Early Steam Tractor Design

A look at some of the oddest tractors

| November/December 1953

  • No. 1. Heathcoat started something with this little number in 1882, though Edgeworth as early as 1770 obtained a patent for a steam traction engine that picked up its tracks and carried them along. Hence, the Caterpillar idea for tractors is at least 183 years old in the patent offices of Great Britain and the U.S.
    No. 1. Heathcoat started something with this little number in 1882, though Edgeworth as early as 1770 obtained a patent for a steam traction engine that picked up its tracks and carried them along. Hence, the Caterpillar idea for tractors is at least 183 years old in the patent offices of Great Britain and the U.S.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 2. Halkett's 'Guideway Steam Agriculture.'
    No. 2. Halkett's "Guideway Steam Agriculture."
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 3. Col. Cugnot's military tractor of 1769.
    "L'essai malheureux de la second machine de Cugnot en Novembre 1770."(The unfortunate test of Cugnot's second machine in November 1770.)No. 3. Col. Cugnot's military tractor of 1769.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 5. The 'slide trombone' approach to solving the tough up-hill tractor battle for traction on farm lands. In 1872 James W. Evans, of New York,  patented this one, which didn't get much farther than a front page picture on the American Artison.
    No. 5. The "slide trombone" approach to solving the tough up-hill tractor battle for traction on farm lands. In 1872 James W. Evans, of New York,  patented this one, which didn't get much farther than a front page picture on the American Artison.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 4. Evans 1804 steam amphibian tractor, the world's first.
    No. 4. Evans 1804 steam amphibian tractor, the world's first.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 7. The British-built Grew.
    No. 7. The British-built Grew.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 8. Ever see a tractor wearing snow shoes? Well, here is Boydell’s “Girdle Wheel” style tractor as built for the West Indies cane fields in 1857 by Tuxford of England. Boydell was the Canadian inventor, who took his idea to England where the British army tried it out in the Crimean War against Russia. Many were built and sent all over the world for heavy freighting over rough terrain. The U.S. got a few for logging in Maine, it is said.
    No. 8. Ever see a tractor wearing snow shoes? Well, here is Boydell’s “Girdle Wheel” style tractor as built for the West Indies cane fields in 1857 by Tuxford of England. Boydell was the Canadian inventor, who took his idea to England where the British army tried it out in the Crimean War against Russia. Many were built and sent all over the world for heavy freighting over rough terrain. The U.S. got a few for logging in Maine, it is said.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 6. Salidee's self-propelling rotary steam plow.
    No. 6. Salidee's self-propelling rotary steam plow.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 10. The Darby Broadside steam digger.
    No. 10. The Darby Broadside steam digger.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 11. Yes, this was the big show tractor in 1873 with crawler and power-lift plows. A Pennsylvanian named R.C. Parvin came out to Illinois and California after demonstrations at two Illinois State Fairs in 1872 and '73. A company was organized with office in Chicago and factory in central Illinois to build it. At least one was sold and used by a big California land owner after Parvin had demonstrated it near Fairchild in that state. Parvins inventions and developments covered several years and include a combine harvester.
    No. 11. Yes, this was the big show tractor in 1873 with crawler and power-lift plows. A Pennsylvanian named R.C. Parvin came out to Illinois and California after demonstrations at two Illinois State Fairs in 1872 and '73. A company was organized with office in Chicago and factory in central Illinois to build it. At least one was sold and used by a big California land owner after Parvin had demonstrated it near Fairchild in that state. Parvins inventions and developments covered several years and include a combine harvester.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 9. Tracks and wheels: This 1858 model seems to be the point where the British idea of tracks as 'girdles' of wooden shoes on the rim of wheels was left and a track in a chain running around two wheels appears. However, it couldn't be turned; hence, was jacked up at the end of a field and the wheels let down to touch the ground for turning. Mann of New York appeared about the same time with a track-type steamer that made at least one public appearance at the Albany, N. Y., County Fair in 1857 or 1858. Whether it was of the older British type or was similar to this is a question.
    No. 9. Tracks and wheels: This 1858 model seems to be the point where the British idea of tracks as "girdles" of wooden shoes on the rim of wheels was left and a track in a chain running around two wheels appears. However, it couldn't be turned; hence, was jacked up at the end of a field and the wheels let down to touch the ground for turning. Mann of New York appeared about the same time with a track-type steamer that made at least one public appearance at the Albany, N. Y., County Fair in 1857 or 1858. Whether it was of the older British type or was similar to this is a question. Note: It was designed to do the whole job at one trip – plowing, harrowing, seeding, rolling! Note this farm editor says this machine is coming to Illinois but no trace of its appearance in any show or trial can be found today. Did it arrive or fail, or never leave home for lack of capital?
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 15. Minnis’ first Iowa farm tractor, 1869-70. Note it is a crawler and he brought it out from Pennsylvania to start breaking the virgin sod at Ames within sight of the state agricultural college about the time it opened its doors to the first bunch of students. Both the USDA, 1870, and Iowa State Agricultural Society reports gave it some space with letter from Minnis telling of the trials and tribulations of inventing, building and operating a traction engine at that date.
    No. 15. Minnis’ first Iowa farm tractor, 1869-70. Note it is a crawler and he brought it out from Pennsylvania to start breaking the virgin sod at Ames within sight of the state agricultural college about the time it opened its doors to the first bunch of students. Both the USDA, 1870, and Iowa State Agricultural Society reports gave it some space with letter from Minnis telling of the trials and tribulations of inventing, building and operating a traction engine at that date.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 13. John Bean of sprayer fame built this one-track gas engine tractor in World War I days and built some 1,100 of them, finally unloading most of them on the Japanese at the end of the war. It is shown here in California in about World War I.
    No. 13. John Bean of sprayer fame built this one-track gas engine tractor in World War I days and built some 1,100 of them, finally unloading most of them on the Japanese at the end of the war. It is shown here in California in about World War I.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 12. George Stockton Berry's 'Believe-It-Or-Not' 1886-91 straw-burning self-propelled steam combine.
    No. 12. George Stockton Berry's "Believe-It-Or-Not" 1886-91 straw-burning self-propelled steam combine.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 16. A Cummings bicycle-type steam mower, Geneseo, Ill., 1868-73.
    No. 16. A Cummings bicycle-type steam mower, Geneseo, Ill., 1868-73.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 18. Bill Paterson of Stockton, Calif., built this in 1884. It plowed 60-foot strips as it moved down the field at 1 mile per 4 hours with a series of plows mounted on a chain moving across, the rear at right angles to the movement of the tractor.
    No. 18. Bill Paterson of Stockton, Calif., built this in 1884. It plowed 60-foot strips as it moved down the field at 1 mile per 4 hours with a series of plows mounted on a chain moving across, the rear at right angles to the movement of the tractor.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 17. This walking tractor was one of the 'ingenious' inventions patented in the late 1870s when efforts to produce a practical 'steam plow' had reached a standstill, this one by John E. Praul. It at least flattered the horse's principle of locomotion.
    No. 17. This walking tractor was one of the "ingenious" inventions patented in the late 1870s when efforts to produce a practical "steam plow" had reached a standstill, this one by John E. Praul. It at least flattered the horse's principle of locomotion.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 22. First U.S. improvement on the Thomson 3-wheel rubber-shod steam tractor that arrived in San Francisco from Scotland late in 1870 to wait the Jan. 1, 1871, date for lifting import duty. Here is the San Francisco-built Hyde steamer haluing the columns for the State Captiol at Sacramento.
    No. 22. First U.S. improvement on the Thomson 3-wheel rubber-shod steam tractor that arrived in San Francisco from Scotland late in 1870 to wait the Jan. 1, 1871, date for lifting import duty. Here is the San Francisco-built Hyde steamer haluing the columns for the State Captiol at Sacramento.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 21. R.R. Doan's steam wagon at work in Verdi, Nevada, 1888-91.
    No. 21. R.R. Doan's steam wagon at work in Verdi, Nevada, 1888-91.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 20. 65 hp steam chain-driven tractor built at Benicia Agricultural Works by Baker & Hamilton about 1891; straw-burner; rear wheels 10 feet 6 inches high with a 3-foot face; weight 22 tons.
    No. 20. 65 hp steam chain-driven tractor built at Benicia Agricultural Works by Baker & Hamilton about 1891; straw-burner; rear wheels 10 feet 6 inches high with a 3-foot face; weight 22 tons.
    from the collection of Ed Rimple, Rimple Plow Co., Santa Clara
  • No. 19. Philander H. Standish holds a blade from the rotary cutters on rear of his California No. 2 Steam Plow built at Boston, 1870. It demonstrated on Boston Common before being shipped to Cincinnati for its showing at that Industrial Fair; then down the river to St. Louis and New Orleans to work or Gen. Davidson on his plantation.
    No. 19. Philander H. Standish holds a blade from the rotary cutters on rear of his California No. 2 Steam Plow built at Boston, 1870. It demonstrated on Boston Common before being shipped to Cincinnati for its showing at that Industrial Fair; then down the river to St. Louis and New Orleans to work or Gen. Davidson on his plantation.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 23. Stone's Spader and Pulverizer at Bloomdale in 1886.
    No. 23. Stone's Spader and Pulverizer at Bloomdale in 1886.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 25. Reynolds got quite a bit of attention with this little steam job that came out about the time the Civil War started. Note that he had power lift of the plows as did Fawkes, Standish and others who were striving to build the “steam plow,” “road steamer” and other things to solve the highway transportation and farming jobs in one portable power machine.
    No. 25. Reynolds got quite a bit of attention with this little steam job that came out about the time the Civil War started. Note that he had power lift of the plows as did Fawkes, Standish and others who were striving to build the “steam plow,” “road steamer” and other things to solve the highway transportation and farming jobs in one portable power machine.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins
  • No. 24. The Confederates might have turned the tide of the Civil War with this little steam number had it not been captured before it got to the front. Winans was the inventor, who put a gun inside that funnel-shaped shield. Photo from 1864.
    No. 24. The Confederates might have turned the tide of the Civil War with this little steam number had it not been captured before it got to the front. Winans was the inventor, who put a gun inside that funnel-shaped shield. Photo from 1864.
    from the collection of F. Hal Higgins

  • No. 1. Heathcoat started something with this little number in 1882, though Edgeworth as early as 1770 obtained a patent for a steam traction engine that picked up its tracks and carried them along. Hence, the Caterpillar idea for tractors is at least 183 years old in the patent offices of Great Britain and the U.S.
  • No. 2. Halkett's 'Guideway Steam Agriculture.'
  • No. 3. Col. Cugnot's military tractor of 1769.
  • No. 5. The 'slide trombone' approach to solving the tough up-hill tractor battle for traction on farm lands. In 1872 James W. Evans, of New York,  patented this one, which didn't get much farther than a front page picture on the American Artison.
  • No. 4. Evans 1804 steam amphibian tractor, the world's first.
  • No. 7. The British-built Grew.
  • No. 8. Ever see a tractor wearing snow shoes? Well, here is Boydell’s “Girdle Wheel” style tractor as built for the West Indies cane fields in 1857 by Tuxford of England. Boydell was the Canadian inventor, who took his idea to England where the British army tried it out in the Crimean War against Russia. Many were built and sent all over the world for heavy freighting over rough terrain. The U.S. got a few for logging in Maine, it is said.
  • No. 6. Salidee's self-propelling rotary steam plow.
  • No. 10. The Darby Broadside steam digger.
  • No. 11. Yes, this was the big show tractor in 1873 with crawler and power-lift plows. A Pennsylvanian named R.C. Parvin came out to Illinois and California after demonstrations at two Illinois State Fairs in 1872 and '73. A company was organized with office in Chicago and factory in central Illinois to build it. At least one was sold and used by a big California land owner after Parvin had demonstrated it near Fairchild in that state. Parvins inventions and developments covered several years and include a combine harvester.
  • No. 9. Tracks and wheels: This 1858 model seems to be the point where the British idea of tracks as 'girdles' of wooden shoes on the rim of wheels was left and a track in a chain running around two wheels appears. However, it couldn't be turned; hence, was jacked up at the end of a field and the wheels let down to touch the ground for turning. Mann of New York appeared about the same time with a track-type steamer that made at least one public appearance at the Albany, N. Y., County Fair in 1857 or 1858. Whether it was of the older British type or was similar to this is a question.
  • No. 15. Minnis’ first Iowa farm tractor, 1869-70. Note it is a crawler and he brought it out from Pennsylvania to start breaking the virgin sod at Ames within sight of the state agricultural college about the time it opened its doors to the first bunch of students. Both the USDA, 1870, and Iowa State Agricultural Society reports gave it some space with letter from Minnis telling of the trials and tribulations of inventing, building and operating a traction engine at that date.
  • No. 13. John Bean of sprayer fame built this one-track gas engine tractor in World War I days and built some 1,100 of them, finally unloading most of them on the Japanese at the end of the war. It is shown here in California in about World War I.
  • No. 12. George Stockton Berry's 'Believe-It-Or-Not' 1886-91 straw-burning self-propelled steam combine.
  • No. 16. A Cummings bicycle-type steam mower, Geneseo, Ill., 1868-73.
  • No. 18. Bill Paterson of Stockton, Calif., built this in 1884. It plowed 60-foot strips as it moved down the field at 1 mile per 4 hours with a series of plows mounted on a chain moving across, the rear at right angles to the movement of the tractor.
  • No. 17. This walking tractor was one of the 'ingenious' inventions patented in the late 1870s when efforts to produce a practical 'steam plow' had reached a standstill, this one by John E. Praul. It at least flattered the horse's principle of locomotion.
  • No. 22. First U.S. improvement on the Thomson 3-wheel rubber-shod steam tractor that arrived in San Francisco from Scotland late in 1870 to wait the Jan. 1, 1871, date for lifting import duty. Here is the San Francisco-built Hyde steamer haluing the columns for the State Captiol at Sacramento.
  • No. 21. R.R. Doan's steam wagon at work in Verdi, Nevada, 1888-91.
  • No. 20. 65 hp steam chain-driven tractor built at Benicia Agricultural Works by Baker & Hamilton about 1891; straw-burner; rear wheels 10 feet 6 inches high with a 3-foot face; weight 22 tons.
  • No. 19. Philander H. Standish holds a blade from the rotary cutters on rear of his California No. 2 Steam Plow built at Boston, 1870. It demonstrated on Boston Common before being shipped to Cincinnati for its showing at that Industrial Fair; then down the river to St. Louis and New Orleans to work or Gen. Davidson on his plantation.
  • No. 23. Stone's Spader and Pulverizer at Bloomdale in 1886.
  • No. 25. Reynolds got quite a bit of attention with this little steam job that came out about the time the Civil War started. Note that he had power lift of the plows as did Fawkes, Standish and others who were striving to build the “steam plow,” “road steamer” and other things to solve the highway transportation and farming jobs in one portable power machine.
  • No. 24. The Confederates might have turned the tide of the Civil War with this little steam number had it not been captured before it got to the front. Winans was the inventor, who put a gun inside that funnel-shaped shield. Photo from 1864.

Here are some photos featuring early steam tractor design. Pat Baxter wants to know what the oddest tractors looked like, so, I've pulled out a half dozen – U.S., British and Canadian – to give him my choices, though there are two or three more with legs I can’t seem to find pictures of at the moment.

No. 1. 1832 Track-Over-Engine.  Heathcoat’s track-over-engine of 1832 is the first illustration I can find of the crawler development. The wood cut made in 1837. It is a Britisher, of course, but Edgeworth of the same country was 60 years earlier.

No. 2. Guideway Steam Agriculture.  Halkett, another Britisher, stirred the minds of leading farmers and inventors in 1858 with this pair of steam engines operating on permanent tracks laid down in the fields. He called it “Guideway Steam Agriculture.” Talk of “toolbars” being something modern. This arrangement had everything anybody can possibly think of today.

No. 3. 1769 Military Tractor. Col. Cugnot’s military tractor of 1769 deserves a spot in the “odd” list. It is so close to the tea kettle that it looks like he hung it on the 3-wheel chassis. Note the “first auto accident.” Picture given me by Col. Duvignac.



No. 4. 1804 Steam Amphibian Tractor. Oliver Evans’ “Orukuter Amphiboles” of old Philadelphia, deserves a spot to start U.S. tractors and be the first amphibian. Evans offered to bet $400 at this early stage – 1804 – that he could build a steam carriage that would out-run any horse. One state granted him a patent to build steam wagons as a monopoly after the Pennsylvania legislature turned him down as early as 1786.

No. 5. Slide Trombone Tractor. This “slide trombone” action, that James W. Evans of New York designed for his steam traction engine, is worth a second look. Evans had been attempting to design steam tractions with patents as early as 1858. The idea here, of course, is to keep the heavy machine and its wheels on solid turf, as it moved ahead a few feet, stopped and pulled the plows toward it.