Cooper Steam Engine Collection Receives National Recognition

By Staff
article image
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.

The significance of the collection of the four agricultural
steam engines is two-fold: first, they represent clearly the
step-by-step development from the simple skid-mounted engine to the
first complete farm tractor; and second, all four examples were
built by the same manufacturer, C. & J. Cooper and successor C.
& G. Cooper, in the same location, Mount Vernon, Ohio. A
descendant of this company remains in business today on the site,
and manufactures industrial machinery.

The collection is owned by the Knox County Historical Society,
and can be seen in its museum located at 997 Harcourt Road (Routes
3 and 36 West), Mount Vernon, Ohio. Current hours of the museum are
6:00-8:00 p.m. Wednesdays, and 2:00-4:00 p.m. Thursday through
Sunday. Inquiries regarding the engines can be addressed to the
Society at P.O. Box 522, Mount Vernon, Ohio 43050.

C. & G. Cooper Co. traction engine, built in 1876, in Knox
County Historical Society, Mount Vernon, Ohio. Photo by Kenneth Mc
Candless.

Succession of names for Cooper companies of Mount Vernon,
Ohio:
Mount Vernon Iron Works 1833
C. & E. Cooper 1835
Coopers & Co. by 1844
C. Cooper 1848
C. Cooper & Co, 1848
Cooper & Clark 1849
Coopers & Clark 1851
C. & J. Cooper 1857
C. & J. Cooper & Co. 1866
C. & G. Cooper & Co. 1869
Cooper-Bessemer Corp. 1929
Cooper Industries 1965
Cooper Cameron Corp. 1995.

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