A Brief History of the Tractor
Cover photo courtesy of Western Development Museum.
Put the hay-powered horses to pasture and replace them with a gas-powered tractor.
In the 1900s, tractors revolutionized the agriculture industry, eventually freeing farmers from using oxen, horses and manpower. Today, no farm is complete without a tractor.
“The farm tractor is one of the most important and easily recognizable technological components of modern agriculture in the United States. Its development in the first half of the twentieth century fundamentally changed the nature of farm work, significantly altered the structure of rural America, and freed up millions of workers to be absorbed into the rapidly growing manufacturing and service sectors of the country. The tractor represents an important application of the internal combustion engine, rivaling the automobile and the truck in its economic impact,” according to William J. White, Research Triangle Institute in an Economic History article.
The word tractor is from Latin, trahere meaning “to pull.”
The first recorded use of the word “tractor” was George H. Edwards’ 1890 patent request for “a tractor to be propelled by steam-engine.”
However, most historians attribute the origin of the name tractor to Hart-Parr sales manager, W.H.Williams, who was struggling in 1906 to write an ad using “gasoline traction engine.” Unaware that another had already coined the term, Williams combined ‘traction’ and ‘motor’ and wrote ‘tractor’ in the advertisement, and the name took off.
First Tractors were Steam-Powered Engines on Wheels
The use of steam power on the farm emerged in the mid-1800s when steam engines were used to drive mechanical farm machinery using a flexible drive belt. The first steam engines designed specifically for agricultural uses were portable engines mounted on wheels or skids and transported to the work area using horses or mules.Later models used the power of the steam engine itself to power a drive train to move the machine and were first known as steam traction engines. These early steam-powered engines were monstrous machines – weighing up to 20 tons and could move under their own power, with impressive horsepower.
Steam traction engines were cumbersome, difficult to maintain and unusable for many farms in North America. Steam-powered engines remained in use until the early 1900s until smaller, reliable internal combustion engines were developed.
John Froelich Invents First Gas-Powered, One-Cylinder, Tractor in 1892
John Froelich, a custom thresherman from Iowa, operated a grain elevator and mobile threshing service in the 1890s. Every harvest, Froelich and his hired crew traveled through Iowa and the Dakotas, threshing farmers’ crops for a fee. The steam-powered thresher he used was bulky, hard to transport, and expensive to operate. The machine posed a fire danger as well, as one spark from the smokestack on a windy day could set the entire prairie on fire.
So, in 1892, Froelich built a gasoline-powered engine to replace steam engines. The first model featured a one-cylinder Van Duzen gasoline engine mounted on a Robinson steam engine chassis.
His machine, rigged with a reversing gear, clutch, and steering mechanism, was the first gasoline tractor that could propel itself both forwards and backwards, allowing farmers to tow a threshing machine along roads.
During the 52-day harvest season in South Dakota and using just 26 gallons of gas, moving at a speed of three miles per hour, Froelich’s team threshed more than a thousand bushels of grain a day.
In 1894, Froelich and other investors formed the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company. It was without much success in the early years, and Froelich left the company in 1895. Between 1896 and 1914, Waterloo only sold 20 tractors but in 1914, they introduced the Waterloo Boy Model “R” single-speed tractor, which sold well, followed by the two-speed Model “N” which was even more successful.
Hart-Parr Company Built First Successful Tractor using a 2-Cyclinder Engine in 1903
Charles W. Hart and Charles H. Parr began their pioneering work on gas engines in the late 1800s while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In 1897, the two men formed the Hart-Parr Gasoline Engine Company of Madison and in 1903 had successfully invented and built the first commercially successful “tractor” using a 2-cylinder gasoline engine, weighing in at 14,000 pounds.
“With a Hart-Parr Oil Tractor, you can cut down your farming costs and add the savings to your profits. This “Modern Farm Horse” furnishes ideal power for threshing, hauling, and road grading. One man operates and cares for it. Uses cheapest kerosene for fuel.”
Lightweight, Mass-Produced, Affordable Tractors Available to Farmers
Although the heavy tractors were initially successful, few farmers could afford the large machines and the weight and large frame were not efficient, especially in muddy and uneven soil. In 1907, Henry Ford produced his first experimental gas-powered tractor, and at the time was referred to as an “automobile plow.”
After 1910, gasoline-powered tractors were used almost exclusively in farming with over 100 manufacturers selling them, but total sales were small. Ford and International Harvester were edging out the competition by mass producing cheaper, light-weight, and more versatile tractors and competing in price wars.
WWI is a Turning Point: Transition from Horsepower to Mechanical Horsepower
Ford introduced a very popular mass-produced tractor in 1917, called the Fordson, a contraction of the original name of the tractor operation, Henry Ford & Son Inc. The machine included a three-speed transmission and heavy-duty worm-drive rear axle, with the engine and drive train bolted together to create a rigid single unit without the need for an external frame. The tractor used a 20 hp inline four-cylinder engine, similar to the Ford Model T engine.
It was the first tractor that was small, lightweight, mass-produced, and affordable at a cost of $750, with a large distribution network and a trusted brand making it possible for the average farmer to own a tractor for the first time.
Between 1917 and 1922, the Fordson was to tractors like the Ford Model T was to automobiles. Just like the Model T helped replace horses in transport, the Fordson helped replace horses in farming especially during a war-caused shortage of horses.
“World War I, and the food shortage that came along with it, was a defining moment in history and a direct cause of the rise of the lightweight tractor,”
— Rick Mannen, editor, Antique Power.
“So many young men went to Europe to fight, causing a tremendous shortage of labor. The lack of manpower, combined with a decreased food supply in Great Britain and Allied Nations, put pressure on Ford and the other tractor companies to increase manufacturing for the wartime food effort.” Ford supplied tractors to British, Canadian and American governments at cost.
“By the end of WWI, tractor prices were down and most farmers could afford to buy a tractor, and put their horses to pasture,” Mannen said.
John Deere releases its 1918 Waterloo Boy Tractor which ran on Kerosene
Deere, which started as a plow and implement maker, got into tractor sales by purchasing Waterloo Gasoline Engine in 1918, for $2,350,000. The 1918 Waterloo Boy is the first tractor marketed by Deere & Co., and one of the first tractors to successfully utilize the combustion engine. Since it ran on Kerosene, it became consumer friendly as Kerosene was readily available at the local hardware store. Waterloo Boy helped sow the way for an agricultural revolution in America. The John Deere Waterloo Works is still one of the largest tractor producing plants in the United States.
The John Deere Model D was introduced in 1923 and was the first tractor under the Deere name, replacing the Waterloo Boy. With numerous companies manufacturing tractors, Deere marketed the importance of quality from trusted brands.
International Harvester Markets Power Take-Off (PTO) and the Farmall Tractor
In order to compete in the growing market, International Harvester was first to market with a PTO on a production tractor, on its model 8-16 introduced in 1918. This metal shaft was driven by the tractor motor and powered implements, rather than getting power from a rolling wheel alongside the tractor. This technology drastically changed the tractor industry by allowing for more complex machinery to be attached to the end of tractors, and not just stationary equipment.
International Harvester then introduced a “general purpose’ (GP) tractor, the Farmall. The Farmall tractors were broadly sold in 1925 and by 1932, the number produced had totaled 134,954, as the Farmall series changed the way farmers raised row crops.
The tractor’s high clearance, small front wheels, and light weight was designed for cultivating, plowing and cutting. International Harvester introduced the second generation Farmall in 1939. The series included A and B (small-sized), H (middle-sized), and M (large-sized) tractors.
Innovation and advanced technology continued into the 1920s and 1930s. Deere released a power lift in 1927 which allowed the implement to be raised by pulling a lever rather than lifting the implement by hand at each turn. Rubber tires replaced steel wheels beginning in 1932, increasing speed and causing less damage to fields. Minneapolis-Moline fitted a tractor with an all-steel cab in 1939. Lastly, lower cost diesel fuel engines became common in the mid-1930s.
In 1937, after sitting out for over a decade, Ford got back in the tractor business through a partnership with engineer and Irish innovator Harry Ferguson, who invented the three-point hitch system – a standard method of attaching implements. The device improved plowing by continuously leveling the implement.
Tractors on Farms Exceed the Number of Horses and Mules
By 1932 over a million GP tractors had been sold with only three companies representing 50% of the market —International Harvester, John Deere, and Allis-Chalmers. These GP tractor designs would change little, except in size and horsepower, over the next 30 years.
By the 1940s tractors had successfully displaced mules and horses on the farm.
This was a major turning point as farmers were able to harvest more crops and boost production dramatically.
Today’s Tractors Have Come a Long Way
Today’s tractors, from compact to utility to row crop to 4WD, have come a long way in the past 100 years. Current models are equipped with revolutionary technology, including self-driving models, GPS, luxury cabs and increased horsepower and versatility.
If you have land to tend there is a tractor made for you. From the late model behemoth tractors powering today’s largest farms to the garden tractors proudly used in suburban neighborhoods, they’ve come a long way. Not only is there a variety of tractors, but a variety of options available to any given tractor model. If you find yourself in the market, whether buying or selling, used tractors can be difficult to appraise because of all the potential options available on them. Use IronAppraiser.com to get a value that takes into consideration model year, options and hours of usage.
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