How Steam Boosted Farming

| November/December 1990

The role of steam in the building of America's agricultural might should never be forgotten, even though the giant traction engines have been relegated to the status of beloved restored antiques.

The idea of providing power by steam to any purpose was brand new and looked upon with strong skepticism 200 years ago. Thomas Jefferson saw steam applied to operation of grist mills in 1786 in England, and seemed to have recognized what it might someday do, but most people looked on steam with suspicion.

Reynold M. Wik, in his classic book, Steam Power on the American Farm, notes that Oliver Evans, of Delaware, figured that steam could drive a road vehicle. Wik comments:

'He applied to the Pennsylvania legislature in 1786 for exclusive rights to build such a carriage, but the committee receiving the proposal considered Evans insane in this regard and rejected his petition. They did, however, grant him patent rights to build stationary steam engines to drive flour mills, an enterprise to which he successfully devoted his energies for many years.'

Evans was not insane. A man ahead of his times, he built an engine he called 'Oruktor Amphibolos', a combination road engine, steamboat and dredging machine, which he drove through the streets of Philadelphia. He then built successful stationary engines and gristmills.

First general application of steam to agriculture was not for threshing; instead, steam facilitated many other kinds of operations on farms and mills connected with farms. Steam threshing seems to have started in the first third of the 19th century, and from that time on it grew tremendously.