In the mid-nineteenth century many thought that farming should be following in the footsteps of Britain’s expanding industries. Steam seemed to be the answer.
A few steam engines had been used on the farm as early as the 1790s. These were big stationary engines built into barns to drive threshing machines.
The characteristic steam engine for agriculture, however, was the portable engine. It could be taken from field to field, from farm to farm. One of the main tasks to which steam power was applied was threshing, and contractors thus found the portable nature of these engines invaluable.
These engines were generally of medium power – 6, 8 or 10 nominal horsepower were common types in British farming. In design, portable engines had a locomotive-type tubular boiler and firebox, single or compound cylinder, and a tall chimney – 6-8 feet high – to carry smoke away from the stackyard. Their portability consisted of having road wheels and drawbar with shafts so that horse could tow them.
Portable engines were introduced during the late 1830s. Soon many firms were engaged in their manufacture. These engines were made in their thousands, not only for British farms, but many more for export all over the world.
In 1842 Ransomes of Ipswich demonstrated a self-moving steam engine at the Royal Agricultural Society’s show. It was the mid-1850s, however, before the problems of building engines that could cope with the rough roads on and off the farm were overcome. Charles Burrell achieved this first, in 1856, with Clayton & Shuttleworth, Tuxford and Ransome following closely behind.
Once established as a successful engineering proposition the traction engine gained its place in agriculture. It was especially favoured by contractors who could dispense with the horses for hauling equipment between farms. Threshing again was the dominant job for which traction engines were used.
The idea of applying mechanical power to the cultivation of the soil had been attractive for a long time. The problem was the weight of the steam engine compacting the soil. All sorts of proposals were put forward to overcome this problem, and some developed as prototypes.
In the end the solution adopted was the one of keeping the engines at the side of the field to haul ploughs and other implements across by cable. <John Fowler> brought the most straightforward system to fruition during the late 1850s. He used a pair of engines (or one engine and a moveable windlass), one each on opposing headlands, and they passed the implements between them across the field.
Steam ploughing was impressive. The engines were immensely powerful, producing four or five times the 12 or 14 nominal horsepower at which they were rated. With that power large implements could be used, including ploughs of five or six furrows, and heavy-tined cultivators. This power was invaluable for deep cultivation and for difficult soils, especially in dry seasons. The high capital cost of engines and implements ensured that almost all steam ploughing was undertaken by contractors. The small size and awkward shape of many British fields was further reason for the continued dominance of the horse and single-furrow plough on most farms.