John Charter: Charter Member

John Charter is credited with building the first internal combustion traction engine.

ad for Charter gas engine

An ad for Charter gas engines. A portable Charter engine (not self-propelled) was operated in South Dakota wheatfields in 1885, probably by Franz Burger and his brother. Note the horse works at the front of the portable engine shown at the bottom of this ad.

Illustration courtesy Dr. Graeme R. Quick

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Before the Waterloo Boy, before the Froelich, the little known Charter “traction engine” was on the job in South Dakota, working as the world’s first liquid-fueled, internal combustion farm tractor. Built in Sterling, Ill., in 1887, the Charter quietly made history.

By the 1870s, Nikolaus Otto was perfecting the groundbreaking internal combustion engine in Germany. In 1877 Otto patented the 4-stroke, horizontal single-cylinder engine. It was a major advancement from Lenoir’s “explosion engine” of the 1860s. Principles of the Lenoir and Otto engines were eagerly duplicated in the U.S. Both of those early engines ran on what was then known as “town gas.”

In about 1800, when the industrial age was advancing into full swing, coal and coke were important industry fuels. A byproduct of coal combustion, synthesis gas — syngas — was then known as town gas, street gas or illuminating gas. This gas was generated at municipal gas works for more than a century in England, the U.S. and Australia. In larger cities it was generated, stored and piped at low pressure for use in streetlights. It was also piped into some residences for use in ovens and stoves.

Town gas was produced in cookeries where coal was pyrolyzed in a battery of airtight ovens that liberated the gas. Coal tar and coke were valuable byproducts. The industrial gasifying process generated heat, noise, dust, foul smells, condensates and toxic gases. Gas quality was variable and calorific value relatively low. To top it off, town gas was extremely hazardous, mainly because of its high carbon monoxide content: Toxic to humans, the gas is tasteless, odorless and colorless. The “gassy” smell from other constituents in the gas stream of the locally produced syngas had one advantage though: Leaks were readily detected.

When natural gas gained acceptance, municipal gas works — usually huge structures — were torn down. Natural gas is mined from fossil deposits and consists largely of methane. Methane has twice the energy of manufactured gas and does not contain carbon monoxide. When natural gas is burnt, it gives off less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, so it’s environmentally friendly. Incidentally, in the 1870s, gasoline was a distillation waste product, sometimes dumped into local waterways.

An astute businessman

Born in Germany, John Charter was a boy of 6 when he came to the U.S. with his parents in 1844. An enterprising lad, he learned the cigar-making trade to earn money and by age 19 had patented a cigar mold that brought him a useful income. He joined the staff at the nearby Sterling Gas Co., where he was soon named manager, and then became president of Williams & Orton Mfg. Co., also of Sterling. Charter persuaded W&O management to take on engine manufacture after a visit to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, where he and the office manager saw an Otto engine working. They ordered one on the spot.

The fact that Charter was also head of the local town gas company likely offers an ulterior motive to the engine order. Sterling Gas Co., established in 1873, used its own proprietary town gas to power its versions of first the Lenoir and then the Otto engine. Gas- and liquid-fueled internal combustion engines sounded the death knell for steam power plants. Certified boiler attendants and bulky solid fuels became a thing of the past. Town gas was first targeted as an internal combustion engine fuel; supply lines delivered it to customers.

Astute enough to see that the engine business would drive an increase in gas sales, Charter was an early advocate of the new technology. Indeed, one local businessman noted that when using steam power, he’d paid $25 a month just for the water used in producing steam, not to mention the costs of the solid fuels. In 1886, after converting to town gas, he paid $16 a month for fuel alone.

Visionary designer

In 1878, Franz Burger, a skilled machinist who’d emigrated from Germany, was working in Washington, D.C., building patent models. In those days patent applications were accompanied not only by drawings but also, when possible, intricately detailed models.

Familiar with the Otto engine, Burger worked on improved engine design as a sideline, focusing particularly on liquid fuels that would eliminate the need for town gas line connections. Charter, meanwhile, was monitoring developments in internal combustion engine design and began to study Burger’s designs. Eventually Charter persuaded Burger to join him at Williams & Orton.

There, Burger developed gasoline engines with innovative carburetion. Charter applied for a patent on Burger’s “oil engine” design, despite initially arguing for town gas as the fuel. Charter’s patent proved to be one of the earliest approved in the U.S. for a liquid-fueled engine.

Westward ho!

Williams & Orton’s first Charter engine was sold in 1886; Charter immediately began looking for ways to increase sales. After mounting the engines in trucks for use as portable power units, the next step in a logical progression was to make them self-propelled. Beginning just a year later, in 1887, the first liquid-fueled, internal combustion Charter “traction engines” (using steam terminology of the day) were built in Sterling, Ill. Equipped with single-cylinder 10-20 hp Charter engines, six units were shipped to South Dakota for use as self-propelled powerplants, providing power to threshing machines in the field.

Many consider those six Charter traction engines sold for use on South Dakota “bonanza” farms (see Farm Collector, August and September 2010) to be the world’s first tractors. The six were sold between 1887 and 1892, before the word “tractor” came into common usage. Although they were referred to as “traction engines,” the units did no actual traction work other than haul the thresher from job to job. The Charter units were never intended for plowing.

The Keystone Co. paid Charter $10,000 for the use of his design; soon after, Charter interested H.W. Caldwell & Son Co., Chicago, in his engines. In a short-lived arrangement, those engines were sold as Caldwell-Charters. Later, Charter’s son, James, took the designs to E. & T. Fairbanks Co. (forerunner of Fairbanks, Morse & Co.); early Fairbanks-Morse engines bore a strong resemblance to Charter engines.

The Deere connection

Custom thresherman John Froelich formed a threshing crew in 1888, working with a J.I. Case straw-burning traction engine and a Case threshing rig. Sometime during his circuit in Iowa and South Dakota, he saw the Charter traction engine at work. Inspired by Charter’s Sterling engines, he acquired a Van Duzen engine from Cincinnati for use in his own traction engine in 1892. It was not as sophisticated as Charter’s but did complete a notable 52-day threshing run belted to a Case thresher.

That taste of success was enough for Froelich, who decided to go into the business of manufacturing traction engines. He recruited a group of Iowa businessmen to form Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Co. In 1895, the struggling company went through a change in ownership and was renamed Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. By 1914, the company’s 2-cylinder Waterloo Boy tractor — the direct descendant of the Froelich tractor — was gaining traction in the marketplace. Four years later, in 1918, Deere & Co. acquired Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. Gaining the rights to the Waterloo Boy engine and a 12-25 hp tractor, Deere finally entered the tractor marketplace.

Strange sequel

John Charter died in 1901 and was buried in Sterling, where his gravesite can be seen today. Not long after his death, a spiritualist medium named May Graham surfaced, claiming to be Charter’s wife (although she had never lived in Sterling). In 1901 she left her residence in Chicago for Sterling to lay claim to Charter’s estate. She proclaimed entitlement to at least one-third of what she imagined was a $150,000 prize and told local newspaper reporters that Charter’s two sons had influenced him to separate from her. She also maintained that Charter might have been persuaded to dispose of all his possessions before his death. Chasing a story, the local press pursued Charter’s two sons, but the sons stayed tight-lipped, and May Graham left Sterling empty-handed.

There are still some Charter engines around. What a great project it would be for someone to build a Charter tractor replica! The Charter was, after all, the all-important first tractor in the world with an internal combustion engine. FC

The author acknowledges Terence Buckaloo, director and curator at the Sterling-Rock Falls Historical Society Museum, who made available materials on the life of John Charter.

Graeme Quick resides in Queensland, Australia. He worked in the U.S. for 13 years, much of that time at Iowa State University in Ames, and has written 15 books on farm machinery, including The Grain Harvesters with Wesley Buchele. Contact him at