Long before there were power assisted, climate controlled, GPS guided modern tractors, monsters such as these revolutionized farming across the globe. Before they came along in the mid-1800s, field work was done by teams of horses or by hand and the amount of land that could be cultivated by one farmer was limited. These machines allowed farmers to do far more work in far less time leading to an explosion in productivity and enabling the United States, with its wealth of open land, to become the world’s leading food producer.
Little did James Watt realize, when he developed his improvements in the steam engine that would make these behemoths possible, that he was also paving the way for America to become a super power.
When water moves from a liquid to a gaseous state its volume expands by roughly 1600 times. Long before Watt came along, man realized that if you could harness the power of that expansion you could use it to do work. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the steam engine.
Watt’s contribution was to make the steam engine far more efficient by introducing a separate condenser to existing designs. This vastly reduced waste heat and increased efficiency and power. Steam power was now practical and machines such as these were now possible.
Just don’t called them tractors. Their design is obviously very similar to that of steam locomotives and when they were introduced they were called traction engines to differentiate them from locomotives which could only operate on rails. As a general rule, the term tractor is used to describe similar machines powered by internal combustion engines.
As cumbersome as they were, they were the Swiss Army knife of nineteenth century farming. With their enormous power, their portability and their power take-off flywheels, these engines could be used to power saw blades and water pumps, could plow, tow, pull stumps and grade new roads.
Their reign would last roughly 50 years. With the development of machines powered by internal combustion engines, steam power began to lose its luster. Tractors powered by petroleum fuels were smaller, more maneuverable, cleaner, safer and easier to operate and could do as much work as their steam-powered forebears and quickly replaced them. (Steam power did not go away, though, as most of our electricity is still produced by steam-driven turbine engines.)
It is no exaggeration to say that these monsters of the field also contributed to the development of our automotive culture. The manufacturing skills required to build these external combustion engines translated directly to the manufacturing of internal combustion engines and the cars, trucks, buses, airplanes (and tractors) of the 20th and 21st centuries. Oh, and our early roads were built with steam-driven machines such as these.
These fully operational steam traction engines are on display this Labor Day weekend at the Rock River Thresheree in Edgerton, Wis. This celebration of steam power, antique machines and heritage farming has been conducted every year since 1955.