Farm Power: External Combustion Versus Internal Combustion

Farm magazine publishers had to be nimble when the competition between external combustion steam engines and internal combustion gas engines heated up.

| May 2006

Farm Power magazine was introduced in 1935 by several men who had published The American Thresherman. The American Thresherman, a victim of the Great Depression, ceased publication in its 34th year in 1932. One interesting story they tell about the old magazine is the reaction of many of the steam traction engine manufacturers to the new-fangled gas tractor in 1903.

Lots of power was needed to pull big plows in order to break the vast tracts of tough prairie sod on the central and western plains of Canada and the United States. Steam traction engines were used for the task, but there were difficulties. Coal and wood fuel had to be hauled for long distances and, in many locales, water was scarce and alkaline. Under the hard plowing conditions that prevailed, steam boiler flues surrounded by this dirty water would burn out in a short time, while the twisting and strains of moving across the rough ground soon loosened boiler stay bolts. In addition, the cast iron traction gears used in early engines weren't strong enough to withstand the strains of plowing and often broke. Those factors set the stage for the first showdown between external combustion and internal combustion engines.

Charles W. Hart and Charles H. Parr were engineering students and roommates at the University of Wisconsin during the last decade of the 19th century. The two young men recognized the limitations of steam engines and, in 1902, built a gasoline-powered tractor. The machine needed neither wood nor coal, and oil was utilized for cooling, thus eliminating the need for water. Steam traction men laughed at the first crude Hart-Parr tractors that ran with a rhythmic rumble detractors translated as "I can, I can't, I can't, I can, I can't, I can't, I can't." Despite the criticism, a few machines were sold and, after some severe growing pains, Hart and Parr became so successful that steam traction engine builders began to worry about their future.

A story is told of a sales meeting at one of the larger companies then building steam engines. A group of branch managers discussing the new gas tractors wondered when their company would build a similar machine. The general sales manager overheard the conversation and made it quite clear that if he ever again heard any one of his sales force so much as mention a gas tractor, that individual would be looking for a new job.

In 1903, the first advertisement for a Hart-Parr gasoline tractor appeared in the pages of The American Thresherman. Immediately, several steam traction engine builders informed the editor that if he carried any more such ads, he could kiss their advertising goodbye. Bascom B. Clarke was not only the editor of The American Thresherman, but the owner as well, and he, in so many words, told the complainers to go stick their heads in the smokebox of one of their engines. Apparently a secret meeting was called by some of the steam engine builders to drum up support for a boycott of The American Thresherman, but none of them ever did cancel their advertising.

The most likely prospective buyer for a gas tractor was, of course, the professional thresherman, who owned a steam traction engine and who most likely subscribed to The American Thresherman. Before long, thousands of these men had switched their allegiance from external to internal combustion power. Despite the effort to stave off the demise of steam, other manufacturers, including most of the steam engine builders themselves, soon saw the handwriting on the wall, and gas and kerosene tractors of all shapes and sizes hit the market.