Forerunner of Rural Automation

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The following article is reprinted with permission from Harvest States Journal, October 1986 edition.

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In 1850 Horace Greeley made a special trip to Watertown, New York to see a portable steam engine power a threshing machine. He was captivated by the belching monster he saw driving the thresher and wrote in his Tribune in New York that 'threshing will cease to be a manual and become a mechanical operation ... and this engine will be running on wheels and driving a scythe before it, or drawing a plow behind it, in five years.'

Greeley prophesied the steam engine boom on the American farm about 30 years before it started. It wasn't until 1885 that the boom in self-propelled farm steam engines began, and it was 15 years after that before there were many pulling a plow or reaper over the fields.

But it wasn't for lack of trying that steam power was not adapted to agriculture in the 1880's. Even before James Watt in 1769 patented his separate condenser which made the steam engine practical, inventors were trying to use steam power to mechanize farming.

The possibility of using a steam engine for farming was recognized 350 years ago. Englishman David Ramsey in 1630 entered a patent for 'Making the earth more fertile,' which suggested steam power could be applied to land transport and to hauling cultivating implements.

It wasn't until 1836, however, that a practical machine was used. John Heathcote, a lace manufacturer of Tiverton, England, patented a stationary engine, which could be driven along the edge of a field on a primitive crawler-type track. It pulled the plow across the field with a long rope. But Heathcote and plow designer Josiah Parkes created their invention for bog reclamation, too limited a job to arouse much interest.

Twenty-one years later John Fowler of London improved this system. It won for him in 1858 the Royal Agricultural Society's long-offered prize of $2,500 for developing a satisfactory method of plowing by steam. Fowler had what others lacked wire rope which came along in the 1850's to provide the strength needed to tackle work in the fields.

Fowler cable and drawbar steam engines were brought into the United States after the Civil War and were shown across the country. Few were sold, chiefly because of enormously prohibitive cost (as much as $30,000 by the time the investment in engine and tackle was complete) and because these engines were designed to work in the small English fields.

English progress in steam culture did not escape begrudging comment in the United States. In the Department of Agriculture Report of 1869, Editor J.R. Dodge wrote: 'As a people, we are wont to boast of our great strides in the field of progress... and yet, with all our amazing progress, there is no such implement known as a practical American steam plow.'

Heading the list of U.S. machines that attracted widespread attention in the 1850's was John Fawkes' steam plow... a locomotive which ran on a large roller instead of wheels. It was 18 feet long and eight feet wide, weighed ten tons when loaded with water and fuel, and developed 30 horsepower. It cost upwards of $2,500.

Fawkes' implement plowed at the rate of one acre in 17 minutes or three and a half acres per hour in tests. It was first demonstrated at the Illinois State Fair at Centralia September 17, 1858. 'The excitement of the crowd was beyond control and their shouts and wild huzzas echoed far over the prairie and there beneath the smiling autumn sky lay the first furrow turned by steam on the broad prairies of the mighty West. The goal was won. Steam had conquered the face of nature and the steam plow had become a fact,' the Chicago Press wrote.

Then came a trial at Decatur, Illinois, in November. The ground was moist and the sloughs soft. Fawkes' machine couldn't move. Trials elsewhere also ended in dismal failure; the machine bogged down in soft ground, if it could be moved into the fields at all. Fawkes had not only built too heavy a machine, he also didn't understand the principles of traction adequately.

By 1885 manufacturers had made enough improvements so that agricultural steam traction engines were capable of supplying the major belt power needs of the American grain-growing farmer. Steam traction engines, however, didn't mean steam plowing. Engines could now move from one field to another under their own power, but they still couldn't draw a plow. These engines were designed for stationary belt work. They had narrow traction gears which couldn't stand the strain caused by the plow's heavy pull on the drawbar.

To correct these weaknesses, manufacturers strengthened the gears, axles, and shafting of the engines and added water tanks and coal bunkers. To prevent the heavy machines from miring in the ground, they provided broad drive wheels, sometimes as much as three feet wide, with extension rims. Semi-steel and all steel traction gears were used in place of cast iron. Special heavily constructed plows with steam-lift attachments were also made.

So, as the turn of the century rolled around, the steam plow was a reality. But there was still a hitch. Because steam plowing engines needed to be large and rugged, they were too expensive for the common farmer to buy. Only those with exceptionally large acreages could afford them.

Nevertheless, the steam plow finally was to have its heyday. Farmers knew the advantages of steam plowing so they encouraged custom plowing outfits to come in and break up the land. When they offered to pay three and four dollars an acre to get this work done, many custom threshermen saw an opportunity to increase their incomes by selling their old traction engines, which could be used for the threshing in the fall. Soon there were steam plowing outfits by the thousands.

Steam plowing's heyday was short, however. Largely a dream in the 19th Century, it quickly became a memory in the 20th Century. Its use in general was limited to the period from 1900 to 1915, the same year that the amount of gas power available for farm purposes equalled that of steam power.

Besides engines to plow the fields, inventors designed implements for steam engines to pull across the fields as the drawings on this page show. Drawings come from the 1869 Department of Agriculture Report.