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Who Invented the First Tractor? History & Origin

tractor in a farm

Any vehicle engineered to deliver high torque at slow speeds should be considered a tractor. We often use such engines in construction, mining, agriculture, and in any other activity that demands hauling a trailer or piece of heavy machinery.

“Tractor” is a word borrowed from the Latin language, as it’s a derivative of the word trahere. Its literal meaning is “pull,” in case you’re wondering.

Tractors were the reason why farm horses were put out to pasture back in the day. Once they were put to use, they saved farmers lots of time, were cost-efficient, offered precision, and fitted right into small- and large-scale farming. John Froelich was the original inventor of the tractor.

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The History of The Tractor

1892: The Gas-Powered Engine

In 1892, in a small Iowan town, an idea that went on to change the lives of so many people around the world was brought to life. John Froelich, an American inventor turned history-maker, successfully built a gasoline-powered engine that had the ability to not only move forward but also backward. Even though this fascinating invention wasn’t called a tractor at the time, that’s exactly what it was.

Of course, we had other engines during that period, but they were steam-powered engines, designed to thresh wheat. The steam traction engines were first developed in 1868 and seen in farms in 1888. Several sources talk of Henry G. Stone being the inventor, who initially called them the “road engine.”

The steam tractor had a very short lifespan, with regards to the number of years that they were in use. Nonetheless, Froelich was well-acquainted with the mechanics behind those engines, seeing as he used them frequently while working with his men in South Dakota. He felt the need to make improvements to the current designs because they were too difficult to maneuver and very heavy.

Steam-powered Engines Flaws & Inefficiencies

Those engines malfunctioned so many times, to the point they sort of threatened to set fire to the very grains that they were supposed to help harvest. If you’ve ever worked on a flat prairie before, you know how devastating that would have been, taking into account how strongly prairie winds can blow.

To Froelich, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He was visibly upset and vowed to find a way to power the engines more efficiently. He didn’t know it at the time, but he later on figured out that the solution to his woes was gasoline. And with the help of Will Mann—who was a friend, confidant, and blacksmith—he started building a vertical, one-cylinder traction engine.

Once the prototype was done, he mounted it on the steam traction engine’s running gear, thus creating the very first hybrid engine. Fitting all the different components together seemed like a daunting task, but they managed eventually.

A couple of weeks later, Froelich felt it was time to take his new toy for a test drive to the vast grain fields of South Dakota. Lo and behold, that season alone they managed to thresh approximately 72,000 bushels of small grain¹, setting a new town record. It goes without saying, the whole project was a complete success.

Commercializing The Idea

John Froelich was so impressed by himself that he decided to ship this new engine to Waterloo, Iowa, to conduct an exhibition. He knew he had just created for himself an incredible opportunity to work with the established entrepreneurs at the time, and he wasn’t wrong. In no time, “The Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company” was founded, John sat at the helm as the president, and the organization’s flagship product was the “Froelich Tractor.”

Unfortunately for John, convincing farmers to replace their steam-powered traction engines with his gasoline-powered systems wasn’t easy. The company only managed to sell two engines in that fiscal year, which were later returned due to various reasons.

To avoid making losses, and to buy more time to make the necessary changes in the prototypes’ design, they resorted to producing stationary gas engines.

1895: The Incorporation

While all these things were going on, Waterloo was nothing more than a general partnership company. But in 1895, it was formally recognized by the state as a legal business entity, separate from its founding members. Froelich decided to step down as the company’s president and eventually resigned because his main passion was in tractors and not stationary engines.

The 1900s: New Models

This move didn’t discourage the remaining members from continuing their work. And in 1913, they finally released an improved version, which was called the “L-A” model. Sadly though, it still wasn’t good enough, so they had to take it back to the lab. Towards the end of 1914, they again gave us an improved iteration, called the Model “R” single-speed tractor.

It’s safe to say, it was a commercial success, as they managed to sell 118 engines within the year. The Model “R’s” successor was the Model “N” Waterloo Boy, and that too was a success.

Then came the first World War, and the demand for tractors skyrocketed. This upward shift in demand was precipitated by two factors: the need for a reliable mechanical farming tool, and the exponential rise in farm prices. John Froelich’s concept started gaining so much traction during this period, that several tractor companies sprung up out of nowhere, in a matter of months.

One such company was Deere & Company. Before World War I, they solely focused on manufacturing John Deere implements, and nothing else. But they had their eyes on the products being released by Waterloo, as they saw a business opportunity there.

You see, Deere had worked with farmers for years. So, they knew what farmers really wanted, and more importantly, how to satiate their needs. The members felt confident in the company’s ability to manufacture premium products, given it had years of experience in the industry and technical know-how. But to be sure they had all their bases covered, they first had to do one thing…

1918: The Company’s Merger

Competition is healthy for business. But if you get the opportunity to take out your competition, you have to take it. So, in 1918, they bought the Waterloo company, together with everything they had. The employees, facilities, and everything last thing that Waterloo owned, was absorbed by the House of Deere.

This was actually a savvy move that paid off since John Froelich’s hybrid concept was so advanced at that stage and very steady. As of today, the company still remains to be the largest tractor-manufacturing business in our nation, seeing as they’ve released countless other models, sold millions of units, and significantly contributed to the global increase in the food supply.

Long story short, that’s how Iowa became known as the “Tractor Town USA”

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The tractors that you get to see today have certainly come a long way. We can now boast of models that have revolutionary technology, such as the Global Positioning System, and increased horsepower. The current engine production companies have made sure nobody feels left out, by producing models that cater to almost every need.

Featured Image Credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixabay


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