JOSEPH FAWKES: steam plow pioneer

Steam Plow

Joseph Fawkes' steam plow of 1858. Main frame was of iron, 8 feet wide by 12 feet long, resting on the axle of a roller (driver), 6 feet in diameter and 6 feet wide. One cylinder, 9'' in diameter with 15'' stroke was provided on each side of the boiler an

American Society of Agricultural Engineers

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Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania 17022

In the summer of 1853, on August 11, inventor, Joseph Fawkes, demonstrated his patented steam plow at Christiana, Pennsylvania, to about 1,000 interested spectators.

The Philadelphia press reported 'satisfactory results,' saying that the plowing was executed 'as well as that usually done by horse power.'

Joseph Fawkes was born in Christiana, Lancaster County on September 25, 1815, the youngest son of Joseph and Elizabeth Walker Fawkes. He showed an early bent for things mechanical and as a young man turned his talents to inventing. Among his early inventions was a rotary lime spreader.

Fawkes achieved many things during his lifetime but is historically important because of his role in the development of the steam plow. He may have been the builder of the first practical steam plowing machine in the nation.

There were some efforts along this line in the 1830's but the machines proved to be too cumbersome and impractical. In the 1850's farmers were really looking for some new type of motive power. The farms of the Midwest with their black prairie soil high in organic material were a special problem. Fawkes was one of many mechanics who saw the need and tried to fill it.

He demonstrated his engine at the state fair in Centralia, Illinois on September 17, 1858 by plowing a strip of land, baked by summer drought. A Chicago press editor reported that 'The excitement of the crowd was beyond control and their shouts and wild huzzas echoed far over the prairie.'

This optimism was tempered some two months later when Fawkes attempted another plowing exhibition at Decatur, Illinois. Here the ground was soft and the huge 10-ton machine bogged down. Indeed, for several decades the main problem of all the new experimental steam plows was their huge size and weight.

In 1859 the New York State Agricultural Society offered a $250 reward to anyone who could develop a steam plow that would do the necessary job. One magazine reported that 'the whole world is waking to the importance of the successful steam plow.'

In 1861 Fawkes exhibited his invention at the 'United States Fair' in Chicago in competition with another steam plow. The engine of Fawkes' machine derived its traction steam from a big driving drum rather than from wheels and it drove a gang of six plows. The competing machine got its traction from two driving wheels some 12 feet in diameter.

Fawkes' plow proved superior in this 'prairie soil' test. His drum cylinder machine traveled on the surface of the soil with no difficulty while the big drivers on the other entry sank into the ground.

Fawkes soon became a popular figure in the west. The Ohio Farmer of 1859 reported, 'When Fawkes gives a couple of toots of his whistle and the great steam horse speeds over the ground dragging a gang of plows, almost every man, woman and child leave horses and sulkies to their fate and follow this blower-up of antiquated notions.'

Fawkes, seeing a business opportunity, moved to Illinois, with the idea of manufacturing steam plows. The Civil War intervened.

After the war interest was renewed in steam plows but these huge machines had some disadvantages. When the ground was too soft they often sank from sheer weight. They needed coal and from two to four men to operate. Mechanics were few, as were repair shops. Most farmers didn't want to spend the thousands of dollars needed to buy one 'monster.'

By this time, of course, other steam plows were on the market. The Geiser Steam Lift Plow, made in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, was considered to be one of the best. For some time steam plows were used a good bit in the western states, particularly on the San Joaquin Valley wheat ranges, but they lacked acceptance in places such as the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.

Joseph Fawkes didn't have the necessary capital to properly pursue the business of making and selling his plow. He moved to a farm at Moline, Illinois and then to Spring Lake, Iowa. Then he went back to Chicago and manufactured rotary electric goods. More ill fortune. Fire destroyed his factory. He moved to Burbank, California, and worked in fruit culture until he died on March 14, 1892 at the age of 77.

Joseph Fawkes never achieved the fame of fortune of a Thomas Edison. He remains, however, an important chapter in the pages of America's industrial and agricultural history. The collective impact of many chapters such as Joseph Fawkes' has been the driving force of our nation's progress.

After the Civil War some British cable plowing steam machines were imported. These were impractical for use in the big grain fields of the United States and Canada, as their short strings of cable were designed for smaller areas.

It was obvious to practical men that steam plowing in the U.S. did indeed depend upon someone developing a self-propelled engine which could move over a field dragging a gang of plows.

A few men with vision began working on the idea of converting portable steam threshing engines, in use since 1850, into traction engines by the addition of a self-propelling attachment. In the 187p's the big threshing machine companies, facing increasing competition and seeing an expanding market, added self-propelling attachments to their portables and a new era of power farming began.

The threshing process was revolutionized. Self-propelled units moved over roads from field to field, and the fields could be worked faster and more efficiently. This didn't all happen over night, of course, and problems of traction attachment, control and steering had to be overcome. However, by the middle of the 1880's the steam traction engine was supplying most of the belt power needs of the grain farmer.

By the 1890's Best and Holt traction engines were used on wheat farms on the Pacific Coast for plowing as well as combining. These machines cost too much for the average farmer. In the early 1900's other farm equipment firms made some adjustments to their threshing engine designs and built special plowing engines.

Axles, gears and shafting were strengthened. Coal bunkers and water tanks were enlarged. Broad drive wheels and extension rims were added, to keep from sinking when the ground was soft.

By 1912 the large threshing machine firms included in their lines, corn planters, discs, cultivators, water tanks and plows.

Steam plowing had come a long way since Fawkes' machine was described by Stewart Holbrook in 'Machines of Plenty' as follows:

'.......a true monster an upright boiler mounted on a platform with big wheels, it looked something like a fire engine. Attached to the rear of the platform was a series of plows to be raised and lowered by a maze of wheels, pulleys and rope.'

It was said that 'the Fawkes' invention actually was a steam tractor, which weighed several tons and pulled eight plows at a speed of four miles an hour. It could plow four acres or better in an hour.'

To describe a machine is fairly easy. To describe a man, to tell what makes him tick, to define his driving power, is more difficult. Joseph Fawkes was a colorful man, an inventor, a creator of machines. He was a businessman who, when he failed, tried again. He was a family man with seven children and he played an important role in the agricultural growth of the nation.

Data gathered from Steam Power on the American Farm, by Reynold M. Wik and Machines of Plenty, by Stewart Holbrook.