Working Out the Kinks of Steam Plowing

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

| June 2012

  • Steam-Plowing the Rusty Iron
    A Fowler 11/13-tine turning cultivator is about to start its next pass across the field. The driver has yet drop the cultivator into work by pulling on the lever. The cultivator is seen here operating with 11 tines, as no tines were fitted to the wing brackets mounted on the frame near the center of the wheels. This was standard practice when the ground was very hard. 
    Photo courtesy U.K. Steam Plough Club archives
  • Fowler Five-Furrow Balance Plow
    A Fowler five-furrow balance plow that was still at work commercially in the 1960s. The engine is a 1919 18 nhp Fowler (no. 15363). The plow is just beginning its return run, while the now-idle engine behind it has already moved forward into position for its next pull. 
    Photo courtesy U.K. Steam Plough Club archives
  • Fowler Steam Plows on the Road
    Fowler no. 15326 and no. 15327 on the road between jobs. These engines were part of an order placed by the British government in 1918 for 90 sets of Fowler steam tackle (equipment) to help with the country’s effort to stave off the threatened starvation caused by the activities of German U-boats. The front engine is towing a cultivator and a balance plow, while the rear engine has the crew’s living van and the water wagon. A crew normally consisted of four men and a boy, with the boy responsible for cooking food and bringing morning and afternoon tea to the plowmen and engineers.
    Photo courtesy U.K. Steam Plough Club archives
  • Steam Plowing
    A great day for steam plowing. A 1919 16 nhp (nominal horsepower) Fowler plowing engine (no. 15345) and a Fowler English topsoil balance plow in operation at the first Steam Plough Club Great Challenge in 1994.  
    Photo courtesy U.K. Steam Plough Club archives
  • Winding Drum Steam Plow
    A good view of the winding drum on a 1918 16 nhp Fowler plowing engine (no. 15183) at the Fourth Great Challenge in 2002. This engine has a 600-yard rope drum. 
    Photo courtesy U.K. Steam Plough Club archives
  • Steam-Plowing Kinks
    An 1876 Howard 8 nhp plowing engine (no. 110) for use with the double-engine system. The rope drum is mounted vertically at the back and the cable is run under the boiler, around a pulley mounted there and then out to the implement. This engine was bought in the 1920s by Henry Ford for his museum. It was later bought back from the museum, returned to England and restored to full working order. 
    Photo courtesy U.K. Steam Plough Club archives

  • Steam-Plowing the Rusty Iron
  • Fowler Five-Furrow Balance Plow
  • Fowler Steam Plows on the Road
  • Steam Plowing
  • Winding Drum Steam Plow
  • Steam-Plowing Kinks

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.