Forerunner of Rural Automation

| July/August 1987

  • # Picture 01
    The following article is reprinted with permission from Harvest States Journal, October 1986 edition.
  • Steam Cultivator
    Steam Cultivator
  • Revolving Harrow
    Revolving Harrow
  • Steam Harrow
    Steam Harrow

  • # Picture 01
  • Steam Cultivator
  • Revolving Harrow
  • Steam Harrow

In 1850 Horace Greeley made a special trip to Watertown, New York to see a portable steam engine power a threshing machine. He was captivated by the belching monster he saw driving the thresher and wrote in his Tribune in New York that 'threshing will cease to be a manual and become a mechanical operation ... and this engine will be running on wheels and driving a scythe before it, or drawing a plow behind it, in five years.'

Greeley prophesied the steam engine boom on the American farm about 30 years before it started. It wasn't until 1885 that the boom in self-propelled farm steam engines began, and it was 15 years after that before there were many pulling a plow or reaper over the fields.

But it wasn't for lack of trying that steam power was not adapted to agriculture in the 1880's. Even before James Watt in 1769 patented his separate condenser which made the steam engine practical, inventors were trying to use steam power to mechanize farming.

The possibility of using a steam engine for farming was recognized 350 years ago. Englishman David Ramsey in 1630 entered a patent for 'Making the earth more fertile,' which suggested steam power could be applied to land transport and to hauling cultivating implements.

It wasn't until 1836, however, that a practical machine was used. John Heathcote, a lace manufacturer of Tiverton, England, patented a stationary engine, which could be driven along the edge of a field on a primitive crawler-type track. It pulled the plow across the field with a long rope. But Heathcote and plow designer Josiah Parkes created their invention for bog reclamation, too limited a job to arouse much interest.

Twenty-one years later John Fowler of London improved this system. It won for him in 1858 the Royal Agricultural Society's long-offered prize of $2,500 for developing a satisfactory method of plowing by steam. Fowler had what others lacked wire rope which came along in the 1850's to provide the strength needed to tackle work in the fields.


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