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Electric Plowing: IH Electrall and the Zimmerman System

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Sam Moore discusses short-lived methods of plowing that used electricity rather than horse power, steam or gas engines.

| August 2001

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    Illustrations from the 1895 Scientific American.
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    A lightweight cable car.
  • FC_V4_I01_Aug_2001_04-3.jpg
    A pair of two-bottom plows.

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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.


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