Traction engine

Fowler No. 3734, an 8 HP general purpose traction engine built in 1879.

Content Tools

What do you look for in a book about steam? The story of engines? The story of the men who planned and built them? The story of the business enterprise itself? The story as related in pictures?

If you answer yes to any or all of the questions, you'll be fascinated by the book titled 'The Story of The Steam Plough Works' written by Michael R. Lane, past president of the National Traction Engine Club of Great Britain.

The book tells just about everything you'll want to know about the company founded by John Fowler, which in the years from the mid-1850s into the early 20th Century became a giant in its industry only to vanish into oblivion.

This 410-page book is a giant comparable to the Fowler business81/2' wide, 12' deep, weighing 4 pounds, and full to the brim with facts, figures, inside information, diagrams and photographs.

It arrives under excellent auspices. It is published by Mechanical Engineering Publications, Ltd., which is publisher to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers of Great Britain. The Society of Automotive Engineers is exclusive distributor in the United States and Canada.

If there is any criticism, it is that the book brings an over-abundance of information an 'embarrassment of riches' which may overwhelm some readers. But no one can complain that the book fails to keep the promise of its title. The author deserves applause.

With John Fowler, the founder, you are back in the middle of the 1800s when application of steam to farming was mainly a gleam in some inventor's eyes. But then comes his breakthrough on the steam plough (or plow as many Americans spell it) and that's just the beginning for stunning achievements.

While some people may know Fowler primarily for steam traction engines, the firm's output also included road locomotives, road rollers, railway locomotives, other rail products, electric light generators, construction machinery, and a variety of machinery for use in industry, mining, and on plantations.

Products of the firm went everywhere in the world. The company met many new developments and took them in stridethe rise of the internal combustion engine, the introduction of electricity for general use, the pressures of World War I, the end of the steam era, and always the demand for innovation.

One anecdote about a sale to Russia speaks for many in the book. Fowler was called on to build 168 road engines plus 196 wagons in 1915, and the contract said the engines were to be of oil burning type. Fowler engineers thought this meant steam engines with oil fired boilers. Not so, said the Russian inspectors. They wanted crude oil engined tractors similar to those being developed by the Germans. The book goes on:

'Diplomacy and some rather extravagant wining and dining saved the day and the steam engines were eventually accepted.'

But that was not the end of this story. The Russian army was later defeated; the Czar was overthrown. Of 143 engines made and sent, all were 'lost in the Masurian Swamps where they had been ensnared by the victorious German army.' If you think you have troubles, figure how you'd try to get indemnity for that loss.

With the more than 500 illustrations and line drawings, the text will make great wintertime reading for everyone who likes steam. The author mourns the passing of the firm in 1947, when it was absorbed into a group of companies. The Steam Plough Works and offices were closed in 1974 and the factory demolished in 1975.

Among the many lively features of the epic book is the introduction by Isabel A. Pelly, grand-niece of founder, John Fowler. She recalls a visit to America as a child in 1901, and has a keen memory as well as a long life. She lauds the author, Michael Lane, for years of research and a narrative which forges a 'rare marriage' between 'technical achievement of the highest order and a dramatic human story.' Well said.

'The Story of The Steam Plough Works' can be ordered from Stemgas Publishing Company, Box 328, Lancaster, PA 17603. Price is $55.00 postpaid.