Thomson Road Steamer: Douw D. Williamson Attempts an American Steam Plow

The Thomson Road Steamer in America – Part II

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An Oliver Hyde's Overland Steamer hauling columns for the California capital building, 1870.

F. Hal Higgins collection

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This issue, we continue with the history of Douw D. Williamson’s effort to produce a successful American steam plow. 

As stated in “Plowing by Steam” from Williamson’s 1878 Van Nostrand’s Magazine article, “The first really great achievement of the Williamson steam plow was in the testing trials of one sold to Col. Thomson of Minnesota, when with a gang of five 20-inch breaking plows, it actually plowed four acres in an hour of virgin prairie. The power exerted may be estimated from the fact that a 20-inch breaking plow is usually drawn by four yoke of oxen, and the amount plowed is not over an acre per day. Of course the four acres per hour was an extreme amount, but Thomson afterwards reported 30 acres per day of 10 hours as being the regular work of the engine.”

In the Aug. 31, 1871, edition, Pacific Rural Press reported, “A steam plow built at the great locomotive works in Paterson, N.J., has been successfully introduced on the great western plain in Minnesota. The plows turned the turf at the rate of about 40 acres per day. The machine is said to be capable of drawing 10 loaded wagons over an ordinary road as rapidly and safely as the same could be done with 10 pairs of horses. It was invented by Mr. Thomson of Edinburgh, Scotland, and has been patented in Great Britain and America.”

Williamson’s engine was not only impressing in the field, but also along waterways. Engineering magazine, June 23, 1871, reported: “A very interesting experiment was made on the 11th by D.D. Williamson, of New York, in the application of his road steamers to the towing of heavily loaded boats on the Erie Canal. The result of the trial proved that the road steamer is perfectly able to run along on the present tow-path and draw three of the largest canal boats fully loaded at the rate of 3 MPH, at which speed no detrimental effect was produced by the wash on the banks.”

In New York, a committee was specially appointed by the Farmer’s Club of the American Institute to examine the Williamson engine’s practical operation in the drawing of heavy loads. They reported in American Artisan in 1871 that the utility of the engine for tractive uses was highly commended.

Landreth & Son near Philadelphia

Acclaimed in Minnesota, the steam engine was also proving capable in the changing soils of Pennsylvania. In the 1878 Van Nostrand’s Magazine article “Plowing by Steam,” Williamson stated, “The peculiarity of their special crops required a continued shifting of work, and the ability of the engine with its plows to go from one field to another was of great importance. In addition to the plow furnished with the engine, the Landreths constructed a very ingenious cultivator for stirring the subsoil without turning it up. It worked admirably, thoroughly breaking up the hard pan and loosening the soil to a depth of 14 inches. It made a heavier draft on the engine than did the gang plow. They also used their engine for drawing manure from their docks on the Delaware (River) to the fields, taking up to nine tons at once.”

The Boston Cultivator reported on a Nov. 8, 1872, trial at Bloomsdale, Pa., county seat and seed grounds of Landreth & Son: “The Landreths having recently introduced the steam plow in the tillage of their 600-acre seed grounds, with gratifying success, in their wonted generous spirit, invited a number of friends to visit them and witness the working of this modern motor for plowing, hauling, etc., on the farm.

“Two self-propelling steamers were exhib­ited to the company,” the author continues, “each being of American manufacture, and each having rubber tires on the driving-wheels. One a four-wheeled engine with compensating gear, having but one cylinder and a horizontal boiler, the power being nominally 10 horse, but actually much greater.

“The general appearance of this steamer is similar to the English engines. It was made especially for farm work, such as plowing, thrashing and hauling, and although powerful, and doubtless a very efficient engine, it appeared to be cumbrous and plethoric when compared with the second engine, to which our atten­tion was especially directed.

“This latter is supported on three wheels, two, the drivers, sustaining nearly the entire weight of the engine, the third and smaller wheel being affixed in front, and used for steering, as is the front wheel of a velocipede. The driving wheels are 58 inches in height and 16 inches face, the steering wheel 34 inches in height and 34 inches face. The peculiar construction of the driving wheels gives them great superiority over all other wheels for traction engines, for which the world is indebted to Thomson of Scotland, and to Williamson, the manufacturer in this country, of those field engines, for valuable improvements.

“The lot in which we were obliged to plow was rather short,” the Cultivator reports on the conditions of the trial, “measuring only 250 yards. As in plowing by direct traction, much is gained by working long ‘lands’ – the minimum should not be less than 300 yards, but this field was favorable for testing the steam plow under such circumstances as might occur. The engine turned out on the headland at each end of the lot, and set in again without stopping, only losing each turn, perhaps 30 seconds of time.

“The plowing apparatus consists of a frame attached, each so arranged or set as to cast its furrow into that of the plow preceding it. The width of the belt plowed of the sward, which I witnessed, was about 6 feet, and 7 to 8 inches in depth, though the power of the engine was evidently capable or plowing a much greater width and depth, as it has plowed at Bloomsdale, 7 feet in width and 10 inches in depth. The speed with which the plow advanced was about double that usually made by mules or horses in plowing. The soil was nearly free from stones and rocks, and was thoroughly plow­ed. All present pronounced the steamer and steam plowing emphatically a success.

“Next in order, two large farm wagons were attached behind the steamer, each fitted up with loose seat boards across the body, and as many as could ride were seated, when she steamed out on the public road, passing obstructions and avoiding gate posts in admirable style. Once in line on the road, our iron horse seemed sud­denly excited, and went as though a whole lot of ‘old boys’ were after him.

“Fortunate­ly, the road was a fair one, with here and there a stone, sufficient to give us a good shaking. We sped away a circuit of some two or three miles, and returned to the starting point by entering the domain on the opposite side from that at which we had left it, and crossed by farm roads, through an area of 50 acres or more, which had recently been plowed by the engine. The work appear­ed to have been executed in a superior man­ner, with a uniform depth of 9 inches. We next, witnessed with intense interest the plowing of the sward, which was continued until the novelty was slightly waning.”

Arguments against Direct Traction

William Churchill Oastler, the American agent for Aveling & Porter road locomotives, read a paper titled “Steam Plowing Machinery” at the February 1871 meeting of the New York Society of Practical Engineering, in which he stated: “One of the best authorities on steam cultivation says, ‘Direct traction plowing is utterly and entirely out of the question.’

“The experiment has been tried over and over again in England by every manufacturer of steam plowing machinery, and always with the same result. No matter whether the engine be a light or heavy one, work­ed by chain or gear, with plain broad wheels or with rubber tires, it is invariably found that as much power is taken to propel the engine alone over the land as is required to haul the plow, in other words, 50 percent of the whole duty of the locomotive is wasted. This is the case on level field; on hilly ones the feat is an impossibility.”

Oastler also cited an English War Department report, where rubber-tired driving wheels were compared to iron driving wheels, using an Aveling & Porter traction engine traveling over hard ground. The conclusion of this comparison was that no significant improvement in traction was obtained using wheels with rubber tires.

Being the American manufacturer of traction engines using the Thomson rubber-tire patent, Williamson responded to Oastler’s assertions. His letter was published in American Artisan, March 22, 1871. Williamson labeled the results of the English War Department report as absurd, critical of the test not being run over soft ground and objecting that the rubber-tired wheels were not constructed according the recommendations of Thomson, as to the width and thickness of the rubber used.

Williamson suggested a trial be made between an Aveling & Porter engine and a Thomson engine in “a competi­tion between two engines built upon different prin­ciples.” Each company was to furnish an engine of its best construction, with its most capable engineer to drive it. There were also going to be rules to make sure the engines were tested under varied circumstances.

Oastler responded to Williamson’s comments in a letter also published in American Artisan, April 5, 1871. Oastler defended his arguments presented in his paper, and objected to Williamson calling an official report of the British War Department absurd, noting he was not inclined to notice Williamson’s cynical and discourteous communication.

In the April 5, 1871, issue, the editors of American Artisan expressed their opinion about Williamson’s engine. “We do not believe in the practicability of plowing by direct traction, but, nevertheless, desire that its advocates should find in our columns a ready expression of their views.

“The arguments are summed up as follows in the Engineer: ‘Let us see what can be fairly urged in favor of direct traction. In the infancy of railroads the rope system of haulage was extremely popular, and precisely the same arguments were urged against direct traction by locomotives that are now used in speaking of steam-plowing … Can or cannot such an engine be produced? We hold that it can. So does Mr. Thomson of India-rubber tire celebrity, and backed up as we are by his opinion, and that of many other competent engineers, we repeat that it is highly desirable that the system of plowing by direct traction should meet with all possible encouragement. The idea is full of promise. Nothing but direct experiment on a considerable scale, carried out in the fullest light of modern experience, can decide whether the promise will or will not be fulfilled.’” 

The St. Louis Fair

Seven months later, Williamson’s letter to the editors of The Country Gentleman, published in their Nov. 16, 1871, edition corrected an error on the origin of Williamson’s engine. “My attention has just been called to an article in one of your late numbers,” Williamson wrote, “in which, is mentioned the great fair at St. Louis. You state that a road steamer and steam plow, the invention of Mr. Thomson of Scotland, but perfected by Lord Dunmore, was exhibited by D.D. Williamson of New York. Will you kindly allow me to say that the Williamson Road Steamer and Steam Plow, which I exhibited, was fitted with Thomson’s patented rubber tires, (of which invention I hold the American patents,) but that, with that exception, the machine was essentially American, and a radical improvement upon the engine built in Scotland, known as the Thomson Road Steamer.

“It may also interest your readers to know that as a steam plow, all that had been designed to render it successful was the result of American ingenuity, and not from any effort on the part of Lord Dunmore. The work of the latter consisted in plowing 30 inches wide, one year after I had plowed 84 inches wide with my engines in this country. Having spent much time and a large amount of money in making the steam plow a success, I think it but right that what seems destined to take a prominent place in agricultural engineering, should at the start be distinctly known as essentially American.

“Although the unprecedented drought had baked the soil about St. Louis as hard as brick fields,” Williamson continued, “I plowed, before the committee, 100 inches wide and at the rate of 30 acres per day. For this I received the prize for the greatest improvement in agricultural machinery patented, within three years. Twice each day the engine was exhibited as a road steamer, drawing four heavily loaded wagons at a speed of eight miles per hour, and at intervals it drove one of the largest threshing machines at the fair.

“At this same time another of my engines was exhibiting at the California State Fair, gained the prize for a successful steam plow, having plowed 84 inches wide and 10 inches deep, at a speed of three miles per hour. I regret that these two fairs occurred at the same time as the New York State Fair prevented my exhibiting at Albany. I trust that another season will see a number of these steamers plowing up the fields in different states of the Union, and proving that two men, with one ton of coal, can plow from 10 to 30 acres per day in a manner never yet accomplished by hand plows.”

A Clear Hindsight

Despite Williamson’s adamant early defense of his machine, he retracted seven years later in an 1878 paper he read to the New York Society of Practical Engineering. While the initial results of plowing using his engine were encouraging, some things eventually became clear to him, one of which being that plowing loose soil baked by the summer sun presented a new objection to his engine.

“The dust, which was stirred up and scattered by the driving wheels combined with that made by the plows, enveloped everything so that the engine moved in a dense cloud. The driver and fireman could not be recognized. The ‘dust-tight’ joints of the engine covers proved of no avail, and instead of 10 hours of work being accomplished per day in plowing, one half were so occupied, whilst the other five were required for cleaning the engine. Even this division of time was not the only loss, for the engines were cutting themselves to pieces and every bearing, however well guarded, was heating and wearing.

“After fighting the dust bravely for a long time, trying in every way to protect the machinery from its disastrous effect, it became evident that the objection was to a certain extent fatal. The same difficulty would present itself every year in most parts of the country. This, coupled with difficulties inherent in any system of steam plowing, caused the reluctant abandonment of the enterprise.”

This paper, explaining the difficulties that the Williamson traction engines experienced, primarily due to the dry, dusty soil of the American West, apparently did not receive much notice and was not widely discussed in other publications. The problem of dust for machinery that operated in dry and dusty fields continued to be a problem for later steam and gas traction engines, reducing the life span of all exposed gears and bearings.

Eventually, the use of enclosed gear trains and improved oil seals reduced this problem to an acceptable level. Of interest, the first commercially successful California traction engine, the 1889 Best-Remington engine, used a similar design to the Thomson engine, with an upright boiler suspended by the two driving wheels, a 2-cylinder steam engine and a single front wheel for steering, as did the 1871 Williamson-Thomson engine.

Was it all Worth It?

Williamson later explained why he had written the article in the 1878 Van Nostrand’s Magazine. “It may be asked why confess that the hard work of five years and the expenditure of so many thousands of dollars had resulted in a partial failure? One answer is that many of the objections could not be seen at the start, and indeed all that time and money to develop them.

“Another answer is that every engineer or manufacturer, engaged in so important an enterprise as steam plowing owes it to the hundreds of ingenious inventors who may follow him to give the results of his experience, be they successes or failures. In no other way will coming men take up the work where others leave off, but they will go over the same ground, which will lead only to disappointment and loss.

“No other American ever built 10 engines, or had such a large experience. Never did engineers and agriculturalists of such ability assist so heartily to command success, and in no country were the trials conducted with more perseverance and conscientiousness.

“The conclusion of all this is, that those who may be ambitious to invent a steam plow have now no excuse for wasting time or money,” Williamson concluded.

Jack Alexander is the author of Steam Power on California Roads and Farms, The First American Farm Tractors and The Caterpillar’s Roots, which are available through the Historic Construction Equipment Assn. website. Jack can be contacted by e-mail at jacklee@garlic.com  

Oliver Hyde’s American Overland Steamer

In 1871, an improved version of Scotland’s Thomson road engine was built at San Francisco’s Aetna Iron Works. Called the American Overland Steamer, it used Hyde’s patented improvement to Thomson’s famous rubber-tired wheels. This engine was designed to haul ore and supplies in Utah. During the trial run there, Hyde was unable to find enough good water to operate the boiler. It was not practical to operate the American Overland Steamer on the route in Utah that the engine was designed for.

Returning to California in 1871, Hyde then contracted with the Tidelands Reclamation Co. of Oakland to use what Pacific Rural Press reported as his “successful California Road Locomotive” to seed 2,000 acres of wheat on reclaimed land in Sutter County. In 1885, Hyde told the readers of Pacific Rural Press of his experience developing a steam plow for the Oakland company. After it had been determined the Thomson engine “did not have sufficient power to do the job,” he decided to build an engine with “sufficient power to do the work.”

Over the next four years, Hyde improved his plowing engine, increasing the power of the engine from 20 HP to 45. This was accomplished by increasing the size of the engine and the boiler’s diameter from 4 feet to 6. He also improved traction by increasing the driving wheels from 4 feet in diameter to 6. The width of the rim was increased to 30 inches.

Hyde investigated a variety of rotary plows. However, in the final season he used a gang plow 13 feet wide with a hydraulic lift. Hyde stated that after having spent over $40,000 between 1871 and 1875 to develop a steam plow, in the last season his machine “plowed about 800 acres, wore out the drive-wheel gearing and shattered the wheels. It has rested at that.”

As was the experience of the Williamson engines in the early 1870s, the severe conditions found in plowing dry, dusty soil was also a significant factor in the demise of Hyde’s steam plow.


Robert Thomson’s Achievement

Civil engineer Robert William Thomson, of Edinburgh, Scotland, was the first to successfully demonstrate pneumatic tires, in 1846, and the first to build a road steamer, in 1867, that used solid vulcanized tires. A number of these rubber-tired Thomson Road Steamers were manufactured by Tennant & Co., of Leith, Scotland, under his personal supervision.

Born at Stonehaven in 1822, he became well known for his successful road steamers that were exported in large numbers, but not used as road engines in England because of the “red flag” act that required a person to walk in front of steam powered vehicles traveling on common roads. Thomson road engines built in Scotland and England are documented in several publications, including Steam on Common Roads by William Fletcher, published in 1891, and reprinted in 1972.

American Artesian wrote of Thomson May 31, 1873, after his death. “The late Mr. R.W. Thomson, of Edinburgh, constructed an entirely novel form of road locomotive, which he designated the name of ‘Road Steamer,’ and he was certainly the first to reduce the weight of the traction engine, and to introduce several material improvements which, when modified by experience, would be found beneficial to the progress of steam locomotion on common roads.

“Mr. Thomson’s engines were easy to manage, and were able to draw a large amount in proportion, to their weight, owing to the introduction of India-rubber tires on the driving wheels, and, considering the speed at which these engines could run, the machinery was kept in better order through the elasticity of the India-rubber acting as a spring than in any other system.”