A Pioneering Steam Plow

| March/April 1996

  • Farm machinery

  • Farm machinery

Use of steam to propel farm machinery was being encouraged by a young speaker named Abraham Lincoln at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1859, at the same time that a young inventor named Joseph Fawkes was developing a steam plow in Pennsylvania.

Fawkes's story has been told before but we enjoy spinning the yarn again because of the vision of the man, and the massive size of his engine.

Lincoln, in 1859 not yet a nominee for the presidency, showed the wisdom which he applied to many other matters, when he spoke in Wisconsin to say that animal power was no longer sufficient for farm work. He said he had heard of steam machines to plow, but had not seen any, but thought that they were on the way. 'Our thanks, and something more than our thanks,' he said, 'are due to every man engaged in the effort to produce a successful steam plow.'

Some machines had been patented and were in use, relying on horses primarily, such as mowers and rakes; Cyrus McCormick's reaper was welcomed wherever farmers could buy it. The idea of the use of steam was appealing, and numerous inventors had a go at it for pulling plows, but none had come up with anything that lasted. Obed Hussey, who has lost out to McCormick in the race to win the reaper market, also tried his hand at a plow device but failed.

Fawkes had a small machine shop at his home town of Christiana, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He made three attempts to design a steam plow, one a small model, one a working model, and the third the engine for which he was granted a patent in 1858. This was described as 18 feet long with a weight of nearly ten tons. It had a large driving drum at the rear and two steering wheels in front, and as the illustration shows, the driver stood to steer it. Plows at the rear could be raised or lowered. Having shown it first at the Lancaster County Fair in 1858, Fawkes went on to the Illinois State Fair to try to win a prize of $5,000 for a steam farm engine. During the trials, Fawkes' 'Lancaster' engine made what a newspaper called 'the first furrow turned by steam' on the prairie. The committee called for further trials to be held later, but those trials ended inconclusively because of soggy ground. Meanwhile Fawkes collected honors, awards and medals elsewhere. At the Illinois Fair in Free-port, the engine ran around the track with a group of men and women seated on the carriage and a band playing in a wagon it pulled.

Tests were adjudged to show the engine could plow an acre in 24 minutes, or 25 acres in a working day. Fawkes insisted that steam could do the job more cheaply than animal power, and time proved him correct. He made many changes in machines, with various improvements, in his continuous effort to produce the practical answer to the problem. In January 1860 he received a gold medal from the United States Agricultural Society, with a letter of praise from his fellow Lancaster Countian, President James Buchanan.


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