Electric Plowing: IH Electrall and the Zimmerman System

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Illustrations from the 1895 Scientific American.
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A lightweight cable car.
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A pair of two-bottom plows.

In July of 1954, Farm Implement News ran an article titled: “IH Electrifies the South Forty.” E.J. Baker Jr., the editor of FIN, recalled being on a train to a Dallas, Texas, farm implement demonstration during World War I, along with a group of equipment makers. As the train rolled through cotton fields in Oklahoma, the men were smoking and shooting the breeze after breakfast one morning, when one of them blurted out ‘We’ll live to see the day when farmers will plow by drawing electricity from the skies.’ Baker said the reaction form the group was dead silence. No one combated it, nor accepted it; everyone just mulled it over.

The FIN article went on to describe the Electrall system that had just been developed jointly by International Harvester and General Electric. A belt-driven generator was mounted on a Farmall Super MTA tractor, and a heavy-duty electric motor was fitted to a pulled implement, such as a baler. The idea was to replace PTO drives, which were dangerous and difficult to connect. Developing 208-volt, three phase current, as well a single-phase 220 and 115-volt electricity, the Electrall could also be used to supply any other current needs. Although the Electrall system was considered quite revolutionary in 1954, and while Baker predicted orders for tens of thousands of the units, not much more was heard of it after the initial announcement.

Actually, the enthusiastic prediction made in 1917 had already been fulfilled some 20 years earlier. In an edition of Scientific American published in 1895, the U.S. Consul in Leipzig, Germany reported on an electric plow built by Zimmerman and Co. The article discussed the disadvantages of steam traction engines for plowing, citing the high initial cost, the expense and difficulty of supplying the engine with fuel and water, and their unsuitableness for small farms due to their size and weight.

The Zimmerman plowing rig consisted of a locomobile (a stationary steam engine) that was belted to a dynamo (generator). Two electric cables ran from the dynamo to the balance plow, upon which an electric motor was mounted. The motor worked upon a chain, which had previously been stretched across the field and anchored at each end. By this means, the plow was pulled back and forth across the field.

The U.S. Consul gave this description of the rig in operation:

“The source of power may be any ordinary agricultural locomobile of from 8 to 12 horsepower. The locomobile may stand on any solid ground at the edge of the field to be plowed. The dynamo machine is placed on a cart, which also carried the gauging apparatus to measure the strength of the current, as well as a reel for winding the cables. The locomobile is set up by means of brake blocks, and the dynamo is fastened into the ground by means of an anchor placed opposite to the belt tension. The dynamo doesn’t require a special attendant as the engine fireman can oversee it.

“One end of a pair of cables is attached to the plow and moves backward and forward with it, while the other pair of ends is attached to the dynamo. The friction of the cable on the ground is overcome by means of light carriages to which the cables are attached. The wheels of these carriages pivot in every direction, allowing them to follow every movement of the plow. Five or six of the carriages, depending on field size, are easily watched by a boy.

“The balance, or tipping plow, is fitted with two shares on each side. The plow is built strongly enough to cut furrows to the depth of 10 to 11 inches, even in heavy, clogging ground. On the center shaft of the plow are the two main wheels, which are easily adjustable vertically, as well as being steerable, so that the driver has the plow under thorough control. An electromotor is mounted on the plow frame. The motion of the electromotor is transmitted to a roller with a chain wheel that, in acting upon the chain, moves the plow across the field at a speed of 70 meters per minute (approximately 2.6 mph). The plow is therefore moved at this rate of speed across the field by means of the stretched out chain.

“The chain is held taut at each end by a triple ground anchor. On reaching the end of the chain, the plow is tilted to the other side and the simple reversal of the current sets the plow in motion in the opposite direction. In returning, it deposits the chain sideways ready for the next round. A laborer, by turning a lever, draws up the three ground anchors, and sets the wheels in motion, so that the anchors are easily moved to the next furrow.”

The article went on to say that the cost of electric plowing, “… ignoring the purchase money for the locomobile, as most farms have one for threshing purposes,” was $1.29 per acre, as opposed to $2.74 for doing the same amount of work with oxen.

The consul concluded by saying: “The economy effected is so self-evident as to render argument superfluous.”

Apparently, the Zimmerman electric plow met pretty much the same fate as did IHC’s Electrall system some 60 years later. Farming by “… drawing electricity from the skies …” is still somewhere in the future. FC

Ever since his days as a boy on a farm in western Pennsylvania, Sam Moore has been interested in tractors, trucks, and machinery. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements, and related items.

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