been to Cadiz, you know what hills there are to climb. I did it with ease, and by steam altogether the main shaft being connected with the axle by gearing. Since I came home, I have moved about by steam alone. My Engine is not worn any, to notice, and it works beautifully. I will say here, that I can run up as big a hill as any other Engine in the world. On our return from Cadiz, we came to Harrisville on the plank road, and took the State road through Mt. Pleasant, and so on to the river. This is a very hilly road for about 17 miles, but we could 'go it easy.' There were four men on the Engine - one to steer, myself to engineer, and two for sport.' (The capitalization and punctuation are true to the ad.)


Why have we not heard about such an amazing traction engine before now? The history of the ill-fated Newark Machine Works may hold an answer. Located on the corner of First and Locust Streets, the Newark firm brought in Joseph E. Holmes, who had distinguished himself as an engineer associated with the Crystal Palace exposition of 1853, and J.W. Gray, formerly of the Gordon-McKee Company in Massachusetts, to design and build engines. Holmes and Gray studied steam engine design in Europe before manufacturing portable engines to their own specifications. At some point, obviously, they started producing traction engines.

By the late 1850s when Joseph McCune was taking what must have been an exceptionally bumpy ride along a plank road - Newark Machine Works was in financial trouble from overcapitalizing amid a disturbed economy. In 1860, the company went bankrupt and appointed a young employee, Reinhard Scheidler, one of the receivers. Scheidler named John H. McNamar, a fellow machinist, manager of the plant. By 1861, Newark Machine Works was all but closed. Scheidler began his own machine shop on Railroad Street. In 1864, the remnants of the Newark firm were sold to the Blandy Company of Zanesville. Blandy built skid and portable engines in Newark. We can only speculate as to why Blandy did not manufacture traction engines (if indeed Blandy did not do so). In that same year, McNamar formed a partnership with Scheidler a partnership McNamar later would rue. In 1879, Blandy of Newark was sold to the Union Iron Works, which made belt drives and chain drives to convert portable engines into traction engines.3 When the belt broke as an engine was descending a hill, the engineer's best choice might have been to jump.

Scheidler and McNamar are known, if not well known, among historians of steam power on the American farm, but who knew that Newark Machine Works built a traction engine at least as early as 1858? Just to put that date into perspective, we can remind ourselves that the American Civil War did not begin until 1861.


1. Many traction engines predated Cooper's. As Jack Alexander's pioneering book Steam Power on California Roads and Farms (1858-1911) makes clear, a dozen companies in California built traction engines in the 1850s and 1860s. In Ohio in 1874, the Owens, Lane & Dyer Machine Company of Hamilton brought out an engine having a gear drive that won the Ohio State Fair's Grand Gold Medal for (erroneously, as we now know) the first traction engine built west of Pittsburgh. On Oct. 6, 1875, the Rogers bevel-gear patent was filed, and it was granted on Feb. 15, 1876 (#173,498). Cooper falsely and repeatedly claimed that its bevel-gear engine was the first traction engine in America. Those wishing to read more about the origins of traction engineering in America should see Reynold M. Wik's Steam Power on the American Farm and the British book Steam on the Road, which alludes to two traction engines from the American colonial period.

2. C.M. Giddings, Development of the Traction Engine in America (Lancaster: Stemgas, 1980), reprint from American Thresherman 1916-17. See also 'Who Built the First Traction Engine in America?' by Robert T. Rhode in Engineers and Engines magazine 44.2 (1998). As may be deduced from what has been written above, parts of the 1998 article are now out of date.

3. See 'The Scheidler Story' by Robert T. Rhode in Engineers and Engines magazine 44.1 (1998). See also 'Questions Raised about Reinhard Scheidler' by Robert T. Rhode in Engineers and Engines magazine 45.6 (2000). The latter piece casts doubt on a few of the sources that were trusted in writing the former essay.

Robert T. Rhode is a regular contributor to Steam Traction. He is an author on the history and literature of the steam era and a professor of early American literature at Northern Kentucky University. Contact him at 4745 Clenway Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45238, or e-mail: case65@earthlink.net