Steam powered farm tractors

Preface. Steam engines weren’t very efficient, 10 to 20% at best, which is why they went away beginning around 1920 when oil-powered engines came along.  At the very best steam engines for transportation reached 10 to 20% efficiency. They were almost universally powered by coal, mostly by locomotives and stationary engines in factories. Only in America for a few decades was there so much wood that steam boats and locomotives burned wood rather than coal, until deforestation east of the Mississippi forced coal to be used, and a few decades later around 1920 oil combustion engines became more powerful, efficient, far less dangerous, and cheaper and the steam engines that remain are steam turbines used to generate electricity, not to move vehicles.

Steam turbines to generate electricity are very efficient — the best can be 45%.  But since trucks run on diesel fuel and can’t be electrified with batteries or catenary, and biomass doesn’t scale up enough to produce electricity, I am mainly interested in steam engines burning biomass as a long-term replacement for diesel-engines for trucks in the future.

Biomass won’t scale up for vehicle and factory steam engines in the future for the same reason it didn’t in the past, the wood will run out quickly. Forests can take decades to grow back, since photosynthesis is inefficient, with about  a half percent of new biomass added per year.

Further limiting biomass steam engines is that post carbon they will depend on horses, like they did in the past, to haul biomass fuel and water to the steam engine. Each horse needs an average of 5 acres to provide its food, land which is now used to produce human food.

Meanwhile, post fossil fuels, wood will also be needed for nearly everything – heating and cooking, homes and buildings, furniture and flooring, tools, roofs, and so on. It will be needed to make charcoal to make iron, bricks, metals, ceramics, and so on.

In fact, biomass depletion (especially deforestation) is one of the main reasons past civilizations have failed for the past 5,000 years (see one of my favorite books: John Perlin’s “A forest journey”.  And not just because there isn’t enough biomass.  When you cut down forests, topsoil blows and washes away, and agricultural production declines. War ships can no longer be built to trade or steal trees elsewhere.

Steam-powered vehicles are so inefficient I wasn’t going to ever cover them.  But after several interviews about my book “When Trucks Stop Running”, several readers commented that we’ll use steam engines in the future.  I agree.  Until the forests are depleted, civilization crashes again, the forests grow back, and steam engines are made again, for a while.

Which reminded me of that one reason why the energy crisis isn’t feared by anyone is that it’s like Bop-a-mole.  Even if you succeed in convincing someone that solar PV power won’t be able to replace oil because it has a low EROI (too low to replace itself let alone provide power for everything else), is too seasonal, requires too much non-existent energy storage, and so on, most people will reason: but there’s still wind power, hydrogen, geothermal, wave and tidal, hydropower, natural gas and so on.  Given the reduction of news and conversation to ten-second soundbites, the pressure to be optimistic about everything all the time (the scientists will come up with something!), and lack of scientific  education, I don’t expect to ever make a dent in the general ignorance on energy and natural resource matters, but I don’t mind. This site is meant for the very small percent of people who, like me, want to understand reality regardless of how depressing it may be.  An even smaller subset of them will actually make different choices about career and where to live than they might have otherwise, choices that may save their lives in the bottleneck ahead. Good luck to anyone who has read this far!

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Brandon Knapp. 2000. How Steam Power Revolutionized the Farm in America. Yesterday’s Tractors.

As the American farm entered the 1800s, its main source of power came from three animals-the horse, the mule, or the ox. The average farm worked by horses was 100 acres, and a farmer walked 8 miles per acre to plow his fields (with a walking plow) at the average speed of 1 1/2 mph. With 100 acres, the farmer walked 800 miles to plow his fields. And he still had to plant the crop, and cultivate! For wheat and other crops the grain had to be separated from the chaff with a machine called the thresher. The thresher was powered by a power sweep, which was turned by horses. Everything depended on the strength and durability of humans and horses.

In 1849, things began to change. Some of the first portable steam engines for farm use were built in this year, in Philadelphia. They only provided belt power for machines like the thresher. There were three sizes-4, 10, and 30 horsepower. The 4-hp model sold for $625 and the 30-hp model sold for $2300. That was a lot of money back then! These machines were also heavy; the 4-hp model weighed two tons, or 1000 pounds per horsepower!

These machines were pulled from field to field by horses. The steam engine provided steady power, it didn’t tire after hard work, and it only was “fed” when it worked; instead of all year round, like animals. Yet these machines were still crude, and a low steam pressure of 50 to 90 p.s.i. limited the amount of work that could be done.

Over the next few years, the steam pressure would be steadily increased with better quality material and construction of the boilers. However the greatest change of the steam engine would make it unforgettable for the next 150 years-“Self Propelled” steam engines began their debut in 1855. At first they were just a normal “Portable” engine, with chains or gears connecting the crankshaft and the rear wheels. They couldn’t even steer! They still needed horses to turn. But the self-propelled engine could also pull its thresher behind it.

If a steam engine could pull a thresher, it could also pull another type of load-the plow. In 1855, a “steam plow” was used by its inventor Obed Hussey. In 1858, Joseph Fawkes used his 30-hp engine; named “Lancaster”, for a plowing demonstration at the Illinois State Fair. The engine and plow were then taken to the U.S. Agricultural Society’s contest in Chicago where it won the championship. The steam engine that could be used for plowing, pulling, belt work, or other uses became known as the Steam Traction Engine.

Then, development of the steam engine slowed as the Civil War began. Most industry was used to produce weapons of war. However, the Armies required more food, and the Armies took many men from their farms at the same time. The few men and women left on the farms needed to use technology to keep up with demand. So the small number of steam engines (mostly portable types) became more popular. Yet the war kept farmers from getting the technology they wanted. It would have to wait until after the war…

After the war, steam engines steadily improved in technology and quality. Many different types and manufacturers of engines sprung up. Case, one of the largest manufacturers of steam engines, made its first engine in 1876. Port Huron began in 1882. In 1880, a patent was issued for a steering devise; the steam engine could make itself turn! Then came the invention of the clutch (very high technology!). Steam pressures of 150 p.s.i. became commonplace. Work was easier for the farmer as the steam engine pulled the plow, and turned the belt to thresh the grain.

The steam traction engine’s popularity soared during the 1890s. But, so did the horse’s. Just as the Eli Whitney’s cotton gin needed more slaves; the steam engine required more horses. The steam traction engine could plow, haul huge loads, and power the threshing machine all day. It needed plenty of fuel and water, which was brought by horses. The increased amount of tilled land needed to be planted, and cultivated, which the steam engine was too big to do. Although the steam engine made horses unneeded for some big jobs, more horses were needed for many others.

Groups of farmers formed “threshing rings” in order to pay for the costs of an engine and thresher. It was very expensive; a 110 hp engine from Case could cost over $3000! The farmers began to realize that the steam engine, while useful, still didn’t keep expenses down enough (when you add horses to the bill) to make them useful to the small farmer. Only larger farms could afford them. As the “newfangled” gasoline engines became more reliable, and smaller, they began to cut into the steam engine’s market. From 1900 and on the steam engine became less popular. In 1924 came the Farmall, a gas tractor that could do all the jobs on the farm. It was the final nail in the coffin. Steam production stopped a few years later. A few steam engines worked ’till World War Two. Then many were lost in the scrap drives. Not too many are around today, and you can only see them at antique tractor shows. Yet, when they are there, you notice them. Just look for the plumes of coal/wood smoke, and listen for the whistles. They still are impressive!

Interesting Information

President Abraham Lincoln said in 1859-“The successful application of steampower to farm work is a desideratum-especially a steam plow. To be successful, it must, all things considered, plow better than can be done by animal power. It must do all the work as well, and cheaper, or more rapidly, so as to get through more perfectly in season; or in some way afford an advantage over plowing with animals, else it is no success.”

Horsepower in steam engines was first measured with the formula, 1hp for every 10-14 square feet of boiler surface. But this formula was outdated by the increase of steam pressures in the engines, yet the formula was used until 1911. Then a new measurement-brake horsepower (which was measured on a Prony Brake-type dynamometer). An engine from 1908, which was advertised as 30hp, might be advertised as a 100hp engine in 1912! Some ads had both types of horsepower rating, such as 30-100hp.

Steam engines exploded every day in the U.S. in the early 1900s. For a plain steam traction engine-the boiler holds 52 cubic feet of water, and 26 cubic feet of steam at 150 psi. That 26 cubic feet of steam at 150 psi weighs 9.73 lbs, but holds 1,300,000 foot pounds of energy. The 52 cubic feet of water is at 366° F. It holds 38,000,000 foot pounds of energy. When the boiler fails, it releases enough energy (from the steam and water) to send a one-pound object straight up 7,500 miles (into orbit). Or a 7,500 pound object (the traction engine) one mile up!

Some reader comments:

  • The early farms were not 100 acres in size, most of them were much closer to 40 acres, and probably less than 20 acres was actually plowed under, so the theory of a farmer walking 800 miles just to get the plowing done is a bit far-fetched. A farm of 100 acres would have been quite an operation and would have required several hired men.
  • This was a good report but the dates are misleading. plowing with traction engines did not start until about 1876 when case introduced the first traction engine.


Ertel, Patrick W. American Steam Tractors.  1997.

Halberstadt, Hans. Steam Tractors. 1996. Iron Will. Reiman Publications, L.P., 1997.

Letourneau, Peter. Vintage Case Tractors. 1997.

Macmillan, Don., and Jones, Russell. John Deere Tractors and Equipment, Volume One 1837-1959. American Society of Agricultural Engineers, 1988.

Moorhouse, Robert. The Illustrated History of Tractors. Quintet Publishing Limited, 1996.

Norbeck, Jack. Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines. Crestline Publishing Co., 1976.

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8 Responses to Steam powered farm tractors

  1. Jeff Strahl says:

    Alice, this guy named Mark Richardson is on a crusade in a FB group i participate in, attacked you in a stream of 10 unanswered posts, flashed his “credentials,” claimed that Jacobson has refuted all the critiques made of his ideas, posted stuff like this, “For shorter length of haul BYD is already building both EV city buses with up to a 300-mile range and EV Class 5, 6, 7, and 8 trucks in California with up to a 100-mile range too. ” Just thought you should know.:-) The very fact that he went on a posting rampage and included his supposed credentials made my BS detector flash bright red.

  2. Jeff Strahl says:

    And thanks for your relentless work.

  3. Laurel Phoenix says:

    Alice, this is about electrifying trucks, not tractors, but I didn’t know how else to get you this link so you would know about this report that you can then comment on. Like all other predictions, IEA is wildly optimistic.

    • energyskeptic says:

      Yes, trucks can get better mileage, but when it comes to biofuels (negative energy return, ecologically destructive, doesn’t scale up), natural gas (finite, no distribution system, decades to retrofit trucks), liquefied coal (finite, peak world coal may have already happened or will soon), hydrogen (fuel cells for trucks far from ready, super negative return on energy, hard to distribute due to metal corrosion, worst idea of all remedies), batteries (laws of physics prevent this), or catenary (too many off-road, off-grid essential heavy duty trucks), I show in great detail in my book, “When Trucks stop Running: energy and the future of transportation”, and my posts at why these are wildly unrealistic alternatives to diesel fuel.

      Also, it drives me nuts that the focus isn’t on energy efficiency, but ghg emissions, and no mention of EROEI!!!!

      Although some drawbacks and difficulties are mentioned in the IEA document, they ignore serious issues my book raises. Super annoying – the supposed greater efficiency of battery trucks yet the 70% of fossil fuels used to create the electricity give up 2/3 of their energy to heat and up to 10% of electricity is lost over the lines. See my article on why diesel electric trains are more efficient than electric trains at They do mention the high hurdles of batteries for long-distance and other heavy duty trucks, but don’t mention peak lithium, even though this is the direction batteries are going (because lithium is one of the lightest elements and battery weight is a huge problem for putting them into trucks).

      I could go on and on. I’d love it if someone refuted what I’ve written with good evidence, but the IEA avoids mentioning and refuting most of my criticisms…

      • Laurel Phoenix says:

        You can’t get reasonable predictions out of IEA because they know their funders don’t want bad news, and also don’t want any hard truth to cause chaos in the markets. They also make general predictions about how long certain fuels will last based on uncheckable statistics from oil companies and oil-producing countries, where both entities have good reason to inflate their own predictions. Sadly, IEA and even EIA are both not that useful as a result.

  4. Jeff Strahl says:

    Sorry about that Mark Richardson post, the guy has revealed himself by last night to be unhinged.

  5. Cynic says:

    Thank you once again, Alice; and good luck to you, too.

    There is a peculiar satisfaction in understanding, even if it is rather a dismal picture -and I think a certain blessing is bestowed on those who try to aid understanding, however small their audience.

    Aside from that, your posts are simply fascinating to this non-scientist.

  6. hugh owens says:

    Love your posts AQlice. Steam Locomotives and tractors were not 10-20% efficient. I have long been a fan of steam locomotives and remember them rumbling past our backyard in Denver. I wondered whether steam could make a comeback and looked up the efficiency of the engines. 10-20%??Not even close. Burning coal in relatively late models UP locomotives yielded mid to upper single figures . These locomotives did not have condensing cycles and firebox and boiler temperatures were relatively low for safety reasons. Steam locomotives do not share any of the characteristics of steam powered electricity generation. I recall one final design in the late 40’s or 50’s where a prototype achieved over 12% but the locomotives and steam tractors then in use were all single digit efficiency. Those locomotives burning wood like in the Yukon were even less and used vast amounts of firewood. That is why diesel electric came along with over 50% efficiency. I think it was you who pointed out that electrification of our railroads using fossil fuel electricity was far less efficient than using railroad diesel generated electricity. You said that current railroad trains already are electrified.