Rise of the Tractor

Automobile's evolution, war in Europe spur tractor development

| January 2006

Prior to 1914, a good team of horses or mules provided all the power the typical Midwestern farmer needed. If his tillable land exceeded 100 acres, he may have had more than one team. At harvest, when belt power was needed to drive a threshing machine, the farmer hired a steam engine. Horses pulled wagons loaded with bundles to the threshing site and hauled the separated wheat, barley or oats to the storage bins. After 1915, though, two unrelated events contributed to a rapid change from horses and mules to tractors: the introduction of the automobile, and the scarcity of food in Europe resulting from the upheaval caused by World War I.

In 1908, Henry Ford introduced his famous Model T. Within a few years, thousands of Model Ts were bouncing over unpaved rural roads, replacing the horse and buggy. More importantly, the Model T demonstrated to farmers that the gasoline-burning internal combustion engine was both dependable and safe. Even a year before Henry Ford introduced his Model T, he took parts from a prototype auto and a grain binder and built an experimental tractor. He realized, however, that the market for a low-priced automobile was more lucrative than that for a new small farm tractor. The tractor would come later.

The word "tractor" was virtually unknown prior to 1906. That was the year W.H. Williams, sales manager of the Hart-Parr tractor company, first used the word "tractor" in sales literature as an abbreviation for "gasoline traction engine." Actually, the word "tractor" had appeared previously in an 1890 patent issued by the U.S. Government to George Edwards in Chicago. The Hart-Parr company is generally credited, nevertheless, for making "tractor" the common word it is today.

In the early 1900s, farmers started comparing the merits of the steam traction engine with those of the new gasoline-burning farm tractor. To settle the debates, field plowing trials were conducted in Winnipeg, Canada, from 1908 to 1912. In one of the trials, 12 tractors were divided into three class sizes: under 20 hp, 20-30 hp and over 30 hp. Their plowing performance was compared to the single class of six steam engines.

In the small tractor class, an International Harvester tractor won first prize by plowing one acre in an hour and 15 minutes. It was hitched to a plow with three 12-inch bottoms. In the middle class, another IHC tractor was awarded the first prize. Using a plow with four 14-inch bottoms, it turned a little more than two acres in two hours and 17 minutes. In the over 30 hp class, a tractor built by the Kinnard Haines Co. won first place by plowing 3-1/2 acres in 1-1/2 hours hitched to a plow with eight 14-inch bottoms.

Of the six steam traction engines, two pulled 10-bottom plows; one was hitched to a 12-bottom plow; and three used 14-bottom plows. These plows all cut 14-inch furrows. The six steam engines plowed between 3-1/2 to 4 acres in an average time of one hour and 15 minutes. However, in this plowing competition, the tractors still fared pretty well in the eyes of the farmers in attendance. Each tractor cost less than each steam engine, the farmers noted, and the tractors needed only one operator. Each of the steam engines had a two-man crew; one man to steer and one to feed the firebox. Tractors were also easier to maneuver than the much larger and heavier steam engines, especially in soft field conditions.