Powered By Animal Tread Power

Animals pulled the load on early tread powers

| April 2011

Long before the internal combustion engine was perfected or steam power became popular, horses, mules, cattle, dogs, goats and even sheep were pressed into service to supplement human brawn as a power source. So long as the job was to move a load from here to there, all that was needed was a strong draft animal or two and a suitable harness to connect the animal to the load. However, converting an animal’s linear movement into rotary motion wasn’t as easy. 

Probably the first machine that needed turning was the gristmill, developed in the Middle East in about 800 B.C. to grind flour. Fortunately, the gristmill was stationary and could be located next to a stream or river that furnished the driving power through a water wheel. Gristmills could also be turned by windmills. The first recorded instance was in Rome before the time of Caesar Augustus. When sawmills became popular, they too were usually located along a stream. Often a single entrepreneur would build a gristmill and a sawmill side by side and folks from the surrounding area would haul their grain and logs to him for processing.

Early power on the farm

When threshing machines became popular in Great Britain (during the late 1700s) and in America (by the 1820s) they were turned by hand, a tedious job that required much muscle and sweat. In 1826 it was said of Jacob Pope’s Massachusetts-built threshers that it was “harder work to turn the crank than to swing the flail.” Barns were seldom close enough to a stream to allow the use of a water wheel. While the occasional farmer might have a windmill to pump water, it wasn’t powerful or reliable enough to run a thresher.

In 1822, a man named Howe patented a thresher with a vertical cylinder that was driven by a tethered horse walking on a large circular platform. As the platform revolved, a belt around its circumference drove a pulley on the vertical shaft of the threshing cylinder. Supposedly, the endless-track treadmill tread power was invented in England in the 18th century to drive textile mills, reportedly with shackled prisoners providing the power, although most references I’ve found refer to water power. So treadmills weren’t new. Although slaves, prisoners and even children may have been used at times to run them, animals were the more popular source of power.

Most early “groundhog” threshers (early threshing machines consisting of a spiked cylinder and a fixed concave) were powered by a horse or an ox on a tread power but the new, combined thresher-fanning mills being developed by the Pitts brothers and others required more power than the old leather-belt treadmills could provide. The Pitts brothers (John and Hiram) made many improvements to the groundhog threshers of the day, including an improved treadmill patented by Hiram Pitts in 1830 that used iron tracks and rollers to support the wooden lags (or tread blocks).

Perfecting a simple design

Tread powers were built in many sizes. Small versions operated by a dog, goat or sheep ran small machines; huge, four-horse models powered large threshing machines or sawmills. All tread powers, regardless of size, consist of an inclined box or pen into which animals are driven and tied. The floor of the pen is made up of an endless chain of cross planks (lags), each of which is supported and connected to each other and to the drive pulley by arrangements of chains and rollers. There is usually some sort of a centrifugal governor inside the pulley to keep the movement of the platform from “running away” with the animal.


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