grayscale seperator bar
tractione engine montage
seperator bar

A Concise History of the
Traction Engine

The Traction Engine is a mobile steam engine that evolved from the crude stationary steam engines, once used during the late 18th century.

Early developments of the technology can be traced back to Denis Papin's pressure cooker invention of 1679, which was later the inspiration for Thomas Savery's who patented 1698 a crude form of steam engine. Thomas Savery, a military engineer, had for some time been working on the problem of pumping water out of coal mines. The invention he came up with consisted of a closed vessel filled with water into which pressurised steam was introduced. The steam forced water in the mine upwards and out of the shaft. A cold water sprinkler was used to condense the steam, which created a vacuum that sucked more water out of the mine through a bottom valve. Thomas Savery later worked with Thomas Newcomen on the atmospheric steam engine.

Though no one person can be credited with inventing the steam powered road vehicle, possibly the most advanced ideas came from a French military engineer called Nicolas Cugnot (1725–1804) His self propelled three-wheeled vehicle, was developed primarily for towing artillery and was capable of carrying four people. On 23rd October 1769, in the Paris arsenal, Cugnot demonstrated his first steam engine before distinguished government officials. The machine attained an impressive speed of 2mph and ran for 15 minutes. His second engine had its demonstration in the Paris streets before the French public. But there was a ‘minor’ incident involving the engine and an argument with a brick wall, which resulted in an upside down lump of quality scrap iron. Cugnot was discredited and lack of support prevented his further engine developments. A replica engine is now preserved in the Paris Museum of Technology.

Mining engineer Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) of Cornwall built the first self-moving engine in this country. He devoted his life to the improvement of the steam engine from its simple beginning as a beam engine pumping water from mines. Unlike James Watt, Trevithick favoured higher steam pressures that gave greater power from smaller cylinders. From 1800 to 1815 he built several steam road carriages, the first steam railway locomotives and a large number of stationary steam engines. Nothing he did however was commercially successful and he died in debt. Ransomes of Ipswich introduced the traction engine, as we begin to know it in 1840, who were established agricultural implement makers of the time. Other engine builders were not far behind, some of the early ones being Aveling, Burrell, Clayton, Fowler and Garrett.

To begin with, engines were adapted portable engines, with the cylinders over the firebox and chain drive, the steering was at first by horses, later by a steersman on the front of the engine and then to the system we know today. Different makers had different ideas as to which side the steering should be situated, right or left.

The Traction Engine can be divided into six main groups.

THE PORTABLE. This was the first type of engine to be used on and around farms in Britain. They were not self propelled and needed to be pulled by horses. These were used to drive threshing equipment and to operate sawmills. They were still in use well into the 20th century.

THE AGRICULTURAL GENERAL PURPOSE ENGINE. These engines were the most common types to be seen around the countryside. They were basically used as a mobile power plant for threshing, tree pulling and general farm duties. Though not generally owned by the farmers themselves, contractors operated them, touring from farm to farm. Production ceased in the late 1930’s with continued preference of the petrol-paraffin tractor, which was less costly to operate, but they were still in use into the 1950’s.

ROAD LOCOMOTIVES. These were designed for heavy haulage on the public highways. They were usually larger than the normal traction engine and were fitted with three-speed gearing. They were also sprung on both front and rear axles. An extra water tank was fitted under the boiler so that greater distances could be travelled between water stops. These were very powerful traction engines capable of pulling loads of up to 120 tons. Showmen’s engines, though highly decorated and adorned with brass, fall into the category of road locomotive. Apart from hauling fair rides etc. from one venue to another, they were also used for generating the power for the rides and for lighting.

STEAM TRACTORS. These engines were built as small road locomotives and were operated by one man, provided the engine was less than 5 tons in weight. They were used for general road haulage and in particular by the timber trade. The most popular steam tractor was the Garrett 4CD.

STEAM ROAD ROLLERS. Perhaps the best known of all steam traction engines. They were working into the 1960’s and part of the M1 motorway was made with the use of steamrollers. They early rollers tended to be very heavy; one even weighing 30 tons was built. But it was soon discovered that weight alone did not make the best roller. 12 or 15 tons was the most favoured. With the introduction of Tarmac, rollers became even lighter and some of the smaller ones weighed as little as 3 tons.

PLOUGHING ENGINES. The largest of all and were used, as the name suggests, for ploughing. They were worked as a pair or set. Though the engines themselves didn’t run along the field ploughing, a cable spanning the field would be attached to each engine on a winding drum with a plough joined in the middle which would be pulled up and down the field. One engine was built to pull on its right hand side the other on its left, so they were referred to as right hand or left hand engines, though the positions were the reverse when working. These engines weighed around 22 tons each and could plough up to 30 acres a day.

In addition to the six main groups developed from the beginning of the 20th century, was the steam wagon or lorry. The first of these were ‘overtypes’, having their engine mounted on top of the boiler in the same way as traction engines. These engines were chain driven. They were capable of speeds of up to 30mph. The designs included 4 and 6 wheelers, artics and tippers. By far the most popular builder of ‘overtypes’, were Foden of Cheshire. The ‘undertype’ wagon that followed was made with a vertical boiler with the engine mounted under the chassis, not unlike a modern lorry. Later models were fitted with pneumatic tyre and could reach speeds of 60mph.