When John Deere Set His Sights on Steam Power

Unknown to many people, John Deere was fascinated by a steam-powered tractor in the mid-1850s.

  • Just to illustrate some of the crazy ideas circulating in Fawkes’ day is this idea for a steam plow by a Col. C.W. Saladee of Galveston, Texas. The colonel claimed that the 18 plow bottoms spiraled around the axle at the front (left) of the machine not only plowed the ground but pulled the whole machine along, while the rotary harrow at the rear worked up the soil. There’s no evidence that Saladee’s contraption ever saw the light of day.
    Image courtesy Sam Moore
  • A drawing of Joseph Fawkes’ steam plow from the Sept. 10, 1859, issue of Scientific American.
    Scientific American
  • The drawing for Joseph Fawkes’ 1858 patent showing a side and a top view. This drawing includes retractable “spuds” inside the barrel-shaped traction drum that could be extended or retracted to provide more or less traction. This feature wasn’t included on the prototype machines, as one account tells of Fawkes at an 1859 trial where the ground was soggy: “Strips of wooden paling were then fastened to the face of the driving drum in an effort to improve traction, but all attempts failed, and Fawkes was forced to admit that he could do no more.”
    U.S. Patent Office

Common knowledge is that Deere & Co.’s first fling at building a tractor was in 1912, when C.H. Melvin was assigned the job of developing a “tractor plow,” with the additional goal of making “it possible to porce the tractor from the plow and to thus make it available for general purposes.”

This is true (although Melvin ultimately failed), but John Deere himself had a brief love affair with a tractor, albeit a steam-powered model, as far back as 1858.

Probably the first farm use of steam power in the U.S. was on the large sugar cane plantations in Louisiana, where steam engines were used as early as 1818 to drive the cane-grinding mills, but these engines were usually built on a brick foundation and couldn’t be moved. 

It wasn’t long, of course, before curious people watching a steam locomotive rolling along the tracks wondered why a similar machine couldn’t pull a set of plows across a field. In 1850, after seeing a stationary engine driving a thresher, Horace Greeley wrote in his newspaper, the New York Tribune: “… 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.”

Idea new to the public

In 1849, A.L. Archambault of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, built what is said to be the first portable steam engine in the U.S. Archambault’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, but 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.”

Obed Hussey, who probably should have credit for the first successful reaper instead of Cyrus McCormick, demonstrated a steam plow at the 1855 Maryland State Fair, but it wasn’t successful and Hussey apparently worked on the thing until he was killed by a train in 1860.


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