Building the Unstoppables

| April 2001

In the early years of the last century, during the first years of tractor-building, tractor companies - hundreds of them - searched for a type of tractor that would not only set them apart from the competition, but would sell. Unfortunately, the wide variety merely confused farmers, as R. V. Brown of Freeport, Ill., wrote in Farm Implements magazine in 1917, 'There is one big step to be recognized and made and that is standardization. It should awaken all tractor concerns, especially the new and small ones, who try to present something vastly different. Picture the menagerie of autos that first appeared. Today, ask a schoolboy to sketch one. All autos are pretty much alike. He has a conception of an auto. He has no such conception of a gas tractor, there are so many species, just recently I watched a tractor. It was one of the new species just out, and looked as if it were hitched front end to the plow. All troublesome machinery was inconveniently placed between the drive wheels. About every time the farmer stopped he had to get a crowbar and lift the thing ahead before he could insert the crank to start it. This was only one of the errors in designing the thing. The farmer was having some trouble, which necessitated many stops. Three out of four of the stops found a spoke interfering with cranking and meant more crowbar work.'

None of these unusual types of tractors survived very long, because of competition, poor manufacturing, or simply because they were not designed properly for farm use. As one farmer wrote to Tractor And Implement, 'You would think they might come out to the fields once in a while and actually see what we need.'

Occasionally, however, manufacturers stumbled across an idea that not only took root, but flourished, and eventually led to a type of standardization of tractors. One of those ideas was for tractors with tank-type treads.

These gained credibility due to World War I. Tractor-related magazines of the day - Farm Implements, Farm Implement & Tractor, Literary Digest, Gas Power - all showed pictures at one time or another of allied tanks crawling across enemy lines, the treads of this brand-new type of fighting machine prominently kicking up dust. An article in a 1917 issue of Farm Implements, 'Army Tanks In A Sham Battle,' tells the tale of how Captain Moffett, Commandant of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, started using a tank-tread, the 'type of propulsion identical with the method of getting over rough ground that makes the English 'tanks' so valuable in offensive work. An endless steel track is laid down on the ground and over this the machine pulls itself on smooth steel rail. Ground irregularities do not matter. One track may be going over a log, while that on the other side is down in a hollow.' The article also tells how the tread reacts to weather: 'The ground was covered with puddles of water and everywhere the slippery, sticky clay soil made venturing forth an invitation to a fall. Nevertheless, the ... tractor, undaunted, stolidly crept along over the slimy field, through the mud puddles, water and sticky clay without its progress in the least retarded. This is a remarkable performance ... (and shows that the) tractor could successfully operate over soft ground on which men were slipping and falling constantly.'

Reading this, it is not difficult to understand the eagerness with which tractor-manufacturing companies leapt into making 'Tank-Tread' - or tracklayer - tractors: if it could operate on the war-torn battlegrounds of Europe, amidst poor weather and shell and shot and fury, it must really be tough and strong. Why couldn't it work in a farmer's field? Tractor companies, some brand-new, some experienced, hopped on the tank-tread bandwagon.

Tank-treads came in two types that might be called rear-drive and four-wheel drive. In other words, the rear-drive treads were hooked only to the rear wheels (and were often called half-treads), while the four-wheel drive used rear and front wheels.