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Ugly, Belching Steam-Powered Tractors

Link - article by Avi Abrams

Jules Verne was reportedly swallowed by one of these, but escaped unharmed

Just when you thought that we featured all possible kinds of steampunk-ish machinery... along comes another kind of steam-powered monstrosity: obnoxious, loud, belching steam-powered tractors... oh yeah.

(images by Marvin and Joe Ross)

Of course, when we say "ugly", we have to qualify that statement, as some models look positively dashing and quite fascinating:

(image credit: Chad Settlemier)

(image credit: Chris Stanbury)

Looking inside the steam engine you'll find iron bearings, pipes and lots of intriguing emblems:

(images by David de Groot, Derek Silver, Werner Wittersheim)

Back in the 1900s steam-powered tractors were busy running around farms and fairgrounds, plowing fields, providing power for other machinery... with many surviving examples still doing the same thing today (if not gathering dust in some museum, of course).

(photos by Wisconsin Historical Society and Tom Lehman - in Puerto Rico in the late 1940s.)

here is Case steam tractor pulling Case stationary engine, seen at the Mason Steam Tractor Show in 2008:

(image credit: Joe Ross)

Craig Finch writes to us: "If you were a farmer, would you be impressed if someone tried to sell you a full-size farm tractor with 22 horsepower? After all, today you can go down to your local hardware store and easily purchase a little riding lawnmower with 20 horsepower. To really understand the story of steam tractors, put yourself in the muddy shoes of a farmer in the 1870's:

(image credit: National Media Museum)

When you are plowing a field, walking behind a "two horsepower" team and stepping in the "natural fertilizer" that they leave behind, the idea of a 22 horsepower tractor suddenly seems rather attractive. This Huber steam tractor (probably built around 1921) boasted 22 horsepower:

Back then steam tractors came in many sizes, to suit various needs. Shown here is an identical pair built by the J.I. Case company between 1915 and 1924. Their empty weight is about 20,000 pounds. They make around 65 horsepower at the belt and 45 at the drawbar, and could plow six or more rows at once (for comparison, a team of four mules could plow only two or three rows at the same time):

This tractor is an Advance-Rumely Universal. Advance-Rumely was a competitor to J.I. Case, and has been eventually acquired by the Allis-Chalmers Company:

Photos cannot convey the raw beauty of a steam tractor: the way its pistons, valves, gears, and wheels are locked in constant motion. You really have to see this machinery in action (more videos can be found here)


By the way, these beasts were surprisingly maneuverable for their size. A driver can easily back up his tractor to connect with a plow (see here). Then it's time to get some work done:

Shown here is a modern interpretation of a steam tractor. This is not an antique find, but a home-made contraption with an upright boiler, a multi cylinder engine (and a large umbrella) set up on a conventional tractor frame. Its primary purpose seems to be transporting its driver around the fair in loud and impossible to ignore fashion!

Eventually, the internal combustion engine put an end to the Golden Age of steam tractors. Shown below is the Rumely Oilpull, which ran on kerosene. Kerosene was cheaper and more plentiful than gasoline in those days. The tractor was called the "Oilpull" because oil was used in the cooling system instead of water. The "smokestack" in the front is actually part of the cooling system.

Today steam tractors are only relics of a bygone era... but their "descendants" (modern tractors of massive size and serious power) are only slightly less impressive:

(most photos above were sent by Craig Finch)

Pictures of steam tractors are all well and good, but you cannot appreciate their size, power, and character without actually seeing one in operation. Find a "steam thresher reunion" in your area, visit the fairs, and start supporting the men and women who keep this amazing tradition alive. (Photos shown here were taken at the Central States Threshermens' Reunion in Pontiac, IL, on a Labor Day weekend in 2008).


Russian Armored Tractors from the World War One

When you can't build a tank (which could be for various reason), the next best thing would be to convert a tractor into a heavily-armored vehicle! Which is exactly what the Russian engineers found themselves doing during the economically difficult times of the World War One. It all started in the year 1916 when some Russian officers customized an English-made chassis to make an "ultimate off-road vehicle":

Soon after that followed the "Red October", "Red Petersburg", and other models - most from 1918-1920.

Then during the 1930s, Stalin-era tractor factories started converting tractors into heavy tanks and armored vehicles, putting some heavy guns on top:

Shown below are the "Kommunar" models D-11 and D-14. They are very solid-built and have that "no-nonsense" look to them... perfect for post-apocalyptic action in some future "Damnation Alley" movie remake.

After the war, many surviving tractor-tanks were sent back to the farms to plow fields:

based on material by M. Kolomietz

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Blogger Ranma said...

To see great steam powered plows in Ontario, Canada, there is an annual International Plowing Match which can be found on this site: http://www.ipm2008.ca/

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those are nice indeed, but I think there's one big steam topic missing, and that's the steam powered car! Jay Leno owns quite a nice collection of them!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

BTW, those spinning ball governors are where the expression "running balls-out" came from... (as opposed to a euphemism for something else.)

Blogger Jim said...

Anyone calling these machines obnoxious or loud has obviously never been around steam tractors. They are notoriously QUIET. I've stepped backwards into the path of one of these at a thresher show because I couldn't hear it.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do not be mislead by "horsepower" comparisons. The important thing is torque. A race car may have hundreds of PS and could not pull the smallest plough. And steam engines are especially good at delivering more torque you might ever need, even better than modern diesel engines.

Anonymous Gennaro said...

No nostalgia will these clunkers. I usually love this kind of stuff.

Blogger Stickmaker said...

When I was a young man, about forty years ago, my farmer grandfather took me to see an old threshing machine driven by the PTO on a steam traction engine in operation. He told me I'd probably never get to see one of those in operation again. So far he's been right.

Tractor pull competitions don't allow steam traction engines to compete, though they do sometimes put on exhibitions. Combine huge amounts of torque (and steam engines max out at start, not at high RPM) with massive weight, and the sled is hardly noticed.

Blogger Hugh said...

I'm doing a school project right now on WWI Russian armoured cars and its helpful to see some pictures of the unusual ones. Thanks!

Blogger Squire Neil said...

As one of your UK subscribers something looked odd about almost all the traction engines in you article. Its the wheels. Most have very thin spokes, probably steel round bar where as in the UK the spokes tend to be flat steel plate


Anonymous Jack said...

I agree with Jim, steam tractors are quite compared to gas tractors, let alone diesels. The old steamers are seldom allowed to run at their original boiler pressure as they are so old. One I saw was only allowed 20 psi instead of the original 120 psi. That's one reason they don't put them in tractor pulls.


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