Early Steam Tractor Design

A look at some of the oddest tractors

No. 1. Heathcoat started something with this little number in 1882, though Edgeworth as early as 1770 obtained a patent for a steam traction engine that picked up its tracks and carried them along. Hence, the Caterpillar idea for tractors is at least 183 years old in the patent offices of Great Britain and the U.S.

No. 1. Heathcoat started something with this little number in 1882, though Edgeworth as early as 1770 obtained a patent for a steam traction engine that picked up its tracks and carried them along. Hence, the Caterpillar idea for tractors is at least 183 years old in the patent offices of Great Britain and the U.S.

from the collection of F. Hal Higgins

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Here are some photos featuring early steam tractor design. Pat Baxter wants to know what the oddest tractors looked like, so, I've pulled out a half dozen – U.S., British and Canadian – to give him my choices, though there are two or three more with legs I can’t seem to find pictures of at the moment.

No. 1. 1832 Track-Over-Engine.  Heathcoat’s track-over-engine of 1832 is the first illustration I can find of the crawler development. The wood cut made in 1837. It is a Britisher, of course, but Edgeworth of the same country was 60 years earlier.

No. 2. Guideway Steam Agriculture.  Halkett, another Britisher, stirred the minds of leading farmers and inventors in 1858 with this pair of steam engines operating on permanent tracks laid down in the fields. He called it “Guideway Steam Agriculture.” Talk of “toolbars” being something modern. This arrangement had everything anybody can possibly think of today.

No. 3. 1769 Military Tractor. Col. Cugnot’s military tractor of 1769 deserves a spot in the “odd” list. It is so close to the tea kettle that it looks like he hung it on the 3-wheel chassis. Note the “first auto accident.” Picture given me by Col. Duvignac.

No. 4. 1804 Steam Amphibian Tractor. Oliver Evans’ “Orukuter Amphiboles” of old Philadelphia, deserves a spot to start U.S. tractors and be the first amphibian. Evans offered to bet $400 at this early stage – 1804 – that he could build a steam carriage that would out-run any horse. One state granted him a patent to build steam wagons as a monopoly after the Pennsylvania legislature turned him down as early as 1786.

No. 5. Slide Trombone Tractor. This “slide trombone” action, that James W. Evans of New York designed for his steam traction engine, is worth a second look. Evans had been attempting to design steam tractions with patents as early as 1858. The idea here, of course, is to keep the heavy machine and its wheels on solid turf, as it moved ahead a few feet, stopped and pulled the plows toward it.

No. 6. Self-Propelled Rotary Steam Plow. I love this one of Col. Salidee’s from Galveston, Texas, that got a front page presentation on the cover of Scientific American in 1861. Salidee must have been a sailor from the number of guide wheels and control levers he put on this one. It was really built, however, as Philander Standish’s notebooks mention it as he recorded his day-by-day construction and operating problems from California to Boston and back to Cincinnati, St. Louis and New Orleans from 1868 to 1873 when he built, showed and operated his two steam tractors over the U.S. in five states.

No. 7. Grew. This British-built Grew on runners for the Russians in 1861 is worthy of mention, I think.

No. 8. Girdle Wheel Tractor. Our Canadian friends deserve credit for starting Boydell off on a long and notable career with his idea of snow shoes around the rims of the wheels to keep the heavy steam tractor on top of soft or icy and snow covered terrain. For years, including the Crimean War of the mid-1950s,( this Boydell girdle-wheel idea got lots of British backing, building and use over most of the civilized earth India, South America, Australia, West Indies, etc. The USDA Annual Report of 1867 gave it a full page illustration.

No. 9. Tracks and Wheels Tractor. This combination wheels and tracks job of Keddy’s got a front page send-off in the Prairie Farmer of Nov. 11, 1858, where it was mentioned as due to appear in the fields of the state soon. It seems to have been a Chicago invention and no trace of it can be picked up beyond this spot. It used wheels to turn at end of field after moving across the soft fields on tracks and lifting these at the end as a lady of the old school might her skirts to cross a street.

No. 10. Darby Broadside Steam Digger. The Darby Broadside steam digger moved sideways like a bashful crab. Several of these were built in England and at least one got out on the prairies of Canada, according to Mr. E.R. Potter of Saskatoon.

No. 11. Parvin Tractor with Crawler and Plows. R.C. Parvin, another Pennsylvanian, made a lot of history from the Keystone State to California with a factory in central Illinois and an office in Chicago in the early 1870s. At least one of these Parvins was sold and used in California about 1873. It is a crawler with power-lift plows.

No. 12. Berry Straw-Burning Self-Propelled Steam Combine. I'll take George Stockton Berry’s “Believe-It-Or-Not” 1886-91 straw-burning self-propelled steam combine as the most interesting of all from many standpoints: it worked and solved his problem of unhitching his horses and making a tractor out of his idle portable steam threshing engine. He operated his steam tractor both forward and backward burning straw as threshed. On the plows it ran forward with straw cart attached in front.

No. 13. One-Track Gas Engine Tractor. John Bean of sprayer fame built this one-track gas engine tractor in World War I days and built some 1,100 of them, finally unloading most of them on the Japanese at the end of the war. It was a queer looking thing with a lot of theory in its design.

No. 14. (Not illustrated.) Alf Johnson, a farm boy in central California, started to develop an “orchard tractor” way back before World War I as he and his brother began figuring there should be an easier way to farm their father’s orchards. Here, midway in their various inventions, developments and construction of various tractors for their own work, they began putting iron horses’ hoofs around the rim of the tractor wheels to get traction on soft and uneven ground. They soon unloaded this one onto the Joshua Hendy Company out here, and that firm in turn shipped it to Advance-Rumely when that big Hoosier steam thresher builder began to get out on the coast and get up against Holt, Best and Yuba competition and learn the facts of life on the West Front where they used tractors the year ’round and learned about their bugs and virtues about four times as fast as they could where tractors were snow- and icebound for half the year. It was called “Toe-Hold” soon after Johnson sold it.

No. 15. Minnis Iowa Crawler. Minnis’ first farm tractor in Iowa, (patented 1867; Iowa 1869) deserves a look. Note it is a crawler and he brought it out from Pennsylvania to start breaking the virgin sod at Ames within sight of the state agricultural college about the time it opened its doors to the first bunch of students. Both the USDA, 1870, and Iowa State Agricultural Society reports gave it some space with letter from Minnis telling of the trials and tribulations of inventing, building and operating a traction engine at that date.

No. 16. Cummings Bicycle-Type Steam Mower. Note Cummings riding his steam bicycle-type “mower-reaper-thresher,” as he called it when he wrote to the Scientific American and sent in this picture telling of how he had been using it around his Henry County, Illinois, neighborhood for four years before that time1873. Looks like he had a lot of firsts for the idea in this country rear-engine tractor, self-propelled mower, bicycle-type tractor, etc. Note the whiskers on the inventor-operator. Those heavy “beavers” began to come off as machines with exposed gears, sickles and flywheels began to take their toll.

No. 17. 1870s Praul Walking Steam Tractor. No list of “oddest” would be complete without at least one of the brainstorms that put legs on the steam tractor to help the wheels get over the rough spots. Every area hatched out at least one. I happen to have two illustrations here at hand: John E. Praul’s from the U.S. Navy in 1879, and Charles Bret’s (France) “Mechanical Horse” of 1875 (not illustrated). Take your pick for win, place or show.

No. 18. 1884 Paterson Plow. Bill Paterson in 1884 built this one that plowed 60-foot strip as it moved down the field at 1 mile per 4 hours with a series of plows mounted on a chain moving across, the rear at right angles to the movement of the tractor. This is the old British 1851 Purkis idea on a big California scale, of course. This Scot was no accidental “inventor,” being the lad the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Company, brought back to Racine in 1892 to build their first gasoline tractor. You can see him in the seat and read his name over the top and cast in the block if you get an original un-retouched photo.

No. 19. California No. 2 Steam Plow. Philander H. Standish, sixth generation descendant of the pilot of the Mayflower, sired this version of the “steam plow,” building his first at Pacheco, Calif., in 1867, publicly demonstrating it at Martinez, Calif., in January 1868, and then going on to win gold medals and cash at California State and San Francisco Mechanics Fairs after putting in a 100-acre wheat crop in the Diablo Valley. This “California No. 2” was built in South Boston where Standish went to get backing and cheaper shop labor and material before demonstrating on famous old Boston Common, then to the Cincinnati Industrial Fair of 1871, on to an Ohio river boat and down to St. Louis and then to New Orleans where he went to work with it on a big sugar cane and cotton plantation. The British give Standish credit for starting this type of rotary cutting blades that hashed the soil instead of turning furrows. Note a spare blade in Standish’s hand as he poses with his No. 2 in Boston as the machine was completed.

No. 20. Benecia Agricultural Works Steam Tractor. Here was the giant 65 hp chain-drive steam job turned out by Benecia Agricultural Works about 1891 when Baker & Hamilton of San Francisco figured it was about time to get into farm tractor building as Best and Holt started rolling with big steam wheeled jobs. The “Thing” weighed 22 tons and probably finished that firm’s efforts at tractor building. Bob Hamilton is the gent with the cane, his grandson having to borrow this photo to get his likeness for their centennial book because “Grandpa was too tight to ever get a photo taken of himself.”

No. 21. Steam Wagon. R.R. Doan, ex-Michigander, made his first model in 1875 and took it down to the Union Iron Works in Sacramento where he got a job and kept badgering Capt. Roberts to build it as a feeder for his river boats that were beginning to get competition from the railroads. Roberts finally gave the nod and footed the bills to build four or five of these 3-wheel all-wheel-drive jobs that became landmarks over the Sacramento Valley and the mountain areas up near the Nevada border. Over at Verdi, Doan was in charge of a fleet of three or four of them hauling green lumber from mill to railroad siding for two or three years in about 1888-91. Two trips a day were made back over the mountain 16 miles. The noise of the engines, their flickering but unfailing lights at night and a sight of them hauling from four to 12 wagon trailers loaded with lumber, are recollections of the old-timers still told with awe by those who saw them. The Southern Pacific crews used to kid the “steam wagon” crews until a bet and a tail-to-tail pulling match between rail and land steam engines shut up the rail boys.

No. 22. Thomson 3-Wheel Rubber-Shod Steam Tractor. Thomson’s rubber-tired steamers of 1867-70s shook up the whole world and had a lot of “inventors” copying and improving them to get longer life from the early solid bands of rubber he put on. Here is Col. Oliver Hyde’s version of it caught hauling the columns for the new California State Capitol at Sacramento in 1871. Hyde was engineer for the Tide Lands Reclamation Company that bought one of the Thomson road steamers and put it to work at reclaiming the rich delta lands in Central California. Hyde took out several patents on application of the rubber to the wheel rims. 

No. 23. Stone Spader and Pulverizer. That old nursery and seed farm of Landreth’s, just out of Philadelphia a little way, deserves some attention for its use and backing of a couple of early “odds.” I might even nominate this pioneer firm that started a couple of years before G. Washington took his seat as No. 1 in the line of presidents of the U.S. as the oldest continuous “tractor farmer.” They bought one of the first Williamson-Thomson rubber-tired  “steam plows” built by Williamson at Grants Locomotive Works in New Jersey about 1871 or ’72 and worked it for several years in its seed and nursery farming. But in addition they backed an inventor who developed “Stone’s Spader and Pulverizer” in their shops and on their farm operations in the mid-1880s. Have a look at the only picture of it I have ever encountered as I got it from one of the sixth generation Landreths.

No. 24. Winas Tractor. The Confederates might have turned the tide of the Civil War with this little steam number had it not been captured before it got to the front. Winans was the inventor, who put a gun inside that funnel-shaped shield.

No. 25. Reynolds Steam Plow.  Reynolds got quite a bit of attention with this little steam job that came out about the time the Civil War started. Note that he had power lift of the plows as did Fawkes, Standish and others who were striving to build the “steam plow,” “road steamer” and other things to solve the highway transportation and farming jobs in one portable power machine.

These 25 items, picked at random as I leaf over a few I recall worth a second look should give your readers some idea of the wide attention given the subject providing something faster, safer, more flexible and economical than ox, horse, elephant, camel, dog and such animal power as was standard over various areas of the world of agriculture. Some of these ideas started trends. The crawler idea never died, rubber came back but with “free air” after passing out of the picture on tractor wheels for nearly 60 years. The 3-wheel tricycle style that came over on the Scotch Thomson set California style of wheel arrangement for three decades till the Holt crawlers arrived.

Maybe it will help find pictures of Obed. Hussy’s 1855 steam tractor that was at Baltimore cattle show that year. Or Miller’s 1858 crawler that appeared at the California State Fair that year. Steen & Robard’s 1860 steam corn planter from Hannibal, Mo., is another I am hunting. Also, Indiana had a cultivator with legs in the 1870s that should be one to see in pictures.

I note by your July-August issue that my old friend Art Page has passed. I knew him for years in his editorial spot on the old Prairie Farmer before it took over the Sears, Roebuck WLS (World’s Largest Store) radio station. I believe Sam Guard, formerly of the old Breeders’ Gazette, started that radio program for WLS. I've forgotten just how it came to pass that Sears sold its station to Prairie Farmer. I recall dropping in at Prairie Farmer and asking to see its bound volumes of the early PF’s that went back to the 1840s when Emery published one paper and some rival a second one that were merged along in the 1850’s to make the Prairie Farmer. Incidentally, it was the first farm paper to carry a steam tractor on its masthead, the Fawkes “steam plow” from Pennsylvania getting that honor spot in 1858 or ’59 after it had won prizes at the Illinois State Fair at Decatur and the U.S. Agricultural Fair at Chicago in 1858 and ’59, and Fawkes moved out to Decatur and started to build them with himself operating one on a custom basis around central Illinois for a year or two before the Civil War broke out.

Anyway, last time I saw Art Page he proudly mentioned that one of his boys had just graduated from the University of Illinois and had got a job at the Caterpillar plant down in Peoria. Guess he must still be with that company from the facts in your obituary of Art. We didn’t get to hear his Dinner Bell programs out here on the coast, but I think he was on the job at the 1932 National Corn Husking Contest up near Galesburg, Illinois, the day I had a fleet of Cat Tens out to pull the wagons, into which the champ huskers tossed their ears. That was the first time that tractors took over from Dobbin on that big event. IMA