Revolutionizing Farming: the Tractor Story
By Tom Seest
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John Froelich invented the first gasoline-powered tractor in 1892. While not widely popular at first, its popularity increased during World War One when there was a great need for farming machines.
Early tractors were huge and costly, but thanks to design improvements, they became smaller, cheaper, and more effective over time. New features were added, such as cabs for operator protection and rubber tires with reduced field damage potential.
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Prior to the invention of tractors, farmers spent an excessive amount on horses to accomplish their work. They had to buy, feed, and care for these animals themselves – each horse needing five acres of land just for fodder and hay alone! But with tractors coming along, farmers were freed of such expenses by plowing, sowing, and harvesting without worrying about horses’ costs or managing rain, cold, insects, etc., that affected horses’ daily care needs – plus their ability to work day or night without rain effects or interference or care needs from humans, unlike horses!
Tractors came in various shapes and sizes, all using Otto internal combustion engines. Each tractor also used flexible belts or cables wrapped around either its flywheel or separate pulley to power stationary equipment such as buzz saws, silage blowers, or threshing machines; this system required that either equipment was brought directly to it from one location or that equipment moved along as the tractor turned – both were time-consuming and labor-intensive processes.
Henry Ford had the dream of “lifting the burden from flesh and blood,” so he began building experimental tractors using automobile components. In 1908, when his Model T made its debut on the market, it quickly became the most popular tractor on sale. But it wasn’t until International Harvester unveiled their Farmall tractor in 1924 that the tractor industry truly blossomed; that row-crop tractor set a precedent that other manufacturers scrambled to copy with similar versions.
Some manufacturers fought back with three-row machines with wide fronts, while Twin City and Deere responded by creating mechanical lifts to raise heavy implements without using hand levers. But it was the Ferguson system, which integrated tractor implements directly onto its chassis so they could be driven from a seat instead of being pulled along ropes or belts, that truly revolutionized farming in America.
At this time, innovations included enclosed transmissions, cooling systems, high-tension magnetos, and force-feed engine lubrication that remain standard on modern tractors today. One particularly significant advancement was GPS systems, which allowed farmers to remotely monitor crop usage from any distance.
Tractors became widely utilized after the introduction of an internal combustion engine in the early 20th century. Prior to then, farmers relied on draft animals as power for machinery; these expensive animals required around five acres of land just for their feed, which could lead to illness and accidents. On the contrary, tractors utilized gasoline as a source of fuel and required less or no feed compared with horses due to weather and environmental considerations.
Initially, tractors were designed with the bare essentials. A single-cylinder gasoline engine mounted onto the running gear of a steam traction engine that threshed grain was the standard configuration. One-plow tractors were specifically intended for plowing and harrowing prior to planting with narrow tires and low rearward seating positions for maximum maneuverability on dry ground despite their cumbersome size and configuration;
These machines were controlled with turning brake levers and pedal-operated track clutches rather than steering wheels. International Harvester introduced the Farmall in 1924, revolutionizing the tractor industry by being the first row-crop tractor with an ergonomic mechanical lift to lift heavy implements over its predecessor system of strong-arm levers. Due to its success, other manufacturers, such as Twin City, produced their Kombi model, while John Deere created their Model GP tractor – both featuring mechanical lifts.
Many early tractors used belts or cables wrapped around their flywheel and pulled by a pulley to power stationary equipment like threshing machines or buzz saws, such as threshing machines. Unfortunately, this meant the tractor had to stay put while power had to be relocated whenever the operator turned the machine (as with cable-drawn equipment). This limited the usefulness of equipment being towed.
Later, tractors were equipped with three-point hitches – a standard attachment system for towing implements that was more reliable than belt and cable systems – making these connection systems the norm on modern tractors. Today, almost all tractors use them.
Before the advent of diesel engines, farm tractors used gas engines for pulling or pushing agricultural machinery and equipment. Early gas engines ran on either gasoline or wood-based fuel; many components found on automotive engines, such as clutches, transmissions, and carburetors, were modified for use with farming machinery engines.
Early 20th-century gasoline-powered tractor engines quickly gained in popularity among farmers who could afford them, especially small farmers who could benefit from them. These tractors typically featured three to five forward gears and one reverse gear; some even came equipped with single front tires for greater risk of rollovers on steep hillsides.
Technology advanced rapidly, prompting an increase in diesel engine adoption. Diesel consumed less fuel than their gasoline-powered counterparts while producing greater horsepower – increasing both the versatility and utility of tractors.
By the 1950s, large numbers of tractors equipped with diesel engines had begun being produced by British company Nuffield; this model became one of the earliest produced under its larger umbrella company, British Motor Corporation (BMC), which produced Austins, Morriss, and MG cars, trucks and tractors under different brand names.
In 1956, British Motor Corporation (BMC) and General Motors merged to form General Motors (GM). This brought with it several innovative technologies and features that would eventually find their way into American tractors – such as an engine-mounted generator, which produced electricity to start and run the machine.
These new tractors feature enclosed cabs to ensure operator safety and comfort and employ a rear power take-off (PTO) shaft to power implements such as sickle bar mowers or the 3-point hitch invented by Harry Ferguson.
An additional innovation was the addition of a hydraulic lift for the plow, which reduced the physical effort needed to pull it up and down hills.
Other innovations included glow plugs to enable the electric starting of diesel engines – this enabled tractors to start even in cold weather or wet conditions where prior methods of getting them started were often impractical.
Hydraulic systems convert engine power into force and motion. A pump transfers pressurized oil from an accumulator that stores energy to an oil cylinder connected with rods and pistons. The force applied by these pistons varies based on the size of the cylinder as well as the distance traveled (W=fd). On tractors, hydraulic systems can be controlled via valves so pumps can be switched on or off as necessary.
Simply, this system can lift a plow or hay rake, but its capabilities go much further; for instance, it can control the speed of a swather or dispense fertilizer in time with seeding machines.
Modern hydraulic systems utilize similar principles but are far more sophisticated and powerful. Made from stainless steel to withstand immense pressure generated by raising loader buckets or bale forks with hydraulic cylinders, modern hydraulic systems feature sensors to monitor system operation and guard against over-pressurization.
Hydraulic systems have become an indispensable feature of modern tractors, contributing significantly to improved performance and capability since manufacturers first began producing row-crop tractors during the early 1900s.
Since then, much has changed at SFRO: the hydraulic capacity to handle larger implements has steadily increased; infinitely variable transmissions that use hydraulic systems for speed control and direction of gearing have become common; systems exist for headland management as well as adaptable settings to suit specific applications; as well as improved comfort with increased adjustability on suspension systems in cab, seat, and chassis suspensions.
Ferguson’s three-point hitch, designed to quickly connect implements without using towing links, has become standard on virtually all tractors today, while most are equipped with mechanical lifts instead of using Armstrong hand levers for attachment raising. Furthermore, fruit orchard tractors typically feature lower overall profiles in order to reduce tree branch snagging risks, underslung exhaust pipes and large sheet metal cowlings designed to prevent branches from getting caught in exhaust pipes.
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