CHAPTER 24. STEAM PLOUGHING

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Stanley
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CHAPTER 24. STEAM PLOUGHING

Post by Stanley » 15 May 2012, 05:25

STEAM PLOUGHING

In the previous chapter I mentioned that I had helped Richard Metcalfe use his Fowler engine for some serious steam ploughing. This use of steam engines was very important in the early days of mechanisation in agriculture but very little is known about it nowadays and I suppose that in the future, some of you reading these memoirs might never have heard anything about it. For that reason, I thought I’d describe what Richard and I were doing, how we went about it and what the results were.

First a little bit of the history of steam to set this story in its proper place. The advent of the stationary steam engine as a method of powering factories and mines in the late 18th century revolutionised industry and by the mid 19th century steam power was common, well understood and developing rapidly until, in the early 20th century it had reached the peak of its development and was to be superseded by the individual electric motor. As the 19th century dawned, agriculture, because of the rise in population, was under pressure to deliver faster and more efficient methods of cultivation than single implements drawn by the horse. The progressive farmers and inventors saw what was happening in industry and looked for ways to apply the power of steam to agriculture.

The first successful use of steam in agriculture was the use of portable steam engines, that is a boiler and firebox mounted on wheels with a small engine mounted direct on the boiler driving a flywheel which could be used as a pulley to drive a belt which could then be used to apply power to a machine like a chaff cutter, a grinding mill or a threshing machine. These early engines had to be dragged by horses when they had to be moved and were, in essence, a ‘portable’ stationary engine, hence the name. It didn’t take long to work out systems of gearing which could be applied to transmit the power of the engine to the wheels and the traction or hauling engine was born. The traction engine survived in road transport until superseded by the internal combustion engine after the Great War.

The concept of using traction engines to replace horses suggested an easy way to apply steam power to field cultivation simply by dragging the implement but the problem that arose was that an engine big and heavy enough to do useful work was too heavy to travel on the land. Fertile minds were brought to bear on this problem and by 1850 a system was evolved whereby the steam engine worked on the headland, or limit of cultivation and dragged the implement across the field by a wire rope. Many complicated systems were evolved using movable anchors, snatch blocks and double cables to allow one engine to draw the implement both ways across a field. These were partially successful but eventually a system whereby two engine were used, one at each end of the field, evolved and by the late 19th century this was the standard method of cultivating large fields by steam. The system wasn’t economical for small fields or light jobs and the horse was never totally superseded by steam. They survived until, like the steam engines they were replaced by the internal combustion engine in the late 1930’s. Direct haulage of large implements on the land by steam was successful in other parts of the world such as the prairies of the Mid-West in America because the ground was not deep cultivated and was much firmer. They never needed to develop cable hauled cultivation and it was essentially a European system.

By the end of the 19th century a specialised form of steam engine had evolved for use in steam cultivation. It was a very heavy and powerful traction engine with complicated gearing systems driving a large winch drum under the engine which could hold up to 800 yards of light steel rope. In practice, this was not usual, 450 yards of heavy steel rope was the most common length. There were complicated mechanisms for ensuring that the rope wound evenly on the drum of the winch and, as the engines developed, implements were improved until by 1900 there was a complete system of tried and proven steam tackle available. Because of the expense, only large estates could justify the expenditure on a full set of tackle and the steam contractor was born. This was an operator who invested in steam tackle and spread the cost by working for different farmers. The majority of steam ploughing sets were operated by contractors and the engines could be used for other jobs such as dredging lakes and driving seasonal machinery as a stationary engine. Many firms manufactured machinery for this market but the most successful was John Fowler and Co. of Leeds. It was one of their ploughing engines which was owned by Richard Metcalfe of Macclesfield.

I’ve already described how we met Richard and Delia on the Holland trip and I think Richard came to the conclusion eventually that I was a pretty useful bloke to have around where steam engines were involved. He rang me up one day and asked me if I’d like to have a couple of days ploughing with him as his usual mate wasn’t available. I jumped at the chance because I wanted to see exactly how a pair of engines operated and get an idea for myself how efficient they were.

I should say at this point that Fowler engines were made in pairs, right and left handed. In other words, one delivered cable on one side from the drum and the other on the opposite side. This was so that they could work together and be both facing in the same direction so that they could move forward easily for the next pass over the field when they were pulling. The mate to Richard’s engine lived in Ireland and he used to go over there once a year to plough with both of them working together. This particular year he couldn’t go but knew a man with an engine the opposite hand to his own at Dunham Massey near Altrincham in Cheshire and had arranged to do some ploughing and cultivating with him. I went to Macclesfield and stayed with him and Delia and we went across to Dunham the following morning. He had taken Annie there beforehand so all we had to do was turn up with the toolbox and get going.

We arrived on the Saturday morning and lit a fire in Annie and oiled up. It was beautiful weather and our job for the day was to plough about ten acres using a six furrow plough. The field was a barley stubble and was just right for working. The plough was what is known as a balance plough. It was in effect two six furrow ploughs mounted so that they faced each other. When one set of shares was in the ground the other was cocked up in the air out of the way and the idea was that when the plough reached one end of the field it was tipped so that the opposing shares were on the ground and did the work as the plough was pulled in the opposite direction. It weighed about 6 tons and was an impressive piece of kit. When at work it had to be steered by a man sat on a seat in the middle.

We set up at one end of the field and the other engine was across the other side. I suppose it was about 400 yards across the field. We dragged the plough into position with a tractor and then fixed the cables from each engine on to it. We had the first pull and after a couple of blasts on the whistle, this was to warn the other driver and the man on the plough that we were about to pull, Richard put the winch in gear and opened the throttle. With no fuss or noise, the plough immediately started towards us turning six furrows. The steersman kept a straight line across the field and we hauled it until it was as close to us as was safe. Richard then threw his winding drum out of gear and gave one blast on the whistle, an answering two blasts from the other engine and the opposing cable tightened, overbalanced the plough so that the correct shares were in the ground and away the plough went back across the field. As the wire was drawing off the drum, Richard put the driving wheels in gear and drew Annie forward to a position where she would be in line with the plough to give a straight pull back over the field. This sequence of events was repeated until we got to the far end of the field. No fuss, no noise except for the soft bark of the exhaust, the whirring of the gears and the occasional blast on the whistle.

I was fascinated and very impressed. All the ploughing I had done was with paraffin and diesel tractors and the one thing that overlaid everything was the roar of the engine and the exhaust, many tractors didn’t even have silencers. This was entirely different. If you walked across to the middle of the field and stood waiting for the plough, the only sound you could hear was the hissing of the cable as it ran through the stubble. When the plough came up level I heard the sound that soil makes as it rolls over the mouldboard for the first time in my life. Apart from that and the occasional clank as play was taken up in a wheelbearing as the plough lurched over a hummock, there was no other sound except for a distant soft chuffing of the exhaust on the working engine. I thought it was magic.

The other thing that impressed me was what a good job the plough was doing. Every time it passed over the field six furrows were turned and it was travelling faster than walking pace. The engines weren’t even pulling hard. I should say they were producing about half their rated horsepower. Back at the engine it was very relaxed, all I had to do was keep my eye on the steam pressure and the water level. An occasional small shovelful of coal was all that was needed to keep a good fire and steady steam. The whole operation was so relaxing I couldn’t believe it.

Another bloke who was impressed was the farmer who owned the land. I was standing there watching the plough at work and he came and had a talk with me. He said that when Richard and his mate had asked if they could come and plough for him he had agreed but wasn’t sure what sort of a mess they’d make or how much they could get done. He pointed out a large modern tractor parked near the outbuildings of the farm. “I’ve just paid £38,000 for that machine and you lads are making me look daft. There’s no way I could plough as fast as that!” He too was fascinated and spent most of the weekend watching and asking questions.

Of course, it was perfect conditions but even so, it was an immensely impressive demonstration of the power and economy of the old Fowlers. Once we had got started, there wasn’t a single hitch all day, the job progressed like clockwork! We finished the field, dragged the plough away and sheeted the engine up for the night.

The following day we went through the same preparations but moved to the next field where we were to work the land with a big tine cultivator. Down at Lionel’s we would have called it a scuffle. The difference here was that we weren’t working land that had been ploughed, we were cultivating directly from the stubble. Looking at the big machine I couldn’t imagine the power that would be needed to drag those huge tines through the ground. I asked the farmer how he thought his new super tractor would cope with it. He said they could just about pull it flat out but that if they stopped with the tines still in the ground there was no way they could get it moving again. This was to be a far harder test than the plough.

We got set up and Richard started the first pass. There was absolutely no drama at all, the big Fowler coughed a bit as the tines dropped in but then settled down into the collar and pulled the cultivator at better than walking pace across the field. Admittedly, the exhaust was barking a bit more and we burnt slightly more coal but the engine was not under any strain whatsoever. Occasionally, the cultivator driver signalled for a stop while he made an adjustment, the engines had no trouble at all starting again from rest with the tines in the ground. This was a dead pull and the only evidence from the tackle was a couple of good hearty cracks from the exhaust and the obvious tension in the hauling wire. Unless they had previous experience, nobody could have guessed at how much work was being done. It all looked so easy. I was reckoning up the amount of fuel we had used and was making some rough estimates about wear and tear on the tackle and the only conclusion I could come to was that it was far cheaper than diesel haulage and faster as well! The farmer agreed with me, he said that apart from any other consideration he was thinking about the wear on tyres because of wheelslip. He reckoned that that was the major difference apart from the better performance.

I told him about my experience running Bancroft engine. In the later days there was a chance that the mill would be bought by a man who wanted to run it as an engineering works, using the engine to make electricity. I was asked to give some comparative figures and worked it out that for a given load we were well under half the price of electricity bought from the mains. Funnily enough the prospective buyer was a bloke I later got to know at Ellenroad, it was Malcolm Dunphy.

You might ask why, if it was so much better and cheaper, didn’t steam power survive on the land. The main reason was the capital cost of providing the plant in the first place, the tighter regulation on the maintenance and insurance of the steam boilers and the higher skills and increased labour force needed to run the operation. In addition, a large tractor could be used for a wider variety of jobs than a ploughing engine and was more easily repaired if there were any faults. In other words, the diesel, while not being as good at these particular jobs was good enough and, in the end, more economic despite the higher day to day running costs of fuel and tyres.

At the end of the day we sheeted the engine up and I took off for home as Delia had come down for Richard. It had been a wonderful weekend and I had learned a lot about steam power. My main impression was the quiet and undramatic way the old Fowlers had delivered quite amazing power. Not only that but once again I had realised that the main advantage of a steam engine as regards the way it delivers power is the immense torque or turning power it delivers right from scratch. An internal combustion engine only delivers it’s peak power when it has attained its running speed, this is why you always have to have a clutch in the drive chain so that the load can be gradually applied while the engine is revving. A steam engine delivers its maximum torque on the first stroke, this is why it could start the scuffle up from rest even though it was embedded in the ground. You don’t need a clutch when you can deliver power like that.

Right, I’ve got steam ploughing out of my system! We can get back to boilermaking now.


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Stanley Challenger Graham
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