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

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.