Farm Collector

Development Of The Traction Engine in America

From ‘The American Thresherman and Farm Power’ August of

HAVING BEEN associated with the development of the traction
engine industry more or less intimately, for the past forty years,
I have been solicited by the publishers of this magazine, to
prepare a series of articles on the early history or development of
the traction engine in America and after repeated solicitations, I
finally decided to undertake the task.

The firm of C. & G. Cooper of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, was among
the first to bring out a self propelled steam engine for farm use.
From Mr. F. J. Luger, who was a pattern maker in their employ at
the time, we learn that in 1868 and 1869 a farmer living near Mt.
Vernon conceived the idea of making a portable engine propel itself
using horses on a tongue to guide it. In passing it might be well
to state that the portable engine business had reached considerable
proportions previous to any attempt at designing or building a
self-propelling engine in this country. Among the more prominent
firms thus engaged were the Ames Iron Works of Oswego, New York,
the Watertown Steam Engine Company of Watertown, New York, Wood and
Mann of Utica, New York, Clute Brothers of Schenectady, and B. W.
Payne & Sons of Corning, which latter concern gave the country
the well known Harris tabor or indicator and moulding machine

Mr. Wood left the firm at Utica and went to Eaton, Madison
County, New York, and formed the company of Wood, Taber and Morse,
who became the leading portable engine builders of the country, but
were the last to take up the building of a traction engine, which
was of the four wheeled driver type. They built very few and as yet
we have not been able to get a cut of this interesting engine, or
the date of the patent. The firm lost one of its members by death
soon after it quit business.

Returning to the C. & G. Cooper incident, Mr. Lugger well
remembers the test of this first engine when they put a number of
men on the tongue to guide it while running about town. Mr. Cooper
got the farmer to apply for a patent, paying all the expenses
himself in consideration of the farmer agreeing to assign the
patent to Mr. Cooper, who in return cancelled the farmer’s
debt, for the work of converting the portable into a horse steered
traction engine, doubtless the first attempt of anything of the
kind in the west.

According to the writer’s best knowledge and belief the next
attempt to build a traction in this country was in the spring and
summer of 1870 when Emory W. Mills designed and built his first
traction engine at Syracuse, New York. It was a three-wheeled
affair, having two equally sized and faced driving wheels at the
rear of the machine which had a low platform carrying an upright
boiler and engine which furnished the prepelling power, through a
train of gears proportioned so as to give the machine a speed of
about two and one-half miles per hour. This was the only one built
of this design and was sold. I understand, to a farmer near
Manilus, New York.

In 1872, Geo. W. Dick, of Venice, Ohio went to England and
bought a steam engine from Aveling-Porter Company, Rochester, Kent,

It arrived in Hamilton via Miami & Erie Canal, was unloaded
at the old basin and was run under its own steam to Millville. By a
special act of Congress it was admitted to the United States free
of duty. Its first work was to haul flour to Cincinnati, a distance
of sixteen miles. This engine had a single cylinder that was cast
as a part of the steam dome of the boiler. Power was transmitted
from the crank shaft to the rear wheels, through a system of spur
gearing to a live axle that was on the outside of the fire box, and
the differential gear was mounted on this axle and received the
power through a large master wheel which carried the compensating
pinions which transmitted the power to the axle through, a large
bevel gear that was keyed fast to the axle. With one loose driving
wheel they carried the other bevel wheel that engaged with the
compensating pinions. The drive wheel on the other side of the axle
was keyed fast, a type of power transmission identical in principle
with the present day steam traction engine practice. The owners of
this engine had a flour mill and a saw mill and operated threshing
machines. The engine was used by them for several years and was
then disposed of to a man in Nevada and reports received here were
that it fell over a cliff and was wrecked.

In the fall of 1872 there was an epidemic among the horses and
it is distinctly remembered by the writer that this engine was used
in Cincinnati for hauling dead horses which plainly establishes the
approximate date of the original entry into the United States of
the engine.

In 1873, before harvest time, John Yingling of Seven Mile, Ohio,
brought a ??-horse power portable engine to Owens, Lane & Dyer
Company and they converted it into a portable traction engine by
the use of sprocket chains. The cylinder was mounted on the fire
box end of the boiler. This engine was steered with the front
wheels operated from the rear platform through a chain carried on a
drum that was operated by a hand wheel through a worm and worm
wheel similar to present day practice. Prior to this in a few cases
they used a team of horses or oxen to steer the engine, but the
engine was so fast it would run over the team. It is possible that
the bevel gear drive came in after the chains. You could go up the
side of a mountain and the chain would stay on but when going down
hill the chain would either fly off or break, so that the chain
propulsion was abandoned and in the next type of engine built the
cylinder was put at the smoke box end of the boiler.

As the old original engine was a short stroke with a very long
connecting rod, the crank shaft was at the fire box end of the
boiler which made a very long coupled engine, and the traction
power was carried to the wheels through a system of gears of the
English type. It was up to this time supposed that it was necessary
to have a counter shaft mounted on the smoke box end of the boiler
and extending clear across so that a belt pulley would clear the
boiler on one side, and the power was transmitted to this counter
shaft with a V leather belt. This V belt came about as a solution
of transmitting power across the street from the main machine shop
of Owens, Lane & Dyer to a pattern shop. In order to overcome
the damage from rain and sunshine, a narrow leather belt with V
shape blocks built up of leather was devised and this belt was run
in a grooved pulley & proved very satisfactory. This belt was
made by Joseph Sharp of Cincinnati. This type of traction engine
was finally abandoned and it was discovered that a belt pulley
could be put on the other end of the crank shaft.

  • Published on Jul 1, 1957
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