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Tracking the History of the Tractor

You know what a tractor is: a motorized farm implement capable of pulling, or being fitted with, accessories to accomplish the work of a farm.  But who first called a tractor a tractor, and why?

Hart Parr 12 24

Marie gave me a desk calendar called Tractor A Day - it was kind of a joke: we laugh that if I keep going with my garden expansion I'll be a farmer before we know it.  But I really like the calendar.  Each day has a photograph of some classic tractor.  I especially like the very old ones.  This one, a 1925 Hart-Parr model 12/25 tractor, particularly fascinated me, especially its engine, so I went looking for more details on-line.  I found this description:

Hart and Parr produced the world's first successful production farm gas traction engine, forerunner of the modern tractor, in the winter of 1900-1901. Their first tractor was the Hart-Parr Gas Traction Machine No. 1.

Hart-Parr tractors were recognized as powerful, long-lasting, fuel-efficient and technically innovative. The Hart-Parr Tractor No. 3, built in 1903, is housed in the Smithsonian Institution Museum in Washington, D.C.

By 1907, a third of all tractors in the world were manufactured in Charles City.

The word "tractor" was, in fact, coined in 1907 to describe the Hart-Parr invention by the Hart-Parr sales manager, W.H. Williams. 

I found the details I sought, and a bonus: I stumbled across the reason we call a tractor a tractor: W.H. Williams created the term "tractor" in 1907 as a short name for their gasoline farm traction engine.  Leave it to the advertising folks to come up with the catchy terms! It seems that Hart-Parr was pretty much a pioneer in the gasoline powered farm implement trade.  I also found this:

Charles W. Hart and Charles H. Parr began their pioneering work on gas engines in the late 1800s while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In 1897, the two men formed the Hart-Parr Gasoline Engine Company of Madison. In 1900, they moved their operation to Hart's hometown of Charles City, Iowa, where they found financing to make gas traction engines based on their innovative ideas.

Their efforts led them to erect the first factory in the United States dedicated to the production of gas traction engines. Hart-Parr is also credited with coining the word "tractor" for machines that had previously been called gas traction engines. The firm's first tractor effort, Hart-Parr No.1, was made in 1901."

If you want more details on the Hart-Parr tractor, its arrangement and gearing, check out these Hart-Parr catalog shots.

I should point out, for clarity's sake, that Hart-Parr did not invent the gas traction engine. According to Vintage Farm Tractors by Ralph W. Sanders (ISBN1-55192-031-X) "Credit goes to the Charter Gasoline Engine Company of Sterling, Illinois, for first successfully using gasoline as fuel. Charter's creation of a gasoline fueled engine in 1887 soon led to early gasoline traction engines before the term "tractor" was coined by others. Charter adapted its engine to a Rumley steam-traction-engine chassis, and in 1889 produced six of the machines to become one of the first working gasoline traction engines."  Prior farm traction engines were run by a steam engine and were essentially scaled down locomotives.  Care to watch one in action?

If the video doesn't show up for you [Watch it on YouTube]

Information Sources:

  • Tractor-A-Day Calender by Voyager Press