A Look Back Into How Tractors Changed Farming

Posted by Robert Piesz on


Tractors are a necessity for every farmer. Even though many think that it is a significant investment, without it, they will have to work twice to produce the same yield. Tractors run the household of thousands of Americans than you can imagine. Unlike most of the farming essentials, the history of tractors is thrilling and unique.

Tractors and their brief history

The history of tractors goes back to 1890 when Froelich came up with a new design. It was a mere one-cylinder gasoline engine truck. The speed of the truck was approximately 3 mph which was quite significant at that time considering there was no other tractor available. He and his crew slowly stated developing a bigger variant and they finally came up with a model that required 26 gallons of gas. However, it was able to carry 1000 grain bushels in one journey; something that no other tractor or vehicle achieved at that time.

Froelich started the Waterloo Traction Engine Company and also had his own company that he started in the early 1900s. His company, Waterloo Tractor Works, is currently run by John Deere. With the introduction of tractors, Froelich brought the agricultural industry in America. Previously, farming was a tedious and time-consuming process. Moreover, farmers had to spend a lot on manual labor that decreased their overall profit margin. But, with the advent of tractors, farmers didn’t require that much of manual labor as they could transport the produce on their own.

Design of the first tractors

Steam engines primarily drove the tractors back in the 19th century. They ran on wheels and had a flexible belt so that the rider could sit comfortably while the tractor slowly moved forward. Since the speed of the tractor was relatively slow during that time, the vehicle jerked left to right on rough terrains.

Although much of the credit for the first tractor goes to Froelich, it was Richard Trevithick who started the world’s first portable steam engine way back in 1812. It was solely used for agricultural purposes. People called it The Barn Engine. Corn was widely popular in the 18th century. So, the barn engine drove corn threshing machines to make the transportation process easier. Steam-powered tractors with single cylinders didn’t have the efficiency to go at a high speed. This allowed others to develop gasoline-powered engines running on dual cylinders.

Charles H. Parr and Charles W. Hart continued to research on gasoline tractors and they finally came up with the first dual cylinder gasoline engine in 1903. This was a significant year in the history of America. They produced 15 farm tractors that had a better speed than Froelich’s tractors. However, the tractors were very heavy. You can see one of these antiques in Washington’s Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The 14,000 pound tractor is one of the oldest internal combustion engine tractors that still survive in the United States.

Production of tractors

The first few decades did not see a massive production of tractors because of limited manufacturers. Although farmers understood how beneficial tractors were for their business, the lack of resources restricted manufacturers from producing mass-scale units.

However, from 1910 to 1970, the tractor industry saw a meteoric rise as new manufacturers entered the business. The production of tractors rose from 1000 to almost 5 million in these few decades. This helped farmers a lot because the tractors became more affordable than before. Earlier in 1920, tractors cost $785 which was like a millionaire’s dream. But soon, as new manufacturers came into the industry, the priced reduced to almost half. By 1922, farmers could buy a tractor by spending only $395. This reduction in price was a game-changer in many ways.

As manufacturers came up with various techniques to produce tractors, they made the units cheaper for farmers. Plus, there wasn’t a single size for everyone. Manufacturers started making tractors of different size so that it not only fit the pocket of farmers but also suited their purpose. So, farmers didn’t have to purchase a relatively bigger model when they only had about an acre of land to plough. With smaller trucks available at even lower prices than $395, farmers now could afford more than one vehicle so that they could use them simultaneously on different fields.

The rise of tractors

1916 to 1922 was a significant period for the tractor industry. Over 100 companies were now involved in making tractors for farmers. John Deere first made a steel plow in 1837. But, modern manufacturers found that it would be more efficient if it combined with a tractor. So, they came up with a combined unit in 1927. That was the start of the general purpose tractor.

By 1930, manufacturers started making tractors with steel wheels. These were more durable and moved faster than the previous variants. Rubber wheels had their limitations when it came to efficiency, but steel wheels took the performance of the tractors to the next level. With modifications available in every model, the first electric starter tractor came into the picture in 1939. These had higher horsepower, meaning they performed better and could travel longer distances than rubber-wheeled tractors.

Like Froelich, John Deere is also a prominent name involved in the evolution of tractors. He was the first manufacturer who introduced a roll bar in his tractors so that it protected the operator. So, even if the tractor swayed from side to side on rough terrains, it kept the driver safe from falling down on the ground. John Deere never stopped experimenting with his tractors. His enthusiasm to help the farmers brought better tractors with improved seating facility.

The tractor cab required a much-needed sound guard to protect the rider. These were available post 1970. It helped the farmers from heat, cold, dirt, and dust. With different weather conditions, it became challenging for farmers to distribute their produce to wholesalers. But, with the sound guard and protective shields, the tractor became a safer vehicle helping them carry their yield without any risk.

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