Who Invented the First Tractor?

Lee Klancher shares his personal list of the inventors, engineers and innovators who transformed tractors.

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courtesy Octane Press
Douglass Steiger with former Steiger CEO Irv Aal next to Steiger No. 1 at the 2017 Big Iron Show in West Fargo, N.D.

Ever wonder who invented the first tractor for the farm? Author Lee Klancher shares his personal list of tractor engineers and inventors!

The personal computer would not exist without tractors. Hold on, how can that be, you say? Well, if Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had spent 12 hours a day shelling corn, threshing grain, butchering chickens, hauling wood and all the other work required to live off the land – as early Americans once did – they would not have had time to cobble together circuit boards in their garages. Agricultural innovation transformed our society, and the tractor is the machine that shoulders the bulk of the work. Without it, there would be no tablets, cell phones or other devices your nieces and nephews use to torment you.

Today’s topic is a short list of folks who are responsible for the diesel-powered beasts that begat the digital revolution. I made a list of 25 or so folks for this article. As it happens, given my love of the topic and my verbosity, I only have space to write about eight of them! While all eight are worthy, they were selected mainly by the quality of their story. I would not consider this list definitive.

All are, however, key contributors, so the next time you fumble with your phone to find a Snapchat your niece sent three days ago showing a TikTok of her pet hamster dancing to a YouTube video, you can blame the folks below.

The sad serial inventor who invented the first tractor for farms

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At the top of today’s list is the doomed genius, John Froelich, widely credited as the creator of the first farm tractor. Using an engine from one company and a chassis from another, he replaced his steam engine with a little gas-powered machine that he built in his blacksmith shop.

Froelich was a natural-born inventor, creating a wide array of fantastic new devices (including a washing machine). His little tractor spawned the creation of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co., which in turn was the catalyst for Deere’s long history with twin-cylinder engines.

black and white image of an old engine.

As with so many inventors, Froelich never quite put the pieces together from a business perspective and died penniless. His legacy lives on, both in history books and in the Froelich Tractor Museum, McGregor, Iowa, where his workshop and replicas of his hand-built tractor are displayed.

The college wunderkinds

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Charles Hart and Charles Parr built the first commercially successful gas-powered farm tractor … meaning unlike poor old Froelich, they sold enough of their machines to feed their families (handsomely, in fact).

The two met in engineering school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and quickly set up a business repairing farm machinery and tinkering with their own creations. Despite skepticism from their professors, they wrote a thesis on the new gasoline-powered engines and began to sell them out of their little shop.

image of a vintage engine with metal wheels and aged patina.

Their first gas-powered tractor was a beast that weighed 5 tons. Known as Old No. 1, it was sold to an Iowa farmer. The two friends formed Hart-Parr Co., and obtained financing to grow it into a huge business. For a short time, Hart-Parr was America’s dominant gas tractor builder. In 1929, Hart-Parr faced financial difficulty and merged with others to form Oliver Farm Equipment Corp.

The innovative artist

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One of the great minds in tractor engineering, Theophilus Brown was widely respected for his gentlemanly nature and brilliant work. Even his competitors gave him a tip of the hat. At International Harvester, he was known as “The Awfulest Brown” (possibly due to one of his lift patents costing IH millions of dollars). Today, his legacy is preserved along with his fantastic daily diaries housed in the archives at his alma mater, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Brown headed John Deere’s experimental department, and his name adorned more than 150 patents during his career. He contributed to most development areas of early John Deere tractors, perhaps most significantly in implement innovation, including the power lift (running off the PTO), adjustable rear-wheel width, cultivation, the manure spreader, and development of the Model GP, A and B tractors.

Brown received many awards in his career, including the Cyrus H. McCormick Award from the former American Society of Agricultural Engineers (ASAE). His last innovation/obsession was something called the 202 tractor, a small, light machine that he tested extensively but that never made it to production.

The promotional machine

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Harry Merritt was a sales-oriented leader known for his passion for tractors. Merritt’s career started with the Hart-Parr Co., where his involvement with selling the ill-fated Little Devil led to him getting canned. No matter: He landed at Allis-Chalmers as head of their tractor division.

Ever a sales-minded sort, Merritt cut the price and worked with engineering to strip features and slim the appearance of the Allis-Chalmers 20-35. The result was a hot seller in the late 1920s. Merritt took the money that it brought in and wisely invested in research and development.

The stamp that put him on this list was his work with Firestone: putting rubber tires on Allis-Chalmers tractors, and famously promoting them by having well-known racing drivers pilot the rubber-shod tractors on dirt tracks. He continued to innovate and won ASAE’s prestigious Cyrus Hall McCormick award in 1941.

The tractor tycoon

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Henry Ford made his mark on this list with his usual megalomaniacal flair. He not only wanted to create a successful farm tractor, but he also wanted to completely upend the market. He did so – twice – with innovative machines that destroyed smaller competitors and scrambled the brains of the large manufacturers’ leaders (notably International).

The Fordson was useful, affordable and relatively easy to operate when the rest of the industry was lumbering, expensive and required a tech-oriented Goliath to start and run. Ford sold hundreds of thousands and, when the economy went sour, dropped the price below cost of production just to make sure farmers were able and willing to purchase his machine.

a small tractor with light green paint and red metal wheels

When the rest of the industry released machines that improved on the Fordson design, Ford bailed out of tractor manufacture for most of the world (except Ireland). Ford returned in 1939 by bamboozling Harry Ferguson into putting his amazing 3-point hitch on Ford’s incredibly usable little 9N tractor … and Ford again disrupted the market with glee.

The Fordsons were literally widow-makers, due to their propensity to flip over backward, and are collectible toys in modern times, but the 9Ns are timeless, well-built machines still hard at work on farms around the world.

The 4-wheel-drive forward thinker

Elmer Wagner and his six brothers started experimenting with high-horsepower 4-wheel-drive tractors in 1949. The big manufacturers were behind the curve at the time, content to sell massive numbers of 40hp and 50hp 2-wheel drives. The farmer of the day was doing more acreage with less help – a trend that simply never quit – and needed larger, more powerful machines. Farmers being farmers, they built their own solutions.

Elmer and his six brothers started selling a line of 4-wheel-drive tractors that ranged from 100hp to 220hp. The machines sold well, particularly in their locale in the Pacific Northwest, and they caught the eye of most of the industry. IH executive Brooks McCormick visited the area and returned to incite panic in the engineering halls at IH with his insistence that the company needed to match the innovation. The results were predictably expensive and ill-functioning.

orange tractor with a tall cab and rubber tires.

A few miles south, the typically stoic folks at Deere reacted to Wagner with panic of their own, building the ill-fated 8010 and 8020 almost overnight, creating one of the only Deere models that was released in nearly unusable form.

The Wagner boys also inspired another family to build a green 4-wheel-drive in their barn, resulting in a tractor that would become a world-class brand. Wagner struggled with financials, and signed an ill-fated deal on New Year’s Eve 1968 giving Deere exclusive rights to sell the machines. Deere sold them – poorly – for just one year and then dropped the models for their own model in 1970, shuttering Wagner Tractor for good.

The Big Bud and Rite Tractor brands were created by entrepreneurial tractor dealers who started out specializing in selling (and upgrading) Wagner tractors. Both makers began to build their own high-horsepower 4-wheel-drive machines after Wagner went out of business. Very few makers had as much influence in as short a time as Wagner.

The brilliant builder in the barn

Douglass Steiger saw a Wagner tractor at a farm show and immediately realized the big machine could make him, his brother and his father more money. He planned to replace the family’s three IH WD-9s with one big tractor so his dad could do the fieldwork and he and his brother could pay the bills running scrapers.

Steiger asked his banker for $25,000 to buy a Wagner, or $10,000 to build a tractor of his own. The banker, perhaps aware Douglass was an outstanding welder and craftsman who had built a variety of useful farm implements at his place near Red Lake, Minnesota, gave him the $10,000.

Steiger put his welder to work and built himself a sturdy and reliable machine with a hand-built chassis stuffed with leftover construction components. Building that first machine was a remarkable feat by an ingenious craftsman. His next trick was a one-in-a-million long shot.

image of a person sitting in the driver's seat of a large green tractor

After building a few tractors for neighbors, the Steiger family transformed their barn into a tiny factory and began cranking out “barn-built” Steiger tractors. The machines were quite good, and in 1970 the company received some backing and moved into a larger warehouse in nearby Fargo, North Dakota.

Dubbed “the tank building,” the warehouse had holes in the walls big enough to let in rabbits in the summer and snowdrifts in the winter, and the new CEO had the disturbing habit of keeping vampire hours, sleeping during the day and working at night.

No matter: The quality of Steiger machinery was solid, and the company just kept growing. To do that while building heavy equipment is almost impossible. The development costs are stratospheric, and the agricultural equipment market is reliably volatile. If you invest the millions needed for a new machine and introduce it into a crashing market, even the largest players can go bust (here’s looking at you, International Harvester).

Steiger built a beautiful new building with IH money in the 1970s, and heavy-duty 4-wheel-drives bearing the Steiger name (under the Case IH brand) are still built in that building today. As of May 2022, Douglass Steiger is still sharp and feisty. Spend just a few minutes with the man, and the gleam in his eye betrays the intelligence and grit that allowed him to pull off one of the most remarkable feats in agricultural machinery history. FC

Lee Klancher is the author of the Red Tractors book series, John Deere Evolution, Tractor, and more. Learn more online at Octane Press.

Red Tractors, John Deere Evolution and other titles by Lee Klancher are available at the Farm Collector Store. Visit the Farm Collector Store online or call (866) 624-9388.

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