1011 New Gambler Road, Mt. Vernon, Ohio 43050.
It is never completely safe to make any broad claims without adequate proof, but so far as I have been able to research the subject, I am at least as of now convinced that the first successful steam traction engine was produced by the C. & G. Cooper Co. of Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 1875. I quote from their 1881 catalogue: 'It is well known to the trade generally, and to many users of farm engines, that we were the first firm in this country to make a successful Traction Engine for agricultural purposes. The first built by us were made in 1875, and they were a success from the start.' Whether or not they were the first, a history of the engine should prove interesting. I am well aware, that in at least one isolated case a lone mechanic somehow connected his farm engine to the drive wheels, but nothing came of it, and the records do not show any more being attempted, until 1875.
The C. & G. Cooper Co., now a division of Cooper Industries doing nearly a half billion dollars of business a year, is one of the oldest companies in Ameica, having been started in 1833. They began making stationary steam engines in the 1840's, in sizes up to 28 x 48 and 225 HP. By 1850 they were building portable farm engines in several sizes up to 12 x 18, - 40 HP. They started building tractions in 1875, show them in their 1876 catalogue, and in the season 1876-77 built and sold over 100 of them. By 1880 they were producing them at an annual rate of over 500. This continued into the 1890's when they found large Corliss engines more profitable, and discontinued all farm engines. We have no records as to how many traction engines they produced but the figure must be well over 5,000. Several years ago we tried through every known channel to locate even one to bring back to the shop where it was built, and were successful in finding exactly one. It had been reconditioned by a very capable mechanic in Michigan, and we were successful in buying it. It is in perfect operating condition, and I personally have driven it. Considering that the last one was built more than 80 years ago, it is not surprising that few ever heard of the Cooper, nor is it surprising that all but this one have apparantly been junked.
The engine was patented in 1876, and was subsequently licensed to two other manufacturers of farm equipment. It used a bevel gear drive on the flywheel side, and used ratchets on the driving wheels to permit turning corners. They eventually built six sizes, from 6 x 10 at 8 HP to 8 x 14 at 18 HP. No one had figured out how to steer it, so two horses were hitched to the front end purely for guiding it, while it pulled the load. In the 1881 catalogue they state that they had patents on ratchets, pawls, and a differential drive, and later they changed over to the differential. In the early catalogues they mention that some difficulty was experienced with the front end of the boiler lifting up when pulling a heavy load, and indicate that the horses being attached helped hold it down. The reason for this deficiency is easily seen in the earliest photographs as the main drive axle was too far forward. This was corrected and it was placed behind the firebox. It is interesting to note that Mr. Cooper was so proud of this engine, he had Currier make a painting of it, including the horses. When the first so called 'self Steering' was first applied we don't know, but it shows up for the first time in the 1883 bulletin. It is interesting to note that the first 'self-steered' engine had a center crank, and spur gearing, having eliminated the bevel gearing. But in the same catalogue they also list the bevel gear drive engine with horses to steer it, stating that 'many still prefer horses to guide it'. In the 1885 catalogue, they list the bevel gear drive engine 'self-steered', have moved the main drive shaft to the rear of the firebox, and for some reason make no mention of the center crank engine. This is difficult to understand, since it appears again in the 1887 catalogue. Also in this catalogue they list the bevel gear engine, both self steered and horse-steered. In the 1889 catalogue the center crank engine is again eliminated, and they settled down to the bevel gear drive with self-steering. That is the type we have in this engine brought back to the shop, so it was built after 1885, we believe in 1886.
We mentioned above that Mr. Cooper had Currier make a painting of the engine in 1875 or shortly thereafter, horses and all. After 'self-steering' came out he was not proud of that painting, and stored it out of sight, where it remained until 1950 when we discovered it and had it restored. It hangs today in our main offices.
Ralph L. Boyer
Some background on the author may be interesting. I am a former employee of C. & G. Cooper, later The Cooper Bessemer Corp., having come with the company in 1926, retired in 1964. I grew up on steam traction engines on the farm, hence the interest. I was educated at Ohio State University, and held several engineering positions with the company, the last 15 as Vice President and Director of engineering. All steam, even the Corliss engines, were gone before I came, and my life was spent on Diesel and Natural Gas engines, Compressors, and finally on Gas Turbines, the latter going up to 30,000 HP. But one never gets steam out of the blood, and I have been a regular at attending steam reunions, considering myself also as an 'old-timer' now.
The company has grown enormously, and the name has changed several times to better suit the business. It is now listed on the New York Stock Exchange as Cooper Industries, headquartered in Houston. It has many plants and divisions, Cooper-Bessemer being only one unit. It in turn is a part of Cooper Energy Services, Inc. Cooper built Corliss engines from 1868 to about 1920, Natural Gas engines for pipelines from 1910 to the present, and gas turbines from 1959 to the present.