THE HART PARR STORY
Reprinted with permission of the Capital Times, Madison,
Wisconsin, from a 1958 edition. We thank Maryanna Smith of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, for sending it. Ed.
Did you know that Madison was the birthplace of the tractor?
During the 1890s there were a great many young men doing a great
amount of what their elders preferred to call ‘tinkering’
in a great number of sheds, shops and stables all around the
There was Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan; the Wright brothers
in Dayton, Ohio; Guglielo Marconi in Italy; Ruldph Diesel in
Germany, and countless others who were not fortunate enough to have
history remember their names.
And there were two young men doing some important tinkering
right here in Madison. Their names were Charles Walter Hart and
Charles H. Parrnames which deserve to be more widely known than
they are today, especially when the impact of their owners’
contributions is considered.
Hart and Parr are now credited with having designed and built
the first successful gasoline-powered tractor, the machine which
was the greatest innovation in farming since the steel plow and
caused a revolution in agriculture by placing undreamed of power in
the hands of the farmer.
The application of the internal combustion engine to the tractor
by Hart and Parr did not come out of a fortunate accident as many
inventions have. It was something they knew they wanted to do and
they set about carefully and purposefully to accomplish it. Most of
the groundwork for their triumph was done while they were students
in the Department of Mechanical Engineering of the University of
Hart, the son of a moderately wealthy Iowa farmer-businessman,
met Parr, from Wyoming, on the former’s first day at the U.W.
in September, 1893. Hart was sitting in the ante room of the
registrar’s office when Parr came in on an errand. They struck
up a conversation and soon found that they shared the same interest
and zeal for mechanical devices. They became great personal friends
as well as business associates.
Hart had transferred to the U.W. because of its fine reputation
in mechanical engineering after spending one year at Iowa State
College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (now Iowa State
University). Another factor in this move may have been the desire
of his recent bride to be nearer her family. Hart had married
Jessee Marvin Case of West Allis, Wisconsin on St. Valentine’s
Day, 1893. They had two children before she died at the age of 28
While attending the University, Hart and his wife lived at 915
University Avenue, and Parr roomed at 424 N. Frances Street.
Several months after their first meeting Hart and Parr opened a
small machine shop where they repaired damaged farm implements and
began experimenting with the principles of the internal combustion
One of the requirements for a degree in mechanical engineering
was ‘original investigation that would contribute to
the knowledge of engineering or the design and construction of a
device useful to industry.’
Hart and Parr decided to collaborate on a thesis detailing the
design of a new type internal combustion engine. They did not
receive much encouragement from their professors since, in those
days, steam was considered the last word in power, and the entire
mechanical engineering curricula was steam-oriented.
To accompany their paper, ‘An Investigation of Internal
Combustion Engines,’ Hart and Parr built a working model of
their engine in the U.S. shop. The result was an internal
combustion engine which was a vast improvement over previous ones
in power and efficiency. It was rugged, light in weight, and
simply-built with a minimum of moving parts.
But the young inventors did not wait for the professors’
acceptance of their thesis . Even before graduation they started
manufacturing portable commercial models of their engine for farm
Wisconsin was, then as now, a great dairying state, and the idea
of cooling milk immediately after milking was just gaining favor
with the creameries. Milk was cooled by immersing it in cold
running water. The water for this was provided by windmill-driven
pumps, but, of course, the wind does not always blow. Hart-Parr
engines came into their first wide use augmenting the wind.
News of the efficiency of the Hart-Parr engines spread rapidly
among Madison-area farmers and soon the little shop had more orders
than it could handle.
Upon graduating from the University in 1896, the partners
expanded their operation and devised improvements and new
applications for their original engine. All Hart-Parr devices of
the period were first tested and used commercially in and around
While the business grew and prospered on the sales of their
versatile little power plant, Hart and Parr plunged into work on a
heavier, more powerful engine suitable for traction purposes. This
was a startling idea for its time since no one had ever been able
to make an internal combustion engine that could move its own
weight, let alone pull something else along.
The first Hart-Parr tractor and the first gasoline-powered
tractor anywhere, was completed early in 1901. ‘Old Number
One’ as the machine came to be called, was a monster for its
era. It weighed five tons, developed 22 to 45 horsepower, pulled
five plow bottoms, and ground along on huge cleated tires made of
wood. It was still giving good service 20 years later.
A few months later, convinced of the future of the tractor, Hart
and Parr decided to build a new, specially-designed plant for its
manufacture. They were going to put up most of the capital, and
approached certain local financiers for the remainder. But it was
still the day of the horse, not the engine, and the money-men
withheld their support.
Disappointed, Hart and Parr closed their shop and went to
Hart’s home town, Charles City, Iowa, where, with the aid of
Hart’s father, they got the necessary capital and built their
Hart-Parr continued to prosper and it still survives today as
part of the Oliver Corporation and an important producer of
mechanized farm equipment.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
(Hart-Parr progress is further related in this information
provided by Cal Overlee, Manager, Technical Publications, for the
White Farm Equipment Company’s Technical Center at
Libertyville, Illinois. Hart-Parr merged with Oliver and the
succeeding corporation is now a wholly owned subsidiary of White
Farm Equipment Company.)
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1896 they
started a small stationary gas engine factory at Madison,
Wisconsin, which operated successfully to 1900. Needing more
capital and a larger factory, they moved in 1900 to Charles City,
Iowa, Mr. Hart’s boyhood home. The first factory buildings were
completed there in 1900-1901.
Immediately Hart and Parr started working on their idea of an
internal combustion traction engine. In the spring of 1902 they
completed old Hart-Parr Number 1, the first successful internal
combustion traction engine ever built. It was powered with a
valve-in-the head, oil cooled, slow speed, two cylinder, horizontal
engine developing about 22-45 horsepower. It was sold to an Iowa
farmer in 1902 and successfully operated on Iowa farms for 17
years, proving that the new type of farm power was practical. In
1903 the little company built fifteen gas traction engines of 22-45
horsepower. Five of them were still in successful farm operation in
1930proof of correct engineering and quality work.
The first advertisement ever published, which called the
attention of the public to the new gas traction engines for farm
and threshing purposes, was run by Hart-Parr in the ‘American
Thresherman’ in December, 1902. The first trade paper
advertisement ever published calling attention of implement dealers
to the profits possible through the sale of tractors was published
by Hart-Parr in the ‘Implement Trade Journal’ of Kansas
City in the summer of 1907. Today millions are invested yearly by
the farm equipment industry advertising tractors and tractor
The first engines built by Hart-Parr in 1896 were valve-in-head
engines, years before the automobile world claimed that type as
their own creation. All Hart-Parr tractors have always been powered
with valve-in-head engines. To Hart-Parr goes credit for their
The first engines built by Hart and Parr at the University were
cooled with oil. They originated the idea in this country. They
used it consistently until 1917, when it was displaced for water
cooling, to eliminate extra weight in light tractors.
In 1905 Hart and Parr perfected the first successful system of
burning low grade kerosene for fuel. They developed the water
injection system to prevent preignition, and in 1906 equipped all
their tractors with this new device.
Hart-Parr staked its future on the new gas traction engine.
Because originally no other company was even experimenting on gas
traction engines except as a side issue, Hart-Parr has been given
the proud title, historically correct, of Founders of the Tractor
By 1907 Hart-Parr had standardized on the 30-60 type of traction
engine. That year in an effort to distinguish their gas traction
engines from the competing steam traction engines of that day, they
advertised their engines as TRACTORS. The name stuck. The public
accepted it. Today it is the name of the industry, an industry that
has revolutionized agricultural production methods, lowered
production costs, and largely driven human drudgery from the farm.
The industry employs tens of thousands of men and turns millions of
dollars into productive channels yearly.
At the time of the merger with Oliver in 1929 Hart-Parr was
recognized as the largest exclusive manufacturer of farm tractors
in the world.
The Hart-Parr No. 1 tractor of 1902 (not 1901) was not the first
gasoline-powered tractor built in the United States; many others
preceded it, and, in fact the first in the nation was constructed
in 1892 by John Froelich, an Iowa blacksmith-farmer. The J.I. Case
Threshing Machine Company of Racine, Wisconsin, was selling several
models of tractors by 1895 after developing an unsuccessful
experimental model in 1892. English tractors with oil-burning
engines appeared in 1897.
Hart and Parr, however, were the first commercial
mass-production, assembly-line manufacturers of agricultural
tractors in the United States. That is why justly they earned the
title, ‘Founders of the Tractor Industry.’
They never received credit for the idea. But Hart and Parr
largely achieved their fame on the American tractor-farm scene
during the turn of the century for being the first on record to
equip their machines with kerosene carburetors in the year 1904-05,
thus cutting operators’ costs in half. They also were the first
on record to install oil-cooled radiators on tractors for the
dispensing of engine heat.
Many historical pieces incorrectly identify the Rumely Oil Pull
as possessing the first oil-cooled, kerosene-fired engine. The
truth is the Rumely tractor was a copy or replica of what Hart-Parr
had accomplished years before.
The article suggests that the first Hart-Parr tractor was built
in Madison. Parr, who authored a well-documented history of the
Hart-Parr Company in 1918, wrote that the first Hart-Parr machine
was assembled at Charles City, fully six months to a year after the
partners had left Wisconsin. Madison, Wisconsin really can claim
little of the credit. In fact, it was Madison’s inhospitable
attitude on industrial development that induced the partners to
seek a more favorable business climate in Iowa.
Parr was not from Wyoming, as the article states, but from
Wyoming, Wisconsin. He, as Hart, had learned his skills on his
father’s farm. He became a machinist in Wisconsin before
matriculating at the University of Wisconsin where he met Hart.
These are the major errors in what otherwise is a pretty good
explanation on what transpired during Hart and Parr’s early
years in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A few other facts:
Hart and Parr’s experimental gas engines developed at the
University of Wisconsin had ‘valve-in-head’ or overhead
valves (although the partners didn’t use those words as a
description). This was an innovation that was years ahead of the
auto industry that normally claims credit for the principle. My
research has not revealed who were the inventors of the first
overhead valves; but Hart and Parr certainly were among the first
to perfect the idea.
The partners also were recognized in the tractor industry for
pioneering the ‘two-lunger’ or double-lung horizontal
engine, a practical concept that dominated for a half century the
agricultural tractor in the United States.
It is true, as some historians have written, that the Hart-Parr
tractor never was patented per se; but Hart did patent certain of
the tractor’s important components, including in 1904 the
oil-cooling radiator. Oddly, finally in 1915 (after filing in
1909), Hart earned a patent on his kerosene carburetor, which
employed the twin injection of kerosene and water. Thus, he was the
conceiver of the first ‘atomizer’ as we know by name such
devices today. Hart’s tractor patents continued into the
Readers may ask by what authority the writer makes his
statements. For the past three years, I have researched the
Hart-Parr history. My mother is Charles W. Hart’s eldest
daughter by his second marriage and she lives at a rest home at
Helena, Montana. Her recent illness with senility prompted me to
get the story down on paper while there still are relatives around
who knew C. W. Hart. Much of my research revolves around interviews
with Hart’s namesake son, Charles W. ‘Chick’ Hart of
MORE ON HART-PARR
We sent a copy of the Capital Times article to Jack Gilluly, a
Hart grandson, who sent in an article of his own with corrections
and editions. Jack is editor of THE ENERGIZER, the employee’s
magazine of Montana Power Company. He is writing a Hart-Parr
history. You can reach him at 820 W. Third, Anaconda, MT 59711.
Decades of Wooden Creations
Join David recall his childhood memories of building his first homemade wooden car, which turned into decades of wooden creations.
A Bit of Nostalgia
Read these endearing reminiscences about a homemade “sidewalk car,” built from a Maytag washing machine engine.
Sawing Wood, Any Way You Can
Whether by car or by Galloway engine, sawing wood was a chore that had to be done.