Farm Power: External Combustion Versus Internal Combustion

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The cover of the 1893 C. Aultman & Co. catalog, from the heyday of steam-powered threshing.
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Writer Sam Moore collects antique tractors, implements, and related items.
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The cover of the October 1935 issue of Farm Power featuring Bascom B. Clarke, founder and editor of The American Thresherman.
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The first Hart-Parr gas tractor, built in 1903.
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When internal combustion was first emerging as a threat to external combustion, this 1903 ad for the Hart-Parr gas tractor got The American Thresherman magazine in trouble with steam traction engine manufacturers.

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.

By 1924, The American Thresherman contained advertisements for gasoline or kerosene burning tractors from such old-line steam traction builders as J.I. Case, Aultman & Taylor, Advance-Rumely, Huber, Nichols & Shepard, Russell and Frick. But some threshermen remained unconvinced. As Edward Peatling of Omaha told the editor of The American Thresherman in September 1924: “I think many engineers made a mistake in discarding their steam engines, as they are the most reliable power that one can get, being always steady and right up to the minute. While it may cost a little more to operate an engine … you can thresh more grain in a season than you can with a gas tractor.”

Although steam power was probably the most important impetus of the Industrial Revolution, complete mechanization of America’s farms didn’t happen until the small, light, maneuverable all-purpose gas tractor was developed during the 1920s.

A few diehard old threshermen kept steam alive in most parts of the country until after the end of the Second World War, even though the manufacturers stopped building steam traction engines during the 1920s. Today, we have to go to a steam show to see the massive old teakettles in action.

Just in case you think tax protests are a new phenomenon, the accompanying ditty was published in the May 1936 issue of Farm Power. It seems timely since tax day falls this month.


Tax the farmer, tax his fowl;

Tax the dog and tax his howl;

Tax his hen and tax her egg;

Let the bloomin’ mudsite beg;

Tax his pig and tax his squeal;

Tax his boots run down at heel;

Tax his plow and tax his clothes,

Tax the rags that wipe his nose;

Tax his house and tax his bed;

Tax the bald spot on his head;

Tax the ox and tax the ass;

Tax his “Henry,” tax his gas;

Tax the road that he must pass

And make him travel o’er the grass.

Tax his cow and tax his calf;

Tax him if he dares to laugh;

He is but a common man

So tax the cuss just all you can.


Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.

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