Early Days of Steam Plowing in the U.K.

A look at steam plowing in the fields of Great Britain in the mid-1800s, and how it differed from steam power in the U.S.

| May 2012

Many of the folks reading this have seen a big steam traction engine, belching black smoke as it pulled six or eight or more plow bottoms behind it, often with several people riding the plow’s footboards to work the depth and lifting levers. These large rigs were used in the vast fields of the northwestern U.S. and Canada where they had lots of room to maneuver. The heyday of steam plowing in this country was from about 1870 to probably 1920, when gas- and kerosene-burning tractors came into widespread use.

In the smaller fields of Great Britain and northern Europe, farmers were just as keen to use steam power as their North American counterparts, and attempts at steam cultivation began much earlier than here. In about 1840, experiments with direct traction steam plows and cultivators were made by wealthy English and Scottish landowners, but the engines and drive systems proved unsatisfactory. In addition, the heavy engines swiftly became mired in the low-lying, boggy land common in Great Britain.

Paving the way for steam plowing

One of the first of such plowing engines was built by John Heathcoat and Josiah Parkes in the early 1830s. This was the first plowing engine that actually worked, and probably the first crawler as well. Two continuous tracks of heavy canvas with wooden lags went around wheels 8 feet in diameter. On a low platform between the wheels were the steam boiler and engine, as well as two winding drums at right angles to the tracks. Steel cables weren’t yet available, so each drum was wrapped by a long, flexible hauling band made of iron strips fastened together.

The engine ran on a raised, rolled roadway constructed through the middle of a field. A haulage band was run to each side from a winding drum across the field, around a pulley on a movable anchor cart and back to the other winding drum. A single-bottom walking plow worked on each side. When one plow was going out, the other was coming back to the engine. At the end of each round, the two anchor carts and the engine were moved ahead. The contraption was not very successful and was abandoned after Heathcoat had sunk £12,000 (about $60,000, $1.5 million today) in the thing. However it had served an important purpose: Subsequent inventors now knew that steam could be harnessed to pull a plow.

Mastering the roundabout

Various experiments continued. In about 1850, a double windlass was developed. That innovation permitted adoption of the “roundabout” system of cultivation. A hemp or wire rope was strung around the outside edge of the field to be worked. Movable pulley anchors were placed at the corners and guides called “rope porters” were placed between to keep the ropes from dragging on the ground. A portable steam engine belted to the double windlass was sited at the field’s edge and each end of the rope was attached to one of the two windlasses. A plow or cultivator was hooked to the rope at a field corner opposite the engine and was pulled back and forth across the field by reversing the winding drums on the windlass. Laborers were stationed around the field to move anchors and guides as necessary; the engine and windlass never moved. Implements used with the roundabout system were usually fairly light and guided by a man walking behind. They had to be manhandled at each end of the field to position them for the return trip.

The roundabout system worked pretty well, although it took a lot of time to set up and a lot of manpower to move the rope pulleys and porters. If the plow hit an obstruction, the ropes sometimes broke (and I’m sure the corner rope pulleys were jerked out of position when that happened). The system required a lot of rope or cable; one farmer reported using 2,000 yards of cable to cultivate a 50-acre field.