How Steam Power Revolutionized the Farm in America

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How Steam Power Revolutionized the Farm in America
by Brandon Knapp

Editor's Note: Brandon Knapp is a 17 year old student from Ohio. The following is a copy of a history report he did for his school.

As the American farm entered the 1800s, its main source of power came from three animals-the horse, the mule, or the ox. The average farm worked by horses was 100 acres, and a farmer walked 8 miles per acre to plow his fields (with a walking plow) at the average speed of 1 1/2 mph. With 100 acres, the farmer walked 800 miles to plow his fields. And he still had to plant the crop, and cultivate! For wheat and other crops the grain had to be separated from the chaff with a machine called the thresher. The thresher was powered by a power sweep, which was turned by horses. Everything depended on the strength and durability of humans and horses.

In 1849, things began to change. Some of the first portable steam engines for farm use were built in this year, in Philadelphia. They only provided belt power for machines like the thresher. There were three sizes-4, 10, and 30 horsepower. The 4-hp model sold for $625 and the 30-hp model sold for $2300. That was a lot of money back then! These machines were also heavy; the 4-hp model weighed two tons, or 1000 pounds per horsepower!

These machines were pulled from field to field by horses. The steam engine provided steady power, it didn't tire after hard work, and it only was "fed" when it worked; instead of all year round, like animals. Yet these machines were still crude, and a low steam pressure of 50 to 90 p.s.i. limited the amount of work that could be done.

Over the next few years, the steam pressure would be steadily increased with better quality material and construction of the boilers. However the greatest change of the steam engine would make it unforgettable for the next 150 years-"Self Propelled" steam engines began their debut in 1855. At first they were just a normal "Portable" engine, with chains or gears connecting the crankshaft and the rear wheels. They couldn't even steer! They still needed horses to turn. But the self-propelled engine could also pull its thresher behind it.

If a steam engine could pull a thresher, it could also pull another type of load-the plow. In 1855, a "steam plow" was used by its inventor Obed Hussey. In 1858, Joseph Fawkes used his 30-hp engine; named "Lancaster", for a plowing demonstration at the Illinois State Fair. The engine and plow were then taken to the U.S. Agricultural Society's contest in Chicago where it won the championship. The steam engine that could be used for plowing, pulling, belt work, or other uses became known as the Steam Traction Engine.

Then, development of the steam engine slowed as the Civil War began. Most industry was used to produce weapons of war. However, the Armies required more food, and the Armies took many men from their farms at the same time. The few men and women left on the farms needed to use technology to keep up with demand. So the small number of steam engines (mostly portable types) became more popular. Yet the war kept farmers from getting the technology they wanted. It would have to wait until after the war…

After the war, steam engines steadily improved in technology and quality. Many different types and manufacturers of engines sprung up. Case, one of the largest manufacturers of steam engines, made its first engine in 1876. Port Huron began in 1882. In 1880, a patent was issued for a steering devise; the steam engine could make itself turn! Then came the invention of the clutch (very high technology!). Steam pressures of 150 p.s.i. became commonplace. Work was easier for the farmer as the steam engine pulled the plow, and turned the belt to thresh the grain.

The steam traction engine's popularity soared during the 1890s. But, so did the horse's. Just as the Eli Whitney's cotton gin needed more slaves; the steam engine required more horses. The steam traction engine could plow, haul huge loads, and power the threshing machine all day. It needed plenty of fuel and water, which was brought by horses. The increased amount of tilled land needed to be planted, and cultivated, which the steam engine was too big to do. Although the steam engine made horses unneeded for some big jobs, more horses were needed for many others.

Groups of farmers formed "threshing rings" in order to pay for the costs of an engine and thresher. It was very expensive; a 110 hp engine from Case could cost over $3000! The farmers began to realize that the steam engine, while useful, still didn't keep expenses down enough (when you add horses to the bill) to make them useful to the small farmer. Only larger farms could afford them. As the "newfangled" gasoline engines became more reliable, and smaller, they began to cut into the steam engine's market. From 1900 and on the steam engine became less popular. In 1924 came the Farmall, a gas tractor that could do all the jobs on the farm. It was the final nail in the coffin. Steam production stopped a few years later. A few steam engines worked 'till World War Two. Then many were lost in the scrap drives. Not too many are around today, and you can only see them at antique tractor shows. Yet, when they are there, you notice them. Just look for the plumes of coal/wood smoke, and listen for the whistles. They still are impressive!


Ertel, Patrick W. American Steam Tractors. Patrick Ertel, 1997.
Halberstadt, Hans. Steam Tractors. Hans Halberstadt, 1996.
Iron Will. Reiman Publications, L.P., 1997.
Letourneau, Peter. Vintage Case Tractors. Peter Letourneau, 1997.
Macmillan, Don., and Jones, Russell. John Deere Tractors and Equipment, Volume One 1837-1959. American Society of Agricultural Engineers, 1988.
Moorhouse, Robert. The Illustrated History of Tractors. Quintet Publishing Limited, 1996.
Norbeck, Jack. Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines. Crestline Publishing Co., 1976.

Interesting Information

President Abraham Lincoln said in 1859-"The successful application of steampower to farm work is a desideratum-especially a steam plow. To be successful, it must, all things considered, plow better than can be done by animal power. It must do all the work as well, and cheaper, or more rapidly, so as to get through more perfectly in season; or in some way afford an advantage over plowing with animals, else it is no success."

Horsepower in steam engines was first measured with the formula, 1hp for every 10-14 square feet of boiler surface. But this formula was outdated by the increase of steam pressures in the engines, yet the formula was used until 1911. Then a new measurement-brake horsepower (which was measured on a Prony Brake-type dynamometer). An engine from 1908, which was advertised as 30hp, might be advertised as a 100hp engine in 1912! Some ads had both types of horsepower rating, such as 30-100hp.

Steam engines exploded every day in the U.S. in the early 1900s. For a plain steam traction engine-the boiler holds 52 cubic feet of water, and 26 cubic feet of steam at 150 psi. That 26 cubic feet of steam at 150 psi weighs 9.73 lbs, but holds 1,300,000 foot pounds of energy. The 52 cubic feet of water is at 366° F. It holds 38,000,000 foot pounds of energy. When the boiler fails, it releases enough energy (from the steam and water) to send a one-pound object straight up 7,500 miles (into orbit). Or a 7,500 pound object (the traction engine) one mile up!

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