Portable Steam Engine Provided Reliable Power

The invention of the portable steam engine heralded a new era of reliable power


| September 1998



The Gaar-Scott Improved Traction Engine, from about 1889

The Gaar-Scott Improved Traction Engine, from about 1889

At the close of the 19th century, the American farmer was frustrated by his inability to increase production. Clearly, there was a limit to what man and beast could achieve. The invention of the portable steam engine, however, heralded a new era. 

The evolution of the portable steam engine did not reach farm communities until late in the development of the steam engine. But the need was clear: Farmers in the 19th century were desperate to improve efficiency through mechanization.

The steam engine had been in development for almost two centuries before it became a viable alternative to manpower in increasing farm productivity. The steam engine was first realized as a benefit to agriculture with the development of the Cable Cultivator in the United Kingdom. That engine pulled a cable, which in turn pulled a cultivator across a field. The steam engine was an ever-advancing source of power for locomotives, ships, and later, farm equipment.

By the early 1800's, steam engines were commonly used as a source of industrial power. However, they were not yet portable. This excerpt from a Dec. 3, 1883 article in Scientific American makes clear the broad need for portable steam engines.

"People have found that in most varieties of hard labor, it is easier to employ the active of the elements than it is to drudge and toil themselves. Hence it is that the steam engine, which is after all that has been said by the carbon and calorie and pressure engine, the only reliable power which can be used in any and all places - is being applied to almost every conceivable variety by manual labor. It compelled the hammer and drives the plow; it has been harnessed to the car, and hitched to the plow.

"All the drudgery which our forefathers performed with their own muscle is now done to a greater or less extent by this ready slave of the human intellect. Muscles tire, but the steam engine never grows weary. So long as it is supplied with food and drink, and properly cared for, it will exert its energies night and day without rest or sleep, obedient to the slightest beck of the grinding spirit, the engineer.