The Beginning of the End for Steam Traction Engines

Steam traction engines had decided disadvantages, including scarce timber and expensive coal, which led to their decline.

| August 2017

By the time the “Gay Nineties” rolled around, the strong patents held by the Otto Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on internal combustion engines had expired. As a result, “mechanicians” and tinkerers all over the country began experimenting with gas traction engines.

Virtually every threshing machine manufacturer had developed and was successfully selling steam traction engines and had little interest in the new technology. Many threshermen believed steam was the only power for threshing and scoffed at the idea of gas engines being as good.

Still, steam engines had decided disadvantages. In most grain-growing areas, timber for fuel was scarce and coal was expensive. An extra man, a team and a water wagon were needed to haul the 20 or so barrels of water used by the engine every day – and water was scarce in some areas. It required a half-hour or so to get steam up in the morning, flues clogged or leaked and had to be cleaned or replaced, grates burned out, and boilers sometimes exploded, while in cold weather pipes could not be allowed to freeze.

The Paterson tractor

Oddly enough, J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. – probably the largest maker of steam traction engines at the time – was the first to leap into the unknown waters of gas traction. David Pryce Davies, a young draftsman for Case, is credited with designing the company’s first gas tractor in 1892. Usually called “the Paterson tractor,” because the 2-cylinder horizontally opposed engine was based on a patent issued to James and William Paterson of Stockton, California, the frame and wheels were essentially the same as those on a Case steam traction engine, while the machine featured a canopy and a huge flywheel on each side.

It was tested on a nearby farm, but as both carburetion and ignition were in their infancy in that era, mechanical problems caused the idea to be discarded. Case engineers, however, continued to work on the new technology and, as the 1913 Case catalogue (the first to feature gas and oil tractors) pointed out, “had expended more than $100,000 in experimental work (on tractors).”

Built under contract

In October 1910, a Racine, Wisconsin, newspaper reported on Case’s “new traction engine that burns coal oil,” and cited Davies, by this time “tractor development engineer,” as saying he was sure they had a good product that could be run by anyone.