Thinking Big and American Innovation

| 2/6/2018 12:00:00 AM

Leslie C. McManus

Edison’s observation came to mind as I considered the drawing of C.W. Saladee’s self-propelling rotary steam plow shown in Sam Moore’s column in this issue of Farm Collector. The fantastical drawing seems taken from the notebooks of Jules Verne, who lived at the same time as Saladee.

We often marvel at the intellect and ingenuity of early inventors and engineers, men who had neither calculators nor computers at their disposal, but who nonetheless conceived brilliant mechanisms that represent the bedrock of today’s industrial technology.

But history has scant interest in the also-rans. Despite being credited with 200 patents at the time of his death in 1894, C.W. Saladee is little known today.

It may have been that Saladee’s true talents were in marketing. In an article he wrote for the March 9, 1861, edition of Scientific American just a month before the start of the Civil War, he spared no hyperbole in describing his steam plow:

“In one simple machine we have the means of plowing, sowing the seed, rolling and harrowing the ground at one operation, if it is desired. Or it can be used for plowing alone, or for plowing and harrowing as the case may be. When in the field it is capable of propelling itself to any point upon the farm or plantation where it may be wanted for other purposes – such as to saw lumber, do grinding, gin cotton, thrash and clean the grain ready for market, draw water, saw the wood consumed by itself, or it may be used as a locomotive to drag the loaded wagon or ‘truck’ over the prairie …”

Whether it was a matter of bad timing or flawed concept or a lack of capital, the self-propelling rotary steam plow apparently never made it off the page. Still, in this country, we are captivated by the person who thinks big. If you google “Saladee steam plow,” this crazy concept comes roaring to life.