The Williamson Road Steamer and Steam Plow

The Williamson road steamer in America – Part 1

| Fall 2007

In 1869, Douw D. Williamson started a five-year effort to produce a successful American steam plow, a goal he described in an article titled “Plowing by Steam” in Van Nostrand’s Magazine in 1878: “Perhaps no branch of engineering has been more fascinating to mechanical engineers than that of steam plowing. The thought of inventing an implement which would supersede the common plow and revolutionize a process which is older than Christianity itself has, for many years, stirred the hearts and brains of ingenious men and incited them to patient labor and extraordinary effort.

“None have struggled more with this problem or met with greater disappointment than American engineers. The cheapness of our prairie land; the size of our farms; their natural adaptation to steam cultivation; the high cost and uncertainty of labor and many other reasons made it appear probable that this country would bring forth the steam plow and perfect it. The records of the Patent Office show how many men thought they had accomplished it. The fact that, in the year 1870, not a steam plow was practically working in the country proved the value of these patents,” Williamson stated.

A Visit Abroad

Williamson’s quest to develop a steam plow in America began in Scotland in 1869, where he investigated the Thomson road engine, a then-new steam traction engine concept. It could not only carry heavy loads over soft ground, according to A Century of Traction Engines by W.J. Hughes, but also travel on a good road over 20 MPH when built for speed. Williamson described his experience when he first saw the Thomson engine near Edinburgh, Scotland:

“In the year 1869, I saw a ‘Thomson Road Steamer’ with its broad rubber tires draw a train of heavily loaded wagons over a soft wet field in Scotland. I rode upon the engine when it drew the same load through the yielding deep sands on the shore of the Firth of Forth, and when it climbed the steep slippery streets of the old town Edinburgh. I spent many days with it striving to find a fault with its peculiar tire, but the more I examined its workings the more I was convinced that its camel-footed, elastic tread solved the great question of maintaining its footing, whilst working in soft soil and drawing plows behind it.”

A Steamer of His Own

“Having arranged for the right to work under the American Patents, I imported an engine from Scotland in 1870, and commenced a series of experiments with it,” Williams continued. “Whilst the rubber tire did all and more than I had expected, I found the difficulty of maintaining steam a most serious drawback. Calling to my aid some of the best engineering talent in the country, I succeeded, in 1871, in producing what was afterwards known as the ‘Williamson Road Steamer and Steam Plow.’ The engines were built by the Locomotive Works of Paterson (New Jersey), and were far ahead of anything that had been attempted before in either hemisphere.”

A total of 12 Williamson steam engines were manufactured by Locomotive Works: two went to California, one to Minnesota and one to Pennsylvania. Williamson stated, “Two of the engines were sold to parties in Great Britain and are being worked as road engines. Being of American build they have naturally been very closely criticized, and it has been freely conceded that no such perfect engines have been made in that country.”