Farm Collector

A Real Steam Booster

By Staff

(The following is a letter which appeared in the May-June 1932
issue of American Thresherman and Farm Equipment. It was sent to us
by W. E. Neal, 613 8th Ave., Charles City, IA 50616 who suggested
we reprint it. Possibly the author is still alive and will

The letter which appeared in a recent issue of American
Thresher-man and Farm Equipment entitled ‘Can Steam Come
Back?’ is not entirely in accord with my ideas upon the subject
of whether or not the steam engine can come back into a profitable
position in agricultural production again.

For me, it most emphatically can and will return to contribute a
major part in the profitable and may I say, pleasurable execution
of the farming enterprise. Since I understand how well it fits into
my farm management program, I can see no good reason why it could
not just as well be employed by many other farmers as profitably,
for saving labor, speeding agricultural production with a minimum
of expense as compared to the now-popular and much-lauded gas

I am of three generations of steam engineers. The steam traction
engine has been a prominent factor in my environment; an important
contributor in the economy of my father’s ranches and those of
my grandfather’s out here on these rolling Palouse hills, ever
since the bunch grass was first turned under and flax and timothy
were the principal crops grown. We have all been steam engineers,
as well as horsemen; for the old steamer and the horse have been
necessary here.

The engine singing in steaming syllables, its shrill chiming
whistle, and the mighty response of the steam throttle take hold on
a man with a thrill and satisfaction that no mere piece of
automotive equipment can possibly give. I have worked with both
under practical field conditions for a considerable number of
years, and feel that I may be qualified to speak. I am 26 years of
age and in my senior year at the State Agricultural College. I
shall return to take up farming as my life work upon

With the advent of the gas tractor, manufacturers saw the
opportunity to greatly increase sales simply because the gas
tractor requires the attention of only one man to operate it, and
that operator does not have to have as much training and skill to
operate a tractor as does the steam engineer. Therefore, virtually
every farm was a potential market for one or more tractors, whereas
only one farm in one or two dozen would probably ever own a steam
engine under its old state of development with its complement of
water ‘buck’ and steam, fireman, and steersman (for
traction work). Certainly, manufacturers would naturally push so
great a potential market to the limit! Manufacturers and farmers
must have been convinced that the steam engine of 15 or 20 years
ago had reached its highest possible development and efficiency,
for it was quickly dropped and attention was turned entirely to the
gas tractor as the solution of the farm power problem.

Propaganda became widespread and insistent in opening the gas
tractor market and causing farmers to become
‘tractor-minded.’ By having the gas tractor brought
constantly to their attention, they would eventually suppose it to
be a necessity. There was, however, a competitor in the field,
giving remarkably excellent service in the work it was performing.
The steam engine was depreciated and ‘soft-pedaled’ in
competition sales talk and in advertisements in popular farm
journals. It was even deliberately hidden from view in pictures of
threshing scenes, etc., so insistent was the desire to have farmers
forget it, you were ‘old-fashioned’ and hopelessly
out-of-date to stay with steam.

Even engineering departments of agricultural colleges failed
through seeming indifference, or perhaps otherwise, to continue
researching the improving of the efficiency and In actual farming
work and custom threshing on ranches, here, where the greatest net
profit is the objective, a steam engine as crude as those of
1901requiring its complement of engineer, fireman,
‘water-buck,’ six-horse steam and two water tanks did work
for the same actual cost as did a gas tractor. Both were of equal
Prony brake horse power and operated the same separator under the
very same climatic conditions and with the same conditions of straw
and feeding. The only variable factor being that the gas tractor
was 21 years ahead in development and had only been used four
seasons to the steam engine’s 24 years of service. Besides
being equal in cost of operation, the steam engine proved to be a
greater profit-maker because it furnished smooth, steady,
dependable power of approximately 25% overload capacity; could
always be depended upon to pull out of a tight place without injury
to itself, and was always ready to run when needed. Furthermore,
the annual repair cost of this old engine was negligible, while the
average gas tractor requires such extensive repairing in five to
six years that it is usually necessary to purchase a new machine as
being the more profitable procedure. That old steamer is now 31
years old and still going strong and good for many more
seasons’ work. Depreciation charges against it are extremely
low as compared to those for a gas tractor wearing out in five to
six years’ time. It would have outlived five or six tractors
each one costing as much to purchase new, as did the steam engine
horse power for horse power.

The steam engine is truly the farmer’s power plant, figured
from the standpoint of economics as cited above, and because of the
fact that for power generation it uses essentially cost-free or
waste products of the farming enterprise; straw, water, and for
lubrication beeswax and tallow. These materials are present in
abundance on practically every farm and are almost valueless, hence
by utilizing these agricultural by-products in the farming
industry, we decrease cost of production and enhance the net
profits of crops produced. Would the gasoline monopolies favor
farmers using their own byproducts to generate power to farm with,
instead of buying motor fuels and oils? No, we know they would not,
and they want farmers to forget that power can be had so cheaply
from straw and water. But that should in no way prevent us from
using them. We sell our grain and live stock, now, at extremely low
prices even below the prewar prices of 1914and use that meager sum
to buy motor fuels and oils and short-lived tractors at prices
which have lowered but little. Figure it out for yourself.

During the later years, sometime after the steam traction engine
was generally discarded from farming, there have been perfected
many new and efficient aids to the generation of steam and the
relatively simple manipulation of the steam engine cutting labor
and routine attention and long hours to the minimum. Do we see them
being adapted to the farm traction engine? We do not. I have,
nevertheless, been doing some little investigating and research
myself, and as a result, I am convinced that a steam traction
engine that will require no more labor or attention in its
operation than does any modern gas tractor, can be made, and why
not? It is simply this: the engine to be equipped with a regular
auto-steering gear requiring no more attention in steering than
does a gas tractor; an automatic water regulator taking care of
every water requirement of the boiler under all conditions; an
automatic burner maintaining steam pressure constantly at the point
desired and burning compressed-straw bouquets, coal, or oil; an
electric time-clock to turn on the burner (providing there is
sufficient water in the boiler) at any desired hour to ‘steam
up’; a super-heater making possible approximately a 25% to 30%
saving in fuel and water consumption according to authorities; a
steam take-off to operate auxiliary engines on the driven machine;
have electric lights, alarms, odometer, ammeter, revolution
counter, dynamometer, upholstered cushioned chair, small electric
generator and battery, a reserve water tank carrying sufficient
water for about half a day’s runthis tank to be filled by means
of a small turbine steam pump. I see no reason why crawler tracks
could not be adapted to a steam engine if wanted.

I enjoy reading your magazine very much and especially the
articles and advice on steam threshing and the old days of romantic
farming. I keep all the issues on file for ready reference.

  • Published on May 1, 1989
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