Steam Tractors

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The History of the Chugging Steam Tractors

Before the implementation of the internal combustion engine to power tractors, there was the steam engine. Just like their cousins, the railroad steam locomotives, they were heavy, polluting, expensive, and dangerous to operate. The first steam tractor was built in 1829 but they were used mostly between the years 1885 and 1914 to help increase farm production. The westward expansion of the United States also meant that fields were much larger and required machinery to assist with the job of plowing. Even though steam tractors had their negative aspects, their chugging and belching made them fascinating. Let's look at some of the history of steam tractors.

Steam tractors were cumbersome and sometimes dangerous to operate. There was the danger of water running too low in the boiler which could cause an explosion. There was also the danger of hot embers from wood or coal-burning steam tractors setting a field on fire. These were extremely heavy machines with some of the earliest models having cast iron boilers. Large wheels were required in order to bear the weight of these heavy boilers. So, as you can imagine, their mobility was very limited. If equipment broke down in the field, it was difficult to get it to a location for repair.

Some stream tractors were really stationary steam engines. Steam engines used in farming were not always self-propelling. Some were mounted on skids and had to be hauled into place by horses. Other plowing engines were mounted on large wheels and could self-propel to the place where they would pull the farm implement. These were stationary engines consisting of a winding drum that could pull a rope with a farm implement attached. Working in pairs, stationary steam tractors could pull a plough or other farm implement back and forth across a field.

The J.I. Case Company built the first steam tractor in 1829. Of course this was before the word “tractor” was born. Back then, they were referred to as portable traction or agricultural motors. The Case steam tractors in 1912 had a 75 horsepower single-cylinder engine. Farmers who were able to purchase these steam tractors would sometimes have to drive them from the dealer to farm. The 1912 models could reach speeds of 2 ½ MPH so, as you can imagine, the drive from dealer to farm was sometimes a long one. Considering that the 1912 model weighed 24,000 pounds empty, there are stories of bridges needing to be reinforced so that a farmer could drive his tractor home. Sometimes, when the Case tractor was no longer needed for farming, its wheels could be removed and used to power sawmills in lumbering operations. The largest steam tractor was built by Case and it had a 150 horsepower engine.

The expense of steam tractors meant they were usually for large operations. Farmers would pool their resources together in order to utilize the equipment and passing it to each other when each individual's task was complete. Some who outright owned steam tractors would work for hire and take their equipment to the farmer's site and do the work. Because of their expense, the steam tractor was easily replaced by tractors using internal combustion engines at the beginning of the 20th century.

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