Alvin O. Lombard of Waterville, Maine, invented in 1901 a tractor for hauling logs, as displayed at the Maine State Museum in the capital city of Augusta. Known as "Lombard Log Haulers," these vehicles revolutionized logging in Maine.
A tractor is an engineering vehicle specifically designed to deliver a high tractive effort (or torque) at slow speeds, for the purposes of hauling a trailer or machinery used in agriculture or construction. Most commonly, the term is used to describe a farm vehicle that provides the power and traction to mechanize agricultural tasks, especially (and originally) tillage, but nowadays a great variety of tasks. Agricultural implements may be towed behind or mounted on the tractor, and the tractor may also provide a source of power if the implement is mechanised.
The word tractor was taken from Latin, being the agent noun of trahere "to pull". The first recorded use of the word meaning "an engine or vehicle for pulling wagons or ploughs" occurred in 1901, displacing the earlier term "traction engine" (1859).
John Fowler pioneered the application of steam power to agriculture in the 1850s, and invented machines for ploughing and digging drainage channels.
The first powered farm implements in the early 19th century were portable engines – steam engines on wheels that could be used to drive mechanical farm machinery by way of a flexible belt. Richard Trevithick designed the first 'semi-portable' stationary steam engine for agricultural use, known as a "barn engine" in 1812, and it was used to drive a corn threshing machine. The truly portable engine was invented in 1839 by William Tuxford of Boston, Lincolnshire who started manufacture of an engine built around a locomotive-style boiler with horizontal smoke tubes. A large flywheel was mounted on the crankshaft, and a stout leather belt was used to transfer the drive to the equipment being driven. In the 1850s, John Fowler used a Clayton & Shuttleworth portable engine to drive apparatus in the first public demonstrations of the application of cable haulage to cultivation.
In parallel with the early portable engine development, many engineers attempted to make them self-propelled – the fore-runners of the traction engine. In most cases this was achieved by fitting a sprocket on the end of the crankshaft, and running a chain from this to a larger sprocket on the rear axle. These experiments met with mixed success. The first proper traction engine, in the form recognisable today, was developed in 1859 when British engineer Thomas Aveling modified a Clayton & Shuttleworth portable engine, which had to be hauled from job to job by horses, into a self-propelled one. The alteration was made by fitting a long driving chain between the crankshaft and the rear axle.
The first half of the 1860s was a period of great experimentation but by the end of the decade the standard form of the traction engine had evolved and would change little over the next sixty years. It was widely adopted for agricultural use. The first tractors were steam-powered plowing engines. They were used in pairs, placed on either side of a field to haul a plow back and forth between them using a wire cable. In Britain Mann's and Garrett developed steam tractors for direct ploughing, but the heavy, wet soil of England meant that these designs were less economical than a team of horses. In the United States, where soil conditions permitted, steam tractors were used to direct-haul plows. Steam-powered agricultural engines remained in use well into the 20th century until reliable internal combustion engines had been developed.
In 1892, John Froelich invented and built the first gasoline/petrol-powered tractor in Clayton County, Iowa, USA. A Van Duzen single-cylinder gasoline engine was mounted on a Robinson engine chassis, which could be controlled and propelled by Froelich's gear box. After receiving a patent, Froelich started up the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company and invested all of his assets. However, the venture was very unsuccessful, and by 1895 all was lost and he went out of business.
Richard Hornsby & Sons are credited with producing and selling the first oil-engined tractor in Britain invented by Herbert Akroyd Stuart. The Hornsby-Akroyd Patent Safety Oil Traction Engine was made in 1896 with a 20 hp engine. In 1897, it was bought by Mr. Locke-King, and this is the first recorded sale of a tractor in Britain. Also in that year, the tractor won a Silver Medal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. That tractor would later be returned to the factory and fitted with a caterpillar track.
The first commercially successful light-weight petrol-powered general purpose tractor was built by Dan Albone, a British inventor in 1901. He filed for a patent on 15 February 1902 for his tractor design and then formed Ivel Agricultural Motors Limited. The other directors were Selwyn Edge, Charles Jarrott, John Hewitt and Lord Willoughby. He called his machine the Ivel Agricultural Motor, the word 'tractor' did not come into common use until later. The Ivel Agricultural Motor was light, powerful and compact. It had one front wheel, with solid rubber tyre, and two large rear wheels like a modern tractor. The engine used water cooling, by evaporation. It had one forward and one reverse gear. A pulley wheel on the left hand side allowed it to be used as a stationary engine, driving a wide range of agricultural machinery. The 1903 sale price was £300. His tractor won a medal at the Royal Agricultural Show, in 1903 and 1904. About 500 were built, and many were exported all over the world. The original engine was made by Payne & Co. of Coventry. After 1906, French Aster engines were used.
The first successful American tractor was built by Charles W. Hart and Charles H. Parr. They developed a two-cylinder gasoline engine and set up their business in Charles City, Iowa. In 1903, the firm built 15 "tractors", a term with Latin roots coined by Hart and Parr, and a combination of the words traction and power. Their 14,000-pound #3 is the oldest surviving internal combustion engine tractor in the United States, and is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. The two-cylinder engine has a unique hit-and-miss firing cycle that produced 30 horsepower at the belt and 18 at the drawbar.
In 1908, the Saunderson Tractor and Implement Co. of Bedford introduced a four-wheel design, and went on to become the largest tractor manufacturer in Britain at the time. While the earlier, heavier tractors were initially very successful, it became increasingly apparent at this time that the weight of a large supporting frame was less-efficient than lighter designs. Henry Ford introduced a light-weight, mass-produced design which largely displaced the heavier designs. Some companies halfheartedly followed suit with mediocre designs, as if to disprove the concept, but they were largely unsuccessful in that endeavor.
While unpopular at first, these gasoline-powered machines began to catch on in the 1910s, when they became smaller and more affordable. Henry Ford introduced the Fordson, a wildly popular mass-produced tractor, in 1917. They were built in the U.S., Ireland, England and Russia, and by 1923, Fordson had 77% of the U.S. market. The Fordson dispensed with a frame, using the strength of the engine block to hold the machine together. By the 1920s, tractors with gasoline-powered internal combustion engines had become the norm.
Harry Ferguson applied for a British patent for his three-point hitch in 1926, a three-point attachment of the implement to the tractor and the simplest and the only statically determinate way of joining two bodies in engineering. The Ferguson-Brown Company produced the Model A Ferguson-Brown tractor with a Ferguson-designed hydraulic hitch. In 1938 Ferguson entered into a collaboration with Henry Ford to produce the Ford-Ferguson 9N tractor. The three-point hitch soon became the favorite hitch attachment system among farmers around the world. This tractor model also included a rear Power Take Off (PTO) shaft that could be used to power three point hitch mounted implements such as sickle-bar mowers. This PTO location set the standard for future tractor developments.
Farm tractor design, power and transmission
Tractors can be generally classified by number of axles or wheels, with main categories of two-wheel tractors (single-axle tractors) and four-wheel tractors (two-axle tractors); more axles are possible but uncommon. Among four-wheel tractors (two-axle tractors), most are two-wheel drive (usually at the rear); but many are two-wheel drive with front wheel assist, four-wheel drive (often with articulated steering), or track tractors (with steel or rubber tracks).
The classic farm tractor is a simple open vehicle, with two very large driving wheels on an axle below and slightly behind a single seat (the seat and steering wheel consequently are in the center), and the engine in front of the driver, with two steerable wheels below the engine compartment. This basic design has remained unchanged for a number of years, but enclosed cabs are fitted on almost all modern models, for reasons of operator safety and comfort. In some localities with heavy or wet soils, notably in the Central Valley of California, the "Caterpillar" or "crawler" type of tracked tractor became popular in the 1930s, due to superior traction and flotation. These were usually maneuvered through the use of turning brake pedals and separate track clutches operated by levers rather than a steering wheel.
Four-wheel drive tractors began to appear in the 1960s. Some four-wheel drive tractors have the standard "two large, two small" configuration typical of smaller tractors, while some have four large, powered wheels. The larger tractors are typically an articulated, center-hinged design steered by hydraulic cylinders that move the forward power unit while the trailing unit is not steered separately.
In the early 21st century, articulated or nonarticulated, steerable multitrack tractors have largely supplanted the Caterpillar type for farm use. Larger types of modern farm tractors include articulated four-wheel or eight-wheel drive units with one or two power units which are hinged in the middle and steered by hydraulic clutches or pumps. A relatively recent development is the replacement of wheels or steel crawler-type tracks with flexible, steel-reinforced rubber tracks, usually powered by hydrostatic or completely hydraulic driving mechanisms. The configuration of these tractors bears little resemblance to the classic farm tractor design.
Gasoline and kerosene
Since the turn of the 20th century, internal combustion engines have been the power source of choice. Between 1900 and 1960, gasoline was the predominant fuel, with kerosene (the Rumely Oil Pull was the most notable of this kind) and ethanol being common alternatives. Generally, one engine could burn any of those, although cold starting was easiest on gasoline. Often, a small auxiliary fuel tank was available to hold gasoline for cold starting and warm-up, while the main fuel tank held whatever fuel was most convenient or least expensive for the particular farmer. In the United Kingdom, a gasoline-kerosene engine is known as a petrol-paraffin engine.
Dieselisation gained momentum starting in the 1960s, and modern farm tractors usually employ diesel engines, which range in power output from 18 to 575 horsepower (15 to 480 kW). Size and output are dependent on application, with smaller tractors used for lawn mowing, landscaping, orchard work, and truck farming, and larger tractors for vast fields of wheat, maize, soy, and other bulk crops.
Liquified petroleum gas
Liquified petroleum gas (LPG) or propane also have been used as tractor fuels, but require special pressurized fuel tanks and filling equipment, so are less prevalent in most markets.
In some countries such as Germany, biodiesel is often used. Some other biofuels such as straight vegetable oil are also being used by some farmers.
Most older farm tractors use a manual transmission with several gear ratios, typically three to six, sometimes multiplied into two or three ranges. This arrangement provides a set of discrete ratios that, combined with the varying of the throttle, allow final-drive speeds from less than one up to about 25 miles per hour (40 km/h), with the lower speeds used for working the land and the highest speed used on the road.
Slow, controllable speeds are necessary for most of the operations performed with a tractor. They help give the farmer a larger degree of control in certain situations, such as field work. However, when travelling on public roads, the slow operating speeds can cause problems, such as long queues or tailbacks, which can delay or annoy motorists in cars and trucks. These motorists are responsible for being duly careful around farm tractors and sharing the road with them, but many shirk this responsibility, so various ways to minimize the interaction or minimize the speed differential are employed where feasible. Some countries (for example the Netherlands) employ a road sign on some roads that means "no farm tractors". Some modern tractors, such as the JCB Fastrac, are now capable of much higher road speeds of around 50 mph (80 km/h).
An older model European farm tractor, of the type still common in Eastern Europe
Older tractors usually have unsynchronized transmission designs, which often require the operator stop the tractor to shift between gears. This mode of use is inherently unsuited to some of the work tractors do, and has been circumvented in various ways over the years. For existing unsynchronized tractors, the methods of circumvention are double clutching or power-shifting, both of which require the operator to rely on skill to speed-match the gears while shifting, and are undesirable from a risk-mitigation standpoint because of what can go wrong if the operator makes a mistake – transmission damage is possible, and loss of vehicle control can occur if the tractor is towing a heavy load either uphill or downhill – something that tractors often do. Therefore, operator's manuals for most of these tractors state one must always stop the tractor before shifting, and they do not even mention the alternatives. As already said, that mode of use is inherently unsuited to some of the work tractors do, so better options were pursued for newer tractor designs.
In these, unsynchronized transmission designs were replaced with synchronization or with continuously variable transmissions (CVTs). Either a synchronized manual transmission with enough available gear ratios (often achieved with dual ranges, high and low) or a CVT allow the engine speed to be matched to the desired final-drive speed, while keeping engine speed within the appropriate speed (as measured in rotations per minute or rpm) range for power generation (the working range) (whereas throttling back to achieve the desired final-drive speed is a trade-off that leaves the working range). The problems, solutions, and developments described here also describe the history of transmission evolution in semi-trailer trucks. The biggest difference is fleet turnover; whereas most of the old road tractors have long since been scrapped, many of the old farm tractors are still in use. Therefore, old transmission design and operation is primarily just of historical interest in trucking, whereas in farming it still often affects daily life.
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