Evolving Uses for Steam Power

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Sam Moore examines the proliferation of uses for steam-powered machinery on the farm in the late nineteenth century.

| February 2008

"I've no muscle to weary, no heart to decay
No bones to be 'laid on the shelf.'
And soon I intend you may 'go and play'
While I manage the world myself.
But harness me down with your iron bands
Be sure of your curb and rein,
For I scorn the strength of your puny hands,
As a tempest scorns a chain."

The "Song of Steam" was written in 1849 by George W. Cutter of Covington, Ky., to celebrate the exciting new source of seemingly unlimited power then sweeping the industrial world.

By that time, small steam engines were rapidly coming into use to drive factory machinery, while steam-powered trains crisscrossed the eastern part of the country hauling passengers and freight at previously unheard-of speeds. The agricultural use of steam power lagged far behind, however.

While it apparently was never used in agriculture, the first steam-powered tractor was probably the Cugnot three-wheeled steam road wagon, built in France in 1769 and intended to pull artillery pieces for the French army. Due to government politics, as well as the fact that the thing was unstable and hard to control, Cugnot's machine was soon forgotten.

The first primarily farm use of steam power in the U.S. was on large sugar cane plantations in Louisiana, where stationary engines were used as early as 1818 to drive the cane-grinding mills. Since installing a steam engine was an expensive proposition, plantation owners cast about for other uses after the cane was crushed. Soon other machines such as sawmills and fanning and grinding mills were steam-driven. When successful rice threshing machines appeared about 1830, it wasn't long before a few of them were belted to the handy steam engines as well.

Cotton gins were a huge improvement over hand processing, but early gins were hand-operated and each machine could process barely 40 pounds of cotton per day. Horse and mule powers were eventually tried, which raised the daily output per gin to 400 pounds. It was soon found, however, that three men and a steam-powered gin could turn out approximately 4,000 pounds of clean cotton each day. Steam power was also ideal for driving large presses that made big cotton bales. In 1839, a Louisiana plantation owner wrote "Very much (pleased) with Wm. H. Barrow steam mill. Ginning, grinding and sawing by steam … ginning by steam from 5 to 10 bales a day …"

All these steam engines, however, were built on a solid foundation, usually of brick. Therefore, any machine it ran had to be brought within belting distance of the engine.