How Steam Boosted Farming

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.

As steam power became better understood and more attractive,
production of engines grew apace. George W. Cutter, of Covington,
Kentucky, was so enthused he wrote a poem called ‘Song of
Steam.’ Dr. Wik quotes one stanza:

‘I’ve no muscle to weary, no heart to decay
No bones to be laid ‘on the shelf
And soon I intend you may ‘go and play’
While I manage the world myself.
But harness me down with your iron bands
Be sure of your curb and rein,
For I scorn the strength of your puny hands,
As a tempest scorns a chain.’

As the portable traction engine grew available, and the numbers
and sizes of farms grew with national expansion, steam power
typified the driving progress of the times. With the self-propelled
engine a reality, steampower on the farm entered boom times. That
boom lasted well into this century.

American inventiveness fostered the boom. Innovations in the
machines, and in manufacturing and servicing them, sparked a
national agriculture that towered over any shown by any nation in
world history. Individual skill remained a strong factor, but giant
corporations were formed also to make the engines and send them
throughout the nation and abroad.

Giving steam its due, Dr. Wik says:

‘Since steam was the only successful and practical power
available for agricultural purposes during the nineteenth century,
its utilization laid the basic foundation for the present-day era
of power farming. In extolling the advantages of today’s fanner
with his automobile, truck, and all-purpose tractor, it is well to
recall that the mechanization of the twentieth century emerged from
the steam age of the preceding century.’

So let everyone remember. . .when you look at a steam traction
engine, you are seeing more than just a powerful piece of
mechanism. You are reviewing a glorious set of chapters in American
farm history, and the lives of millions of farmers who used those
engines not only for their individual purposes, but as a strong
devoted group that helped make American farming what it is
today.

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Farm Collector Magazine
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