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A Brief History of Tractors in America

The history of tractors is a fascinating glimpse into the ongoing skirmish in the battle of Man versus Nature. Only in the last 200 years have tractors entered the fray, lumbering forth on steel (and later knobby rubber) tires to make their mark as, some claim, the greatest farm implement ever invented.

Many argue that tools like pitchforks, rakes and shovels are the true weapons of famers but it cannot be denied that a tractor has become a piece of farm machinery no farmer can live without. The rest of us spend entire lives underestimating how important food production is to our day-to-day existence, so let’s set the record straight and dive into the awe-inspiring history of tractors.

History of Tractors in America

Before tractors and farming two way radios, man (and woman) made due with the plow. Before the plow…well, no one remembers but a little uprising called the French Revolution helps explain just how back breaking, life-sucking, and miserable the lives of food producers (peasants) were.

Using horses, mules, oxen and sometimes his own body—the plow made its jerky slog through the dirt, exhausting everyone involved. It was, however, an upgrade from bare hands or a hoe.

Early Tractors

history of tractors black and white photo of early tractor

When the first American engines hit the scene in the early 1800s, they powered steamboats and the technology quickly spread into other labor saving devices. The plow was so despised as a form of torturous and sweaty labor that scientists and inventors wasted no time in building a steam engine powered thresher. In 1812, a gentleman called Richard Trevithick invented the steam-powered “Barn Engine” as a corn threshing device. Awkward, cumbersome and limited—it was still a huge hit.

An Iowan named John Froelich upgraded his own steam-powered thresher in 1890 when he partnered with a blacksmith to fix some of his thorny thresher problems. Sparks, for example, were not an uncommon event with machine threshing and could set a field ablaze in an instant. But Froelich was undeterred; he took recent gas-engine technology and built a single-cylinder tractor that reached 3 mph and required 26 gallons of gasoline to thresh 1,000 bushels of grain.

In 1903, Charles Hart and Charles Parr upgraded the tractor to a 2-cylinder beast, and so the evolution of this vital machine took off. The Hart/Parr invention weighed 14,000 pounds and is now on display at the Smithsonian museum in Washington, DC. As the internal combustion engine began to transform how humanity ate, traveled and recreated—tractor manufacturers multiplied to nearly 100 companies between 1916 and 1922!

The Evolution of the Modern Tractor

modern blue tractor plows dirt field

Until 1922, tractors continued to use steel wheels but by the mid 1920s engineers took some lessons from automobiles in upgrading basic design. In 1927, the very first combine hit the farms. A year later, the tractor’s history passed another milestone by adding the ability to plow three rows at a time; a decade later, the “Model B” from John Deere added an electric starter, lights and rubber tires.

John Deere became the major tractor manufacturer beginning in the 1950s on, and championed several upgrades focusing on safety and comfort. The company also brought the first 40-horsepower engine to farmers, and the first diesel engine.

By the 1970s, tractors allowed farmers to till while staying out of the bitter cold, blazing sun, and dust that had made the job hazardous. Advancements in farming technology are one of the most prominent agricultural industry trends, and that’s reflected in today’s specialized and automated tractors. This history of the tractor is much abbreviated, and only hits a few of the high notes in the evolution of this life-changing (and planet-changing) machine.