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By C. M. Giddings

      Having been associated with the development of the traction engine industry more or less intimately for the past forty years, I have been solicited, by the publishers of this magazine, to prepare a series of articles on the early history or development of the traction engine in America and after repeated solicitations, I finally decided to undertake the task.

      For nearly two months past I have been working and writing to secure reliable data and information along this line. Out of thirty-five or forty firms and individuals written to a few only have responded cordially, and among the older generation I find that “Old Father Time" has been busy with his scythe, while the younger generation are too busy and ask me to come and dig the information up myself.

      Some valuable information as to correct dates of the earlier attempts have been promised, which will be given due attention and credit when received, and a revised list of the earlier builders and the correct dates of their attempts will be given in a later number of the series.

      The firm of C. & G. Cooper of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, was among the first to bring out a self propelled steam engine for farm use. From Mr. F. J. Luger, who was a pattern maker in their employ at the time; we learn that in 1868 and 1869 a farmer living near Mt. Vernon conceived the idea of making a portable engine propel itself using horses on a tongue to guide it. In passing it might be well to state that the portable engine business had reached considerable proportions previous to any attempt at designing or building a self-propelling engine in this country. Among the more prominent firms thus engaged were the Ames Iron Works of Oswego, New York, the Watertown Steam Engine Company of Watertown, New York, Wood and Mann of Utica, New York, Clute Brothers of Schenectady and B. W. Payne & Sons of Corning, which latter concern gave the country the well known Mr. Harris Tabor of indicator and moulding machine fame.

      Mr. Wood left the firm at Utica and went to Eaton, Madison county, New York, and formed the company of Wood, Taber and Morse, who became the leading portable engine builders of the country, but were the last to take up the building of a traction engine, which was of the four wheeled driver type. They built very few and as yet we have not been able to get a cut of this interesting engine, or the date of the patent. The firm lost one of the members by death soon after it quit business.

      Returning to the C. & G. Cooper incident, Mr. Lugger well remembers the test of this first engine when they put a number of men on the tongue to guide it while running about town. Mr. Cooper got the farmer to apply for a patent, paying all the expenses himself in consideration of the farmer agreeing to assign the patent to Mr. Cooper, who in return cancelled the farmer’s debt, for the work of converting the portable into a horse steered traction engine, doubtless the first attempt of anything of the kind in the west.

      According to the writer’s best knowledge and belief the next attempt to build a traction engine in this country was in the spring and summer of 1870 when Emory W. Mills designed and built his first traction engine at Syracuse, New York. It was a three-wheeled affair, having two equally sized and faced driving wheels at the rear of the machine which had a low platform carrying an upright boiler and engine which furnished the propelling power, through a train of gears, proportioned so as to give the machine a speed of about two and one-half miles per hour. This was the only one built of this design and was sold, I understand, to a farmer near Manilus, New York.

      In 1872 Geo. W. Dick of Venice, Ohio, went to England and bought a steam engine from Aveling-Porter Company, Rochester, Kent, England.

      It arrived in Hamilton via Miami & Erie Canal, was unloaded at the old basin and was run under its own steam to Millville. By a special act of Congress it was admitted to the United States free of duty. Its first work was to haul flour to Cincinnati, a distance of sixteen miles. This engine had a single cylinder that was cast as a part of the steam dome of the boiler. Power was transmitted from the crank shaft to the rear wheels, through a system of spur gearing to a live axle that was on the outside of the fire box, and the differential gear was mounted on this axle and received the power through a large master wheel which carried the compensating pinions which transmitted the power to the axle through a large bevel gear that was keyed fast to the axle. With one loose driving wheel they carried the other bevel wheel that engaged with the compensating pinions. The drive wheel on the other side of the axle was keyed fast, a type of power transmission identical in principle with the present day steam traction engine practice. The owners of this engine had a flour mill and a saw mill and operated threshing machines. The engine was used by them for several years and was then disposed of to a man in Nevada and reports received here were that it fell over a cliff and was wrecked.

      In the fall of 1872 there was an epidemic among the horses and it is distinctly remembered by the writer that this engine was used in Cincinnati for hauling dead horses, which plainly establishes the approximate date of the original entry into the United States of the engine.

      In 1873, before harvest time, John Yingling of Seven Mile, Ohio, brought a 10-horse power portable engine to Owens, Lane & Dyer Company and they converted it into a portable traction engine by the use of sprocket chains. The cylinder was mounted on the fire box end of the boiler. This engine was steered with the front wheels operated from the rear platform through a chain carried on a drum that was operated by a hand wheel through a worm and worm wheel similar to present day practice. Prior to this in a few cases they used a team of horses or oxen to steer the engine, but the engine was so fast it would run over the team. It is possible that the bevel gear drive came in after the chains. You could go up the side of a mountain and the chain would stay on, but when going down hill the chain would either fly off or break, so that the chain propulsion was abandoned and in the next type of engine built the cylinder was put at the smoke box end of the boiler. As the old original engine was a short stroke with a very long connecting rod, the crank shaft was at the fire box end of the boiler which made a very long coupled engine, and the traction power was carried to the wheels through a system of gears of the English type. It was up to this time supposed that it was necessary to have a counter shaft mounted on the smoke box end of the boiler and extending clear across so that a belt pulley would clear the boiler on one side, and the power was transmitted to this counter shaft with a V leather belt. This V belt came about as a solution of transmitting power across the street from the main machine shop of Owens, Lane & Dyer Company to a pattern shop. In order to overcome the damage from rain and sunshine, a narrow leather belt with V shape blocks built up of leather was devised and this belt was run in a grooved pulley and proved very satisfactory. This belt was made by Joseph Sharp of Cincinnati. This type of traction engine was finally abandoned and it was discovered that a belt pulley could be put on the other end of the crankshaft.

Information Sources

  • The American Thresherman & Farm Power V19 #4, Aug 1916, pages 59-60

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