The First “Tractor”?


| 6/28/2010 3:33:38 PM


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Sam Moore TOC size   
Sam Moore  
In his comprehensive book about building Hart-Parr and Oliver tractors at Charles City, Iowa, John D. Culbertson wrote the following under the heading “1906”: “One day while writing advertising copy, the sales manager W.H. Williams was struggling with the cumbersome words ‘gasoline traction engine’ when a new word – tractor –  flashed into his mind, a word combining ‘traction’ and ‘motor.’ He wrote ‘tractor’ in his copy, and the newly coined name took hold and is alive and well even in the 21st century.”

I’ve heard that story ever since I got into the hobby and, at the risk of upsetting Oliver and Hart-Parr enthusiasts, I’m here to tell you that ain’t necessarily so. Oh, I believe that Mr. Williams had probably never heard the word before and truly was convinced that he’d invented it, but no less an authority than the U.S. Patent Office attests to the fact that the word “tractor” was not at all new in 1906.

As soon as self-propelled vehicles powered by steam became common, men tried to adapt them to agricultural use. The biggest hurdle to steam traction devices in farm use was their weight and poor traction, with the heavy monsters often becoming hopelessly mired in soft fields. Many a brow was furrowed and more than one head was scratched over the problem and many fanciful ideas were the result.

One of the most promising methods of obtaining both traction and flotation on soft ground was to use endless tracks and one of the first patents along those lines was awarded in 1859 to Charles F. Mann, Troy, N.Y., for his “Traction Locomotive Carrying Its Own Railway.” Other patents for endless tracked “traction engines,” “road locomotives,” and the like followed through the next four decades, most with little or no success.

A man named George H. Edwards from Lanark, a small town in northwestern Illinois, received a patent in 1872 for an “improvement in braced chains,” in which he described a new way of connecting the chain links of an endless track.

George Edwards next turns up in 1880, now living in Chicago, with a patent for an improved “traction-truck,” with an endless crawler-type track. In this patent, Edwards writes: “The object of my invention is to provide a tractor (author’s italics), to be propelled by a steam-engine or other suitable mechanical motor over firm or yielding surfaces, for pulling, pushing, and carrying purposes, as may be required for plowing and other uses.”