How Should Early Farm Tractors Be Designed?

| September 1994

Tractor design was an issue facing manufacturers from 1900 to 1920 when approximately 500 companies built tractors for use in American agriculture. This tractor boom resulted in much trial and error because factory engineers lacked experience in producing tractors for general farming. As a result, they built machines of great diversity ranging from the sensible to bizarre mechanical monstrosities.

At the time no one seemed to know how many wheels should support a tractor, therefore they appeared mounted on two wheels, three wheels, four wheels or caterpillar tracks. This occurred in spite of the fact that farm steam engines had been manufactured for almost a century.

In addition, opinions on how the power from the motor should be carried to the ground varied. Some tractors came out with only one drive wheel. At a tractor demonstration held at Fremont, Nebraska, in August of 1916, fourteen different companies supplied tractors with only one drive wheel. The other 36 companies at this event mounted motors on two drive wheels, four drive wheels or on moveable tracks. Many employed the tricycle principle with one steering wheel in front and the drive wheels in the rear, or the reverse featuring the steering wheel in the rear and the drive wheels out in front.

One of the most radical designs made use of a big drum to replace the conventional drive wheels. The Gray tractor built in Minneapolis was driven by a drum five feet in diameter and five feet wide.

Some engineers thought farmers wanted to drive their tractors like a team of horses with the power out ahead of the operator. The Line-Drive Tractor, built in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was actually driven with a pair of lines, or reins. The motor mounted on two drive wheels did the pulling with the driver seated on a farm implement which trailed behind. The Moline Universal Tractor, manufactured by the Moline Plow Company of Moline, Illinois, in 1915, eliminated the reins but extended the steering wheel on a long shaft which permitted the farmer to sit on a plow and drive the tractor in front of him.

Another innovation placed the plows under the tractor so the operator could look down to see the plow at work, rather than twist his neck to observe the plow being trailed behind. The Square Turn Tractor Company of Norfolk, Nebraska, carried a gang of three plows beneath the tractor frame.