The Nebraska Tractor Test Law,1919-1927

Bluegrass Steam and Gas Engine Show

Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.

Joe Fahnestock

Content Tools

History Dept., Midwestern University, Wichita Falls, Texas 76308.

An event of far-reaching importance was the almost unanimous approval of House Roll Bill Eighty-five by the thirty-seventh session of the Nebraska State Legislature March 13, 1919. The bill provided for the 'official tests of gas, gasoline, kerosene, distillate, or other liquid-fuel traction engines in the State of Nebraska, and to compel the maintenance of adequate service stations for same.'

Wilmot F. Crozier, who drafted the bill and was one of its major backers, was prompted to seek regulation of the tractor trade after a series of unhappy experiences with some early models. Crozier purchased a Ford tractor in 1916; the machine had no connection with Ford Motor Company but rather had been produced by a Minnesota-based concern using the name of one of their engineers hoping to exploit the Ford name. The Polk County farmer had so much trouble with the tractor that he demanded and received a replacement. The second tractor was equally unreliable and Crozier finally dumped it for a used Bull tractor in 1917. Only after purchasing a new Rumely Oil Pull did W. F. Crozier receive adequate service from a tractor.

That many tractors offered for sale were little more than experimental models and parts service often a mere hollow promise became painfully clear to farmers who bought tractors from many of the small, struggling companies. Similar experiences of other farmers and editorial comment in farm publications lead Crozier to propose the bill and he found wide-spread positive sentiment in the legislature.

There had been similar moves to establish a regulatory agency to test tractors in 1915. The farm equipment industry and others sought standardized tractor horsepower ratings, there was considerable sentiment that the federal government should establish a National Testing Station. Tractor and engine competitions held after the Winnipeg Field Trials varied so widely in test procedures, policies, equipment, and operation and adjustment of the tractors that results were inconclusive. Fortunately however, all national and regional competition results were turned over to the major sponsor, the National Implement and Vehicle Association and to the respective manufacturers for their own confidential use.

The Bureau of Standards in the Commerce Department and the Office of Farm Management in the Department of Agriculture were assumed to be likely agencies to handle such a testing program should the federal government assume responsibility. In 1917, the A. S. A. E. was instrumental in the introduction of a bill calling for the creation of a separate bureau in the U. S. D. A. called the Bureau of Agricultural Engineering. Though the creation of the proposed bureau was eventually accomplished, no enabling funds for conducting tractor tests were forthcoming.

By 1917, the A. S. A. E. had adopted a code of test procedures established by the Society of Automotive Engineers. On April 19, 1919, the tractor and thresher division of the National Implement and Vehicle Association voted unanimously to petition the U. S. D. A. to conduct both belt and drawbar horsepower tests and to certify the results on the basis of these codes. The request was denied by the Agricultural Committee of Congress; the concensus was that such operations were not the proper function of a federal agency.

Though Ohio State University conducted some trials of tractors pulling plows in 1919, no facilities existed for extensive and officially certified tests. When the Nebraska Tractor Test Law became effective July 15, 1919, the University of Nebraska Agricultural Engineering Department assumed responsibility for testing all tractors sold in the state. In addition to provisions for testing and the maintenance of parts depots in the state, the law provided that no tractor could legally be sold in the State of Nebraska without a permit; that such a permit would be issued by the State Railway Commission upon certification by a Board of Tractor Test Engineers that the tractor had been tested and the results of such test had been compared to the published claims of the manufacturer covering that tractor. If the claims were not substantiated by the test, then no permit could be issued. Provision was made for sale under temporary permit until the tractor could be tested and reported on. No tractor could be sold in the state without a permit under threat of penalty.

L. W. Chase, O. W. Sjogren, and E. E. Brackett served on the first Nebraska Board of Tractor Test Engineers. Chase and Sjogren had both been active in earlier national and regional tractor competitions. Claude K. Shedd, from the agricultural engineering staff at Iowa State College, was hired as the first engineer-in-charge of tests. The problems of developing an impartial, consistent and accurate test program were infinite. A plan to test tractors by plowing was scrapped when it became evident the Board might have to plow up the campus and the surrounding area. Instead, a drawbar test on a cinder track was used; the tractors pulled a specially designed dynamometer car made on the chassis of a tractor. A building was constructed to house the Sprague dynamometer; it was decided to use an electrical dynamometer instead of a Prony brake on the belief it would withstand longer, heavier usage. One of the most serious problems encountered was securing the crankshaft speed during the drawbar test. A universal method of attaching the tachometer was not possible and variations were required due to the many different designs of tractors.

Steam and Gas mixed well at the Bluegrass Steam and Gas Engine Show at Harrodsburg, Kentucky. This shows a general view of the diversity of power exhibited at Kentucky's first-organized engine show.

Testing began in the fall of 1919, with a Twin City 12-20. Tests were interrupted by snow and the tractor was later withdrawn. A Waterloo Boy, Model N 12-25, was the first tractor to complete testing on April 9, 1920. By October 27, 1920, sixty-five tests had been completed; three other tractors appeared but withdrew after some preliminary tests. An additional thirty-five applications were withdrawn before the tractors were submitted.

Initial industry response was hostile. A group of manufacturers met in Lincoln in June, 1919, to discuss the new law. A small minority urged united resistance through legal action. More sober judgment prevailed when members of the Board of Tractor Test Engineers frankly discussed the nature and purpose of the law; major concern centered on the possibility that other farmer-dominated legislatures would enact similar laws in other states.

The test routine embodied the following: drawbar work from one-third to full load for twelve hours to limber up the tractor, brake horsepower test at rated load and speed for two hours, brake horsepower test at load varying from maximum to no load with all engine adjustments as in the previous test to show fuel consumption and speed control, brake horsepower test at maximum load for one hour to show maximum horsepower and behavior of tractor on the belt and its fuel consumption, drawbar horsepower test at rated load for ten hours (this test made on the half-mile cinder track), maximum drawbar horsepower test with series of short runs with increasing load until excessive wheel slippage occurs, and constant observation of the tractor during testing.

The 'Joe Dear' sputters out the last minutes of The Bluegrass Steam and Gas Engine Show while basking in the shadows of the century-old Mercer County amphitheatre. The amphitheatre is one of only two such remaining historic fair structures in the state of Kentucky. My wife holds down the business end of 'Uncle Elmer's' Gas Engine Knowledge to right. A few admirers still look at the 'Joe Dear' and wonder what it is. Several thousand filed by to listen and look at my monstrosity.

As both a measuring stick and a 'whipping stick' the tests provided suitable bench marks and perhaps gave the industry a more balanced view of the tractor's utility. The tests revealed glaring engineering deficiencies as well as advancements. As an example of the latter, the governors of one manufacturer's tractors held speed variations, from no load to full load, to 4.82% -- a degree of performance never since bettered. Cases of excessive claims resulted in misleading information on the part of manufacturers. Some rated horsepower corrected to standard conditions for a bare engine instead of the logical power outlet -- the drawbar, belt, or power take-off. Other cases of misleading data used a 'theoretical maximum drawbar pull based on the peak engine horsepower and locked traction members; conditions a farmer would never experience in the field. In some instances manufacturers actually did not know how much horsepower a particular tractor could develop. They based their advertising claims on the statements made by manufacturers of parts used on the tractor. The respect with which the tests are received today can be judged by the fact that no other similar facilities exist in North America and the results are published world-wide. European tractor manufacturers bring models to Lincoln for testing and even tractors from a Communist Bloc country are tested there, mainly because the results bear authenticity.

This is Mindy and her one and one half horsepower gasoline engine, type E, serial number 319197, John Deere. Her daddy has five different kinds besides this one.

Performance improvement continued during the early years of testing. Tractors testing in 1920, averaged 7.56 horsepower per hour per gallon of fuel; those tractors tested in 1927, averaged 9.80. Horsepower per pound increased also. In 1920, the ratio was one horsepower per 356 pounds; in 1927, it amounted to one horsepower for each 233 pounds. It is to be noted that ninety-one per cent of those tractors tested in 1927, had better fuel records than the eight-year average, whereas only thirty per cent of the tractors tested in 1920 could better this long-term average. Performance goals gradually shifted from the desire for solely optimum horsepower to a search for economical fuel consumption along with adequate drawbar horsepower.