Evolving Uses for Steam Power

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The “power” part of a mule-powered cotton gin. The gin itself is upstairs and is driven by a flat belt from the large vertical pulley behind the white mule.
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A Woodbury 12-horse sweep power. The tumbling rod that drives the separator or other machine crosses the horse’s path at the lower left.
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This contraption, built in 1769 by French army engineer Nicholas Cugnot to pull artillery pieces, is considered by historians to be the first self-propelled vehicle. The heavy boiler hanging out in front, which was steered along with the steam engine and the single front drive wheel (along with no brakes), made the thing hard to control. It was prone to running into walls and other obstacles.
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A small permanent steam engine like those used to power sugar cane mills and cotton gins during the 19th century.

“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.

It wasn’t long before curious and imaginative men, watching a steam locomotive pull a heavy load swiftly along tracks, began to wonder why a similar steam-powered machine couldn’t pull a series of plows across a field.

Some of these men only dreamed, while others wrote about their vision. In 1850, after seeing a stationary steam engine operating a thresher in Water-town, N.Y., Horace Greely wrote in his newspaper “… threshing will cease to be a manual and become a mechanized operation … and this engine will be running on wheels and driving a scythe before it, or drawing a plow behind it, in five years.”

Others, of an inventive turn of mind, tried to fashion their dreams of steam motive power on the farm into reality. In 1849, a Philadelphia man named Archambault built what is said to be the first portable farm steam engine in the U.S. Archmabault’s steam engine on wheels was called “The Forty Niner,” and was available in 4, 10 and 30 hp versions. Others soon got into the business.

Acceptance by farmers was slow: The engines were expensive and mysterious to most. The editor of the Cincinnati Gazette watched a steam-powered thresher in 1857 and wrote that “the idea was new to me and is equally new to the public.”

Most threshing machines were powered by horses or mules. Smaller machines could be run by a team on a treadmill-type power, while larger separators needed two to four teams on a circular (or sweep) power. As the Wheat Belt expanded with its huge acreages of grain, farmers demanded faster threshing and threshermen demanded larger capacity machines. In addition, self-feeders, grain elevators, and wind stackers were developed, all of which ate large amounts of power and required ever larger sweep powers with more and more horses.

Through experience, it was found that seven teams was the maximum number of horses that could be efficiently utilized on a sweep power. Since teams walked in a tight circle, it became difficult to manage more than seven teams. In addition, even the best of teams and drivers had trouble maintaining the steady speed necessary for good threshing.

Threshing was hard on horses as well. As the circle was necessarily so tight, each animal was constantly exposed to a sideways pull on the collar that soon caused sores. In 1874, a farmer wrote to the Rural New Yorker that “… two or three days’ threshing hurts my horses more than a month’s ordinary work (as) they are constantly pulling on a twist.”

The increasing requirements for power (and wear and tear on horseflesh) was the major impetus for rapid growth in use of steam engines after the Civil War. For a good many years, however, the machines were all portable steam engine models that had to be pulled from job to job and were maneuvered into position by a team or two of horses. The steam traction engine that moved itself and could pull a load was still several decades in the future.

We’ll look at the development of the steam traction engine sometime in the future.

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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