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Steam engine: Although steam power was first used in agriculture at the end of the eighteenth century it was not until the 1840s, with steady improvements in design, availability and price of engines, that it began to make a more general impact on farms.

Redundant steam engines in a row

The mobile engine, either self-propelled or hauled by a horse, emerged as the most practical type and the driving of threshing and related machinery as the most suitable farm-based work. From the middle of the nineteenth century, much effort and ingenuity was devoted to the challenge of applying the steam engine to field work, especially ploughing. The most effective system used two engines, one on either side of the field, to wind a plough backwards and forwards between them on a cable. It worked well enough but was only really viable for a minority of farms where the fields were large enough to justify the expense. The heyday of steam ploughing came at the beginning of the twentieth century but it never quite fulfilled its early promise. Steam threshing remained a common sight until the later 1940s when the era of the combine harvester began in earnest. This left, as shown in the photograph, lots of now redundant engines rusting in contractors' yards, some of which were subsequently saved by collectors and museums as steam nostalgia began to take off in the 1950s.

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Steam engine


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The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, UK.
Email: merl@reading.ac.uk Telephone: 0118 378 8660