Farm Collector

Early Ohio Traction Engineering

Just when we think we have it all figured out, along comes
information that makes us revise what we thought we knew. Until I
read The Ohio Farmer for July 21, 1860, I thought the
earliest attempts at traction engineering in Ohio dated to the late
1860s.1 After all, the great mechanical engineer,
Charles M. Giddings, wrote that, in 1868 or 1869, C. & G.
Cooper asked a farmer living near Mt. Vernon, Ohio, to apply for a
patent for the farmer’s invention of a horse-steered traction
engine and to assign the patent to Cooper. Giddings said it was
‘doubtless the first attempt of any thing of the kind in the
west.’2 What I found in The Ohio Farmer,
however, pushes back the date of Midwest traction engineering by at
least a decade.

Newark Machine Works

An advertisement on page 231 for the Newark Machine Works of
Newark, Ohio, shows a cut of a portable engine, but the fine-print
caption states, ‘Price, Mounted, $700; Self-Propelling,
$900.’ Does ‘self-propelling’ mean that Newark Machine
Works was building a traction engine in 1860? You bet it does!
Included with the ad was this testimonial dated Nov. 4, 1858, from
Joseph McCune of Warrenton in Jefferson County, Ohio: ‘I have
run the Engine out to the Cadiz Fair, and back, a distance of 46
miles. If you have ever been to Cadiz, you know what hills there
are to climb. I did it with ease, and by steam altogether the main
shaft being connected with the axle by gearing. Since I came home,
I have moved about by steam alone. My Engine is not worn any, to
notice, and it works beautifully. I will say here, that I can run
up as big a hill as any other Engine in the world. On our return
from Cadiz, we came to Harrisville on the plank road, and took the
State road through Mt. Pleasant, and so on to the river. This is a
very hilly road for about 17 miles, but we could ‘go it
easy.’ There were four men on the Engine – one to steer, myself
to engineer, and two for sport.’ (The capitalization and
punctuation are true to the ad.)

AN ADVERTISEMENT FROM THE OHIO FARMER, JULY 21, 1860, SHOWS THIS
CUT OF THE NEWARK STEAM TRACTION ENGINE.

Why have we not heard about such an amazing traction engine
before now? The history of the ill-fated Newark Machine Works may
hold an answer. Located on the corner of First and Locust Streets,
the Newark firm brought in Joseph E. Holmes, who had distinguished
himself as an engineer associated with the Crystal Palace
exposition of 1853, and J.W. Gray, formerly of the Gordon-McKee
Company in Massachusetts, to design and build engines. Holmes and
Gray studied steam engine design in Europe before manufacturing
portable engines to their own specifications. At some point,
obviously, they started producing traction engines.

By the late 1850s when Joseph McCune was taking what must have
been an exceptionally bumpy ride along a plank road – Newark
Machine Works was in financial trouble from overcapitalizing amid a
disturbed economy. In 1860, the company went bankrupt and appointed
a young employee, Reinhard Scheidler, one of the receivers.
Scheidler named John H. McNamar, a fellow machinist, manager of the
plant. By 1861, Newark Machine Works was all but closed. Scheidler
began his own machine shop on Railroad Street. In 1864, the
remnants of the Newark firm were sold to the Blandy Company of
Zanesville. Blandy built skid and portable engines in Newark. We
can only speculate as to why Blandy did not manufacture traction
engines (if indeed Blandy did not do so). In that same year,
McNamar formed a partnership with Scheidler a partnership McNamar
later would rue. In 1879, Blandy of Newark was sold to the Union
Iron Works, which made belt drives and chain drives to convert
portable engines into traction engines.3 When the belt broke as an
engine was descending a hill, the engineer’s best choice might
have been to jump.

Scheidler and McNamar are known, if not well known, among
historians of steam power on the American farm, but who knew that
Newark Machine Works built a traction engine at least as early as
1858? Just to put that date into perspective, we can remind
ourselves that the American Civil War did not begin until 1861.

Notes

1. Many traction engines predated Cooper’s. As Jack
Alexander’s pioneering book Steam Power on California Roads
and Farms
(1858-1911) makes clear, a dozen companies in
California built traction engines in the 1850s and 1860s. In Ohio
in 1874, the Owens, Lane & Dyer Machine Company of Hamilton
brought out an engine having a gear drive that won the Ohio State
Fair’s Grand Gold Medal for (erroneously, as we now know) the
first traction engine built west of Pittsburgh. On Oct. 6, 1875,
the Rogers bevel-gear patent was filed, and it was granted on Feb.
15, 1876 (#173,498). Cooper falsely and repeatedly claimed that its
bevel-gear engine was the first traction engine in America. Those
wishing to read more about the origins of traction engineering in
America should see Reynold M. Wik’s Steam Power on the
American Farm and the British book Steam on the Road,
which
alludes to two traction engines from the American colonial
period.

2. C.M. Giddings, Development of the Traction Engine in
America
(Lancaster: Stemgas, 1980), reprint from American
Thresherman
1916-17. See also ‘Who Built the First
Traction Engine in America?’ by Robert T. Rhode in
Engineers and Engines magazine 44.2 (1998). As may be
deduced from what has been written above, parts of the 1998 article
are now out of date.

3. See ‘The Scheidler Story’ by Robert T. Rhode in
Engineers and Engines magazine 44.1 (1998). See also
‘Questions Raised about Reinhard Scheidler’ by Robert T.
Rhode in Engineers and Engines magazine 45.6 (2000). The
latter piece casts doubt on a few of the sources that were trusted
in writing the former essay.

Robert T. Rhode is a regular contributor to Steam
Traction.
He is an author on the history and literature of the
steam era and a professor of early American literature at Northern
Kentucky University. Contact him at 4745 Clenway Ave., Cincinnati,
OH 45238, or e-mail: case65@earthlink.net

  • Published on Mar 1, 2003
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