Unbelievable: World’s Oldest Tractor Is ____ Years Old!
By Tom Seest
At ClassicTractorNews, we help classic tractor lovers keep up with the latest news for classic and vintage tractors.
Before the advent of tractors, farmers relied on steam-powered engines to plow their fields – however, these vehicles were slow and cumbersome in their operation.
John Froelich revolutionized farming by creating the first gas-powered tractor with reversing gear and clutch that enabled farmers to tow threshing machines along roads.
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WATERLOO, Iowa (DTN) — John Deere enthusiasts attending the Two-Cylinder Club EXPO III last week may not have known much about John Froelich or his first internal-combustion traction engine – later known as a tractor – when they entered the exhibit hall. Green and yellow were everywhere you looked – women wore earrings with John Deere designs; entire families dressed up like tractor drivers; even one-man knit lawn chairs featuring Deere designs!
John Froelich was an accomplished farmer in Iowa’s Froelich community during the late 1800s, operating an elevator there and using steam power to harvest crops. But he soon found his traditional steam tractors too slow for his liking – leading him to create his own innovation, the steam tractor.
Froelich collaborated with a blacksmith to build a vertical single-cylinder gas engine mounted to the running gear of his steam traction engines. They tested it successfully in the fields that autumn, harvesting 72,000 bushels successfully with it – it was an enormously satisfying achievement!
Froelich’s invention never saw commercial success, yet he went on to invent other items and receive multiple patents – especially his tractor, which remains on display at a museum in McGregor, Iowa.
Theophilus Brown was known for being a gentlemanly competitor who worked well with others yet managed to upset several companies (his lift patent cost International Harvester millions of dollars). On this list, he’s remembered for the many accomplishments he achieved throughout his life, but particularly notable is his groundbreaking tractor engineering work: designing parts to speed and enhance efficiency while creating special tires that allowed tractors to climb hills more easily, improving steering on these machines; designing parts specifically tailored for hill climbing terrain, among other innovations that set him apart as one of a few who made him standout among competitors; one lift patent alone cost International Harvester millions of dollars! He’s remembered not just for all these achievements but rather for all that his work in tractor engineering alone deserves special mention: design was exceptional!
Charles Hart and Charles Parr, mechanical engineering students at the University of Wisconsin, developed a gas-powered engine in 1896 that could pull plows. Dubbed a gasoline traction engine or, more commonly, a “gas tractor,” their invention provided an affordable alternative to horse-drawn equipment.
Hart and Parr, newly graduated from the University of Wisconsin, relocated to Charles City, Iowa, where they established a factory to produce their tractor. Opening in 1901, according to Charles City Press and Evening Intelligencer (CCPET), one of the world’s first factories that produced tractors was established there.
Hart-Parr Tractor Works initially operated from Riverside Drive in Charles City; however, by 1905, it had outgrown its space and moved north to West Allis Avenue near an abandoned lumberyard. There, it employed around 200 staffers.
In 1906, Hart-Parr unveiled two models: 17-30 and 22-40. Both featured two-cylinder engines capable of burning gasoline, kerosene, or fuel oil for easy operation, as well as heavy-duty drive trains enabling it to pull plows. W.H. Williams began calling these machines “tractors,” leading the name to remain widely accepted throughout its production period.
Hart believed that success at his company depended on low production costs and efficient manufacturing techniques, with as few people working as possible at his plant to increase profits. Hart was known to believe that more labor-efficient factories meant higher profits.
Hart-Parr produced 3,798 tractors prior to its closure in 1918, and one known as Old Number 1–is held by the Floyd County Historical Society and will be auctioned off with Mecum in September. Additionally, this museum houses an extensive collection of Hart-Parr documents and photographs, technical manuals, and blueprints, as well as an early model 30-60 tractor from their collection on display.
William Theophilus Brown (1919-2012) painted “Untitled (Industrial Scene),” 1987 with gouache, ink, and pastel on paper; signed and dated “William Theo Brown 87” lower right; Provenance: Rago Auctions in Lambertville, New Jersey.
Theophilus Brown was an integral figure in the Bay Area Figurative movement and an avid supporter of Paul Wonner. After Wonner passed away in 2008, an obituary published by the San Francisco Chronicle honored his “quick mind and mischievous wit” yet neglected to mention Brown, who passed three years later. He was born in Moline, Illinois, and studied music and painting at Yale University before relocating to Paris post-military service, where he developed relationships with artists such as Fernand Leger and Amedee Ozenfant, among others.
Once back in the US, Brown immediately established himself in the art world. He specialized in male nudes and equine paintings while being an accomplished draftsman producing sketches for novelist Christopher Isherwood and portrait artist Don Bachardy, among many others. Furthermore, Brown became an outspoken advocate for gay rights while living openly as a homosexual with Paul Wonner, who later became his partner painter.
As a hobby, he worked on building the Wagner tractor – a competing model to John Deere’s first model – in his family barn, featuring innovations like axle splines that allowed farmers to adjust rear tread width between 56 to 80 inches for easier plowing of crops rows or widening as needed for fall plowing.
Brown was revered by both competitors and employees alike for his engineering excellence. International Harvester famously dubbed him “The Awfulest Brown” due to his costly lift patents, which cost them millions. Yet Brown was known as an upstanding gentleman whose contributions towards tractor development were widely valued.
John Deere ultimately emerged victorious, thanks to its commitment to innovation, which allowed it to outshout rivals quickly and establish itself as the industry leader. Its success can be partly credited to Theophilus Brown, who holds over 100 patents to his name – with innovations including adjustable rear tread, power lift hydraulic system, and one-piece transmission case with high under axle clearance being his contributions.
Henry Ford – the man who revolutionized automobile manufacturing – held an interest in mechanizing farm work throughout his lifetime. Legend has it that when he saw his first steam threshing machine at 12 years old, this experience gave him insight into how mechanization can change farmers’ lives for the better.
After working as a machinist and supporting his family through farming and sawmilling, Ford turned his attention to gasoline engines in 1896, eventually building his first powered vehicle that year. From there on out, he began manufacturing cars commercially before eventually founding Ford Motor Company as an industrialist and founder.
Ford experimented with tractors throughout his tenure at Henry Ford Company. In 1907, he presented an “Automobile Plow,” constructed from parts from both Model K cars (frame, wheels, and radiator) as well as Ford Model B engines and transmissions (engine and planetary transmission). This steel-wheeled tractor boasted an ingenious feature: both its engine and drive system were bolted together, creating one solid unit without an external frame needed.
Fordson Tractor Company quickly made the new design, which they soon marketed under its new name, Fordson Tractor, popular. These mass-produced machines cost less than previous versions and were popular with farmers during World War I due to a shortage of food and manpower resources. Production began on their Fordson Model F tractor model by 1917.
Ford continued working on automobiles until his death in 1947, leaving day-to-day management of his tractor business to his son Edsel. Unfortunately, however, Ford and Ferguson – who had developed a system for attaching implements to tractors more easily – quickly fell out.
Ford and Ferguson had an arduous partnership due to both being independent inventors. Ferguson attempted to add features that would increase profitability, such as a 4-speed transmission and overhead valve engine; when this did not become more profitable for Ford, their partnership came to an end and produced 9N models – 9 for its introduction year and “N” standing for Ferguson.
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