Working Out the Kinks of Steam Plowing

Steam plowing moves past John Fowler’s two-engine system of steam cultivation

| June 2012

As mentioned in my column in the May issue of Farm Collector, John Fowler was a pioneer in steam cultivation. In the mid-1850s he experimented with a two-engine steam plough system where portable engines stationed on each side of a field pulled the plow back and forth between them. While there were advantages, especially in setup time, the expense of the extra engine initially put a damper on this steam plowing system.

The soft iron wire cable that was used with all cable systems was a big problem. It wore quickly, affording only about 200 acres of use. In 1857, Fowler finally managed to get a steel cable made, extending cable life to more than 1,000 acres.

Fowler kept improving his machinery, which was built for him by others, and he experimented with self-propelled engines during that time as well. In about 1860, Fowler began manufacturing his own equipment and became one of the big names in cable tillage equipment.

When self-propelled (or traction) engines became practical, it eliminated the need for horses to move the gear and made the two-engine arrangement more practical. The system became the norm throughout Great Britain and was still used by some contractors into the 1960s.

“A roughish job”

A rig consisting of a single engine and movable anchor was popular for a while (see Early Days of Steam Plowing in the U.K.).The anchor and engine were placed on opposite headlands and the plow or cultivator was pulled back and forth between them with the engine providing power in both directions. As the implement approached the anchor it tripped a clutch, causing a winding drum on the anchor to turn with the haulage rope, pulling the anchor forward the required distance by another rope attached to a ground anchor, tree or post ahead of the moving anchor.

The popular two-engine system required an engine on each headland, each equipped with a winding drum. The most popular position for this drum was horizontal under the boiler, although engines with vertical-, side- or rear-mounted drums were made as well. One manufacturer even had his large winding drum encircle the engine boiler.