By Staff
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The following article is reprinted with permission from Harvest States Journal, October 1986 edition.
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Steam Cultivator
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Revolving Harrow
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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

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.

Fowler cable and drawbar steam engines were brought into the
United States after the Civil War and were shown across the
country. Few were sold, chiefly because of enormously prohibitive
cost (as much as $30,000 by the time the investment in engine and
tackle was complete) and because these engines were designed to
work in the small English fields.

English progress in steam culture did not escape begrudging
comment in the United States. In the Department of Agriculture
Report of 1869, Editor J.R. Dodge wrote: ‘As a people, we are
wont to boast of our great strides in the field of progress… and
yet, with all our amazing progress, there is no such implement
known as a practical American steam plow.’

Heading the list of U.S. machines that attracted widespread
attention in the 1850’s was John Fawkes’ steam plow… a
locomotive which ran on a large roller instead of wheels. It was 18
feet long and eight feet wide, weighed ten tons when loaded with
water and fuel, and developed 30 horsepower. It cost upwards of

Fawkes’ implement plowed at the rate of one acre in 17
minutes or three and a half acres per hour in tests. It was first
demonstrated at the Illinois State Fair at Centralia September 17,
1858. ‘The excitement of the crowd was beyond control and their
shouts and wild huzzas echoed far over the prairie and there
beneath the smiling autumn sky lay the first furrow turned by steam
on the broad prairies of the mighty West. The goal was won. Steam
had conquered the face of nature and the steam plow had become a
fact,’ the Chicago Press wrote.

Then came a trial at Decatur, Illinois, in November. The ground
was moist and the sloughs soft. Fawkes’ machine couldn’t
move. Trials elsewhere also ended in dismal failure; the machine
bogged down in soft ground, if it could be moved into the fields at
all. Fawkes had not only built too heavy a machine, he also
didn’t understand the principles of traction adequately.

By 1885 manufacturers had made enough improvements so that
agricultural steam traction engines were capable of supplying the
major belt power needs of the American grain-growing farmer. Steam
traction engines, however, didn’t mean steam plowing. Engines
could now move from one field to another under their own power, but
they still couldn’t draw a plow. These engines were designed
for stationary belt work. They had narrow traction gears which
couldn’t stand the strain caused by the plow’s heavy pull
on the drawbar.

To correct these weaknesses, manufacturers strengthened the
gears, axles, and shafting of the engines and added water tanks and
coal bunkers. To prevent the heavy machines from miring in the
ground, they provided broad drive wheels, sometimes as much as
three feet wide, with extension rims. Semi-steel and all steel
traction gears were used in place of cast iron. Special heavily
constructed plows with steam-lift attachments were also made.

So, as the turn of the century rolled around, the steam plow was
a reality. But there was still a hitch. Because steam plowing
engines needed to be large and rugged, they were too expensive for
the common farmer to buy. Only those with exceptionally large
acreages could afford them.

Nevertheless, the steam plow finally was to have its heyday.
Farmers knew the advantages of steam plowing so they encouraged
custom plowing outfits to come in and break up the land. When they
offered to pay three and four dollars an acre to get this work
done, many custom threshermen saw an opportunity to increase their
incomes by selling their old traction engines, which could be used
for the threshing in the fall. Soon there were steam plowing
outfits by the thousands.

Steam plowing’s heyday was short, however. Largely a dream
in the 19th Century, it quickly became a memory in the 20th
Century. Its use in general was limited to the period from 1900 to
1915, the same year that the amount of gas power available for farm
purposes equalled that of steam power.

Besides engines to plow the fields, inventors designed
implements for steam engines to pull across the fields as the
drawings on this page show. Drawings come from the 1869 Department
of Agriculture Report.

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