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By C. M. Giddings

      Following the attempts of C. & G. Cooper of Mount Vernon, Ohio, to corner the traction engine business of the country, by buying up all similar patents to the bevel gear drive, a. few of the leading portable engine manufacturers secured manufacturer's licenses of the Cooper Company under these several patents, among whom were Russell & Company; Owens, Lane & Dyer; E. M. Birdsall Company; Wood Brothers; Merritt & Kellogg, and a few others. Russell & Company's annual catalog of 1879 shows this type of drive on page seven and by way of introducing it to the trade they say: “This engine, possessing all the advantages of the common farm engine, has the additional advantage of the best self propelling attachment ever invent/edit has been in constant use since 1875, and has fully demonstrated its utility." In 1882 Russell & Company brought out one of the first self steering traction engines of the bevel shaft drive type, and it was dubbed by Tom Murphy of the test house as the “Stem Winder," and the famous road scene in their catalogs for several years showed first the shaft drive and in the 188l annual they show the first spur gearing drive replacing the bevel shaft. The other firms building this type of drive or power transmission because of the inefficiency, due to the great absorption of power of the bevel gear drive, soon adopted either the spur gearing or chain transmission. Among those using the latter were the Atlas Engine Works of Indianapolis; David June & Company of Fremont, Ohio; the Westinghouse Brothers of Schenectady, New York; Frick & Company, and several other firms. The first of these designs is shown in Figure 2. While this new aspirant for public favor among the threshermen of the country had a large and fine organization, the best of facilities, and abundance of capital behind it, but very few were built, and the firm soon retired the design from its catalog, preferring to specialize in stationary engines and boilers than to take three years farmers’ paper in payment for tractors.


      The other firms continued to use the chain drive for many years. The design of the David June Company is shown in Figure 3. This shows the improved form of combination horizontal and upright boiler, which showed a decided improvement in economy of fuel in evaporation. The design also included a patented spark catcher as shown which threw the sparks back and down into a circular pan of water. The safety from danger of fire was a great talking point in selling these engines, and, in passing, mention should be made of the great hue and cry raised against the steam driven threshers when first introduced, by the operators of horse power machines. Many a. barn, crop and thresher has been sacrificed to the God “Moloch" in the interest of advancing science producing improved labor saving machinery. The insurance companies at first would cancel the policy of a. farmer who used a steam power thresher; then after a time some of the companies would permit their use by the payment of an extra fee, and finally under the pressure of public opinion and the competition of rival concerns some of the companies began to offer steam threshing permits, free of extra charge, and, of course, the other companies had to do the same to get their share of the business.

      The June type of engine was very popular and enjoyed quite an extensive sale. The main valve of the engine was of the rocker type, having a circular seat, similar to the long and well known valve used on the Mansfield Machine Company's engines, both stationary and portable, and afterwards on one of the first four wheel drive traction engines ever brought out in this country, which they patented on March 11, 1884, and again in 1886. This design was so far in advance of the times that it lacked appreciation and was discontinued as was also the four wheel drive tractor brought out at an early date by Wood, Taber & Morse of Eaton, Madison County, New York.

      The superiority of the “Stem Winder” or self steered traction engine over the horse steered engine did not enjoy the full confidence of the trade at first, as witness a statement in the Russell & Company’s annual in 1882 in which they say: “We recommend our self steering traction engine to all who wish to be independent of horses; We do not expect them to take the place of the horse steered traction engines, but predict they will be found useful in the great wheat growing districts of the Northwest. Until the rights of the traction engine on the road are more thoroughly settled, we do not advise their use in the more thickly settled portions of the country.” Evidently the writer of this paragraph had not the vision of the prophet to foresee the present day developments.


      The Road Locomotive—In 1868 to 1870 the early development of the traction engine in America took a decided departure from the gradual evolution from the portable engine into a tractor, by branching out into the ‘field of the road locomotive. The designers gave it this name because it could propel and guide itself on common roads without rails, and these were put on the market for the special service required by different localities, without any special reference or adaptation to the heavy work of the farm, such as plowing, etc. Some were used for road making and rolling and these developed later into the standard road rollers of today which have become staple and standard equipment for all large cities. Others were designed and used for hauling rock, marble or granite from the quarries, or lumber from interior mills, and still others were used for hauling sugar cane and cotton from the plantations to the railway stations. They served a very useful purpose in educating the trade up to the possibilities and economy of the use of power for this heavy work instead of horses or mules. Among the earlier of these road locomotives was the “America,” designed, patented and built by Geo. W. Fitts of Philadelphia, shown in Figure 4. This was a very neat, compact design intended for the crowded streets of Eastern cities. It possessed several excellent mechanical and engineering features, which find their counterpart in the self-propelled steam fire engines and road rollers of today. But behold the prejudice and opposition to their introduction. The rich city of New York was the only one that could afford to take the risk, and for a generation she owned and operated the only self-propelled steam fire engine in the country. Now the motor driven fire apparatus, by reason of its adaptability, lighter weight, and quicker action, is found in all progressive cities.

      The next to make its appearance before the public was the Burdett steamer or road locomotive shown in Figure 5. This was a down-East design, used largely in the marble quarries, and included among others the very novel feature of mounting the boiler on trunnions, so that it could be easily adjusted to, maintain the proper level when going up or down hills, thereby preventing the danger of burning the crown sheet of the boiler, with the upper rows of tubes. This outfit would seem to possess many features, of practical utility, although it never reached a. very extended sale.


      The road locomotive idea was largely borrowed from English practice where John Fowler & Company, Clayton & Shuttleworth, Aveling & Porter, and several other large firms had been educating the trade by building their heavy and cumbersome road locomotives for the wealthy land owners of estates in the colonies, for plowing, road making and general haulage. A single outfit cost from six to eight thousand dollars including plows. But do not think for a moment that they intended to move these ponderous machines across the fields. They were designed instead to draw the plows by wire rope, back and forth, between two engines, by using the tip up gang plows that required no turning, or else using one engine moving slowly along the one headland and drawing the plows back and forth by means of the round about cable system, requiring anchor block and guide pulleys at the other three corners of the field.

Information Sources

  • The American Thresherman & Farm Power V19 #4, Oct 1916, pages 30-32

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