Cooper Steam Engine Collection Receives National Recognition


| January/February 1999



Traction Engine

Kenneth Mc Candless

The collection of four Cooper agricultural steam engines at the Knox County Historical Society Museum received recognition as a Mechanical Engineering Heritage Collection on September 17, 1998. This recognition was granted by the Heritage and History Committee of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). The ASME is the 108,000-member national professional and technical organization of mechanical engineers. Mr. Nathan Hurt, past president of ASME, presented the award. He explained, 'To make the ASME Heritage Collection, these artifacts must make a significant contribution to the state, nation, and world. Today we are adding four engines that did just that.' Dr. David Harrington, member of the ASME Board of Governors, noted, 'Modern engines are not built from scratch. They are built on the shoulders of giants. An action like this makes us reflect on those giants. We've got to keep in mind the honoree here the engine and the many ways it has made our lives better.' Dr. William DeFotis, of the ASME Heritage and History Committee, brought the point home by noting, 'If you long for the 'good old days,' a week on a farm of the 1850s will cure you.'

The collection in its four examples represents the developments in the relatively short period of 25 years in the mid-nineteenth century that brought steam to the farm. For countless centuries before the 1860s, the harvesting of grain was powered by the muscles of people and animals. The upswing of mechanization which came to mine and mill in the early 1800s was slow in coming to the farm. Steam engines of that era were bulky, heavy affairs rigidly bolted or grouted to fixed foundations, with the steam supplied by a separately mounted boiler. Agriculture, by its nature a dispersed activity, requires moveable power plants. This need delayed the implementation of steam power on the farm until the portability problem had been overcome.

The oldest engine in the collection, made between 1857 and 1866 by the C. & J. Cooper Company, represents the first step toward providing a portable engine for agriculture. In this first attempt, the boiler was turned horizontally, which provided a platform on which to mount the cylinder and crankshaft. The whole ensemble was mounted on heavy timber skids by which it could be dragged by teams of horses or yokes of oxen. It was at that time called a 'portable' engine because it was more portable than the stationary steam engines of the era.

The second engine in the collection was built in 1875. The basic engine arrangement was similar to the portable, except that it was mounted on wheels rather than skids, and a tongue and double-tree arrangement had been added to the front axle for the hitching of horses. A driver's seat and brakes were also provided. In the language of the day, it was called a 'common farm engine.'

The third engine in the collection was built in 1876. This engine featured the break-through development of applying engine power to turn the wheels. The crucial mechanism added was a bevel, or right-angle, gear drive between the flywheel and the drive shaft to the rear wheels. Attached to this engine was a plate stating, 'TRACTION ATTACHMENT PATENTED FEBRUARY 15, 1876.' Although the engine could move under its own power, it still required a single team of horses for steering the front axle. Many inventors had previously attempted to produce traction engines, but this model was the first one to achieve commercial success. This design was marketed nationwide, and by 1880 the Cooper Company had produced over 1,000 traction engines. They were unable to keep up with the demand, and the design was licensed to other manufacturers, who produced thousands more.

The fourth engine in the collection was built in 1885 or 1886. This engine added a steering wheel to the traction engine. This engine represents one of the oldest examples of complete farm tractor, self-propelled and self-steering. This was the type of power plant that was to dominate the American agricultural scene for fifty years, approximately 1880-1930. The application of moveable steam power to tasks of harvesting made possible the important cultural institution of the threshing ring, which engendered neighborly bonding and unity.