A Short Tractor History to 1924

Learn about tractor history, starting at the birth of the power farming era in 1831 and ending at the introduction of the McCormick-Deering Farmall tractor in 1924.

| May 2012

  • The-Big-Book-Of-Farmall-Tractors
    The Farmall tractor (the lightweight, general purpose row-crop tractor that could literally “farm all”) was introduced by International Harvester in 1923 and changed the world of power farming. “The Big Book of Farmall Tractors” is an encyclopedic volume, revealing the history of the Farmall tractor and including color photographs of all models.
    Photo courtesy Voyageur Press
  • Minnesota-Farmers-1912-Mogul
    Two Minnesota farmers pause for a photograph alongside their 1012 Mogul.
    Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society
  • Waterloo-Boy-Ad
    Waterloo Boy advertisement from a 1917 "Farm Implements" magazine.
    Photo courtesy Voyageur Press
  • 1916-Big-Bull-Tractor
    The 1916 Big Bull tractor, as it appeared in "Farm Implements" ad.
    Photo courtesy Voyageur Press

  • The-Big-Book-Of-Farmall-Tractors
  • Minnesota-Farmers-1912-Mogul
  • Waterloo-Boy-Ad
  • 1916-Big-Bull-Tractor

The Big Book of Farmall Tractors (Voyageur Press, 2003) is the first book to feature every Farmall model. It chronicles the background of McCormick-Deering and International Harvester and outlines the beginnings of IH’s production of the treasured Farmall tractor from its inception in 1923 until the last model rolled off the assembly line in the mid 1970s. Learn about tractor history in brief in this excerpt from the book’s introduction, “A Short History of the Tractor to 1924.” 

Tractor History

To the farmer, the invention of the tractor was almost as important as the invention of the reaper. It was Cyrus Hall McCormick’s reaper, introduced in 1831, that initiated the power farming era, when mechanisms became a substitute for physical strength and an individual could accomplish more in a day than several men could have previously. The tractor, however, did not suddenly burst on the scene as the reaper did. As they used to say about things that took time to develop, the tractor was “slow a-bornin’.” 

Tractor history properly begins with the development of steam power. Although Scottish inventor James Watt is credited with eighteenth-century inventions that improved the steam engine, it was almost a hundred years later, in 1849, that A. M. Archambault & Company of Philadelphia made the first farm steam engine. When newspaper man Horace Greeley saw that engine at work he wrote: “The time must be at hand when every thrifty farmer will have such an engine of his own, and chopping straw, turning grindstone, cutting wood, churning, threshing, etc., will cease to be a manual and become a mechanical operation.”

The first steam engines were stationary or portable, but the wheels were not powered. Later, manufacturers developed the traction engine, a machine with powered wheels that drivers could steer from a cab or platform. The steam traction engine was essential in driving the threshing machine. In the western states and on the vast Canadian prairies, giant steamers also pulled plow gangs so large that they boggle the mind even today. But the steam traction engine proved to be too unwieldy, costly, and cumbersome for most farmers. A more practical farm tractor was unavailable until German inventor Nicholas Otto patented the Otto internal combustion engine in 1876. The Otto engine featured the classic four-stroke principle still in use today. When Otto’s patents expired in 1890, companies all over the world jumped into the engine business. Before long, there were more than 100 brands of stationary Otto-type engines on the market.



Gasoline tractors made their debut in the 1890s. For the most part, they were steam traction engine chassis fitted with gasoline engines. Most notable of these hybrids was the 1892 Froelich, created when John Froelich of Froelich, Iowa, mounted a Van Duzen engine on a Robinson chassis. His machine, rigged with a reversing gear, clutch, and steering mechanism, was the first gasoline tractor that could propel itself both forwards and backwards, allowing farmers to tow a threshing machine along roads. When operators reached the field, they could engage a flat belt to power the thresher. Unfortunately, John Froelich seemed to be the only one capable of operating the Froelich tractor effectively. Nevertheless, the Froelich was the forerunner of the Waterloo Boy line, which John Deere eventually acquired.

Two young engineers named Charles Hart and Charles Parr created the next gasoline tractor of note. The enterprising pair started making and selling stationary engines as a way to fund their engineering studies at the University of Wisconsin. They later opened a tractor factory in Charles City, Iowa, and in 1901, they built their first tractor. After thoroughly testing it, Hart and Parr sold it to a farmer in 1902. They improved upon the design and sold fifteen of the new variety the following year. (Amazingly, half of these first Hart-Parrs were still in use seventeen years later.) At the time, Hart and Parr’s factory was the only business in America devoted exclusively to tractor manufacturing. It was, in fact, a Hart-Parr employee that coined the word “tractor,” which was short for “traction engines.”