(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 respond!)
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 tractor.
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 graduating.
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.