Steaming into the Future

An ungainly monster, the steam traction engine helped turn the buffalo’s pasture into America’s breadbasket

Built to last and as big as a dinosaur, it was obsolete before it left the factory in 1920. Nonetheless, with huge wheels and a gay canopy with a red fringe on top, the Huber "steam traction engine" is a splendid relic of expansionist 19th- and early 20th-century America. It was steam traction engines pulling plows and powering threshing machines that completed the taming of the Great Plains. Chuffing and clanking, they turned the buffalo's pasture into America's breadbasket, allowing people to put down roots on lands that, till then, were reckoned difficult, if not impossible, to farm.

The object at hand sits in the National Museum of American History not far from a 1924 John Deere Model D internal-combustion tractor (the kind of machine that the word "tractor" was actually invented for). By the early 1920s gas and kerosene internal-combustion machines like the Deere had all but won the race for the farmer's dollar. Yet America's romance with steam did not die easily. Steam had powered the Industrial Revolution, after all, and the whistle of steam engines had fired many a young man's imagination. Quite a few would realize a childhood dream of becoming a custom thresherman, traveling a territory with a big machine that threshed and later plowed for farmers who could not afford to own one themselves.

The seasonal arrival of the threshermen set off a great flurry of excitement and backbreaking work, and a great communal feast of home-cooked food. Men and machines traveled from farm to farm, plowing in the spring, threshing each fall. For several decades, they were an institution in rural America, their steam traction engines, like noisy, friendly monsters, objects of awe and wonder.

Such engines were truly huge. Some weighed more than 20 tons. At almost 10 tons and 16 feet long, the Huber is just average. The biggest models were used almost exclusively where the soil — under grass for centuries — was hellishly hard to break up with any plow pushed by hand or pulled by horses. The soils and climate of the Western states were suited to growing grain, but that was profitable only when the grain was produced on a large scale, and it needed enormous labor to harvest. The flat, open land was forgiving of the great machines' size and clumsiness.

Often with prairie farmers in mind, American inventors and manufacturers in the 1800s created a truly phenomenal number of ingenious machines for agriculture. From 1790, when the first patent law was passed, to 1899, more than 40,000 patents for farm implements were registered.

But well past mid-century the source of power was still primarily horses or oxen. Teams of up to 40 horses, hitched to enormous plows and harvesters, worked the ever-expanding fields of the West. To keep a horse requires about five acres of land per horse. Horses need a lot of care. They cannot pull without harnesses, and harnesses need to be maintained. During a workday, teams had to be changed at least once for rest, and often two or three times. Inventors kept working to improve steam power on the land, especially for use with heavy harvesting machinery.

After the Civil War, portable steam engines really got into the threshing process, though they had to be towed to the already harvested grain by horses. It was not until the 1870s that the first functional self-propelled steam tractors began to be built in quantity. Not yet up to the demands of plowing, they were used at first primarily for threshing. But by the 1890s Bessemer steel and stronger gears had made it possible for the huge new machines to plow up to 75 acres a day. Moving them from farm to farm caused quite a stir. Horses tended to bolt whenever they saw one. In 1897 an Ohio newspaper reported that one Aaron Emick's horse and buggy ran away after meeting a traction engine. "Mr. Emick was thrown out and a barrel of apples and other articles in the buggy were scattered along the road. The horse and buggy went on to town and collided with an electric light post."

It is easy to sympathize with the horses. The machines sometimes clanked and rumbled, belching smoke and cinders as they moved along at two or three miles per hour. Some states required that they be dragged by horses when on public roads so they wouldn't scare oncoming horses. Such laws did not please steam tractor operators. In 1900 the Threshermen's Review noted tartly that "the average state congressman knows about as much of running a traction engine as a hog does of teaching Sunday school."

Sparks from steam engines often set fire to the straw almost always nearby during threshing. Because steam engines operated under great pressure, they needed constant and knowledgeable attention. The fire in the firebox had to be fed the right amount of fuel (coal, wood or straw); the water level in the boiler had to be watched, or the boiler might explode. In 1911, it was said, boiler explosions averaged two a day. "The noise was deafening and the effect awful," the Ashland [Ohio] Press reported after one explosion. "A huge cloud of dirt and steam enveloped everything.... The huge engine and boiler was lifted 20 feet from where it stood while parts were scattered everywhere." The engineer was blown 142 feet.

Despite such accidents, by 1900 some 5,000 large steam traction engines a year were being made. But the steady improvement of internal-combustion engines threatened their existence. Charles Hart and Charles Parr, often considered to be the fathers of the gasoline tractor industry, built their first tractor model in 1902. The internal-combustion tractors tended to be smaller, lighter and able to run all day on a tank of fuel. There were no fires to build, and operators did not constantly have to re-plenish the thirsty machines' supply of water. By 1920, there were 166 tractor companies together turning out more than 200,000 tractors each year; the production of steam traction engines had dwindled to almost nothing.

The Smithsonian's Huber didn't find a buyer until 1930, and judging by its condition, saw only light work, probably powering a drivebelt at a sawmill. Many steam engines made in the 1920s were fitted with broad wheels for building roads, which is how the word "steamroller" entered the language. Huber built its last steam traction engine, a steamroller, in 1927.

The romance of steam traction engines still hasn't quite died, however. Hundreds of the old behemoths have been restored and maintained by the usual legion of hobbyists, who hold national conclaves and demonstrations where the machines are lovingly fired up again to lumber and majestically snort their way around. At such events, it is still advisable to leave your horse at home.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.