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Antique Engines: The History of the Tractor

The history of the tractor plays a significant role in agricultural practices around the world. Originally, people used animal power to plow, weed and harvest their land. As technology progressed, especially with the advancement of engines, farmers around the country purchased and used tractors to perform substantial work. The tractor had both positive and negative effects on farm workers. Today, many antique tractors are available for people to view.

The First Tractor

The physical labor required to remove weeds and harvest crops was substantial in the early days. Early on, corn was one of the last crops that required physical labor during harvest time. One of the earliest methods for clearing land involved the draught horse. These working horses pulled heavy loads and other farm equipment to perform weeding and harvesting functions. The earliest mechanical tractors were developed using portable engines, or steam engines, that were able to move farm equipment. During the mid-19th century, inventors improved engines and created the traction engine. The traction engine, which was powered by steam, was adjusted to meet the needs of farmers. The engines were able to pull heavy loads. John Carter invented one of the first tractors in Illinois during the late 19th century. This early device caught on slowly, but laid the groundwork for future tractors.

Tractors and the Agricultural Industry

The introduction of the mechanical tractor changed the agricultural landscape. The number of horses and mules used to perform farm work was roughly 25 million in the United States during the early 20th century. Farm workers needed to provide food, shelter and veterinary care for each of their animals, which could require a substantial amount of financial resources. The introduction of the tractor reduced the costs associated with maintaining animal labor. Farmers could spend less time and money planting hectares of land to support animal feed crops. In addition, the tractor could perform a range of important tasks, including turning the soil and pulling substantial loads. The tractor’s introduction also had some adverse effects on the farming industry. For example, farm sizes underwent an increase after the tractor became available. Many farmers could no longer maintain smaller farms and sought work elsewhere. Consequently, the government sought to provide financial support for smaller farms through the Agricultural Adjustment Act.

Tractor Engines

Some of the earliest tractor included the steam engine. The steam engine creates mechanical work using heat and steam. Early inventors designed the traction engine, which uses steam, specifically for pulling heavy loads. Over the years, engines evolved and steam engine technology saw a sharp decline. Internal combustion engines were used to replace steam-powered tractors. The combustion engine uses fuel, such as gasoline, to create mechanical power. Diesel fuels began to gain popularity during the mid-19th century and today, many modern tractors use this type of fuel.

Antique Tractors

From Farmall to John Deere, there exists a wide range of antique or collectible tractors. For example, the Mogul 8-16—a tractor produced in 1939 by the International Harvester Co.—is considered an antique tractor designed to manage smaller areas. Farmall produced the IH 8-16 Kerosene during the early 20th century. John Deere’s Model A tractor is considered one of the most famous and popular early tractors and was produced in 1934.

Learn More about Tractors and Their History

People interested in learning more about tractors and their history can consult a range of resources. Multiple museums that pay homage to the tractor, its contribution to agriculture and antique models exist. In addition, many counties across the country host annual fairs that place antique and modern tractors on display for people to see. Many cities host antique tractor and pull shows. Many colleges and universities offer an extension program that focuses on the development of agricultural practices. State colleges might offer additional information on locating resources to research tractors.

Written by: Milan Alcot