Between 1830 and 1850 patents describing
steam cultivating machinery were numerous. Probably the most
noteworthy innovators being John Heathcoat of Tiverton, Lord
Willoughby de Eresby and the Marquis of Tweeddale. In 1854 the
Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) offered a prize of
£500 for "the steam cultivator which shall in the most
efficient manner turn over the soil and be an economical substitute
for the plough or spade". The first contest took place at the
Society’s summer meeting in Carlisle in 1855, and was repeated at
Chelmsford in 1856 and Salisbury in 1857, without an award being
made. The judges however awarded a medal to John Fowler as a reward
for his strenuous endeavours, adding, "Steam ploughing as such had
attained a degree of excellence comparable in point of
execution with the best horse work."
John Fowler Jnr (1826-64) had become
prominent in the development of land cultivation machinery since he
introduced his mole plough at the RASE meeting held in Exeter in
1850. A member of a leading Quaker family he had resolved as a young
man to devote his time and resources to the cheapening of food production
since witnessing at first hand the horrors of the Irish potato
famine in 1845. After years of experimentation he competed at the
RASE trials held in Chester in 1858, competing against Thomas Rickett’s
rotary steam cultivator; Charles Burrell’s direct traction plough,
fitted with James Boydell’s Endless railway wheels, and William
Smith’s roundabout system. This was manufactured and entered by James
and Frederick Howard of Bedford.
The judges kept Fowler waiting until the
autumn of 1858 before announcing that he had been judged the winner, their
report adding "It is beyond question that Mr. Fowler’s machine
is able to turn over the soil and in an efficient manner at a saving
compared with horse labour; while in all cases it is left in a far more
desirable condition and better adapted for all the purposes of husbandry.
We are unanimously of the opinion that he is fully entitled to the prize
of £500." The successful prize winning tackle employed a 10 nhp
portable engine manufactured by Ransomes of Ipswich and suitably modified
to accommodate a patent twin drum windlass, manufactured by Robert
Stephenson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, mounted under the engine smokebox.
The anchor carriage on the opposite headland was designed by Jeremiah Head
of Ransomes, and manufactured by Stephenson. The arrangement allowed the
engine to draw the implement backwards and forward across the field,
allowing the combined engine and windlass to wind itself along the
headland at the end of each pull of the implement.
Further developments of both engines and
implements followed quickly in the wake of his success at Chester.
Firstly, a self-moving engine was developed and by the mid-1860s double
engine tackle had been introduced with a self-moving engine working along
each headland. Sadly, Fowler died in 1864 following a hunting accident,
but his brother, Robert, and a competent team of colleagues continued his
work. The most notable of these was David Greig, a Scot, who is credited
with the development of the balance plough. The idea had been
originally patented by the Fisken Brothers, in 1885, but Greig suggested a
frame mounted as a "see-saw" carried on a two-wheeled axle, one
side carrying the right-hand plough bodies and the other side the left
hand, thus enabling the plough to turn all the furrows in the same
direction by alternating the bodies. The first plough was built by
Ransomes and tested at their works in Ipswich. In 1865 steerage was added
to the plough. In 1884 the anti-balance plough was introduced overcoming
the tendency of the plough to lift out of the ground in light soil owing
to the weight of that half of the plough which was elevated and not at
work. Greatly superior steel plough ropes were developed and for a time,
Richard Burton’s ingenious clip drum was popular.
By this time the name Fowler was at the
forefront wherever steam powered land cultivation was undertaken,
especially in the developing countries of Eastern Europe. Other
significant engine and tackle, manufacturers were Aveling & Porter of
Rochester; J & H McLaren of Leeds; Charles Burrell of Thetford and J
& F Howard of Bedford. Their combined output fell far short of that
achieved by John Fowler.
After 1865 most steam ploughing and
cultivation was undertaken by steam ploughing contractors. Many farmers,
other than the largest landowners, found the initial cost too high
to justify investment. The travelling contractors were a unique breed.
Each set of tackle usually comprised four men and a boy living
together in a living van which travelled with the engines,
implements and water cart.
Many engines spent time in the ownership of
ploughing contractors. Most surviving BB1 class engines were part of a
very large order placed by the Agricultural Machinery Board, a
branch of the Ministry of Munitions, in the First World War to ensure the
supply of ploughing engines to counter the German submarine menace. John
Fowler & Company supplied over 140 type BB1 engines, together with
balance ploughs, cultivators, water carts and living vans.
Improved soil management
The economic case for cable/steam
cultivation was given in a paper before the British Association by David
Greig in September 1867:
The steam engine stands on the
headland and hauls the implement to and fro by means of a wire rope.
All treading and compression of the soil and sub-soil associated with
horse cultivation is thereby entirely avoided and the implement is
driven at a much more rapid pace, throwing up the soil to a greater
depth and in a loose state enabling it to derive full benefit from the
influences of the atmosphere. In horse ploughing the case is just the
reverse, for the sole of the plough and the treading of the animals so
consolidates the bottom that the necessary chemical action between
soil and sub-soil, and consequently all escape of gas and water is
The person who farms by steam has a
powerful and untiring force at this disposal such that he can afford
to wait until his land is in an exact state for working.
In 1865, J E Ransome clarified the accepted
theories as to the shape of the mould board when the plough is intended to
cut a furrow slice, turn it through an angle of 135 degrees and press it
unbroken against the preceding slice. The function of the longplate plough
is to expose the undersoil to the air in neat unbroken slices and to bury
the top growth.
The digger plough was used in the spring.
Instead of being carefully laid to one side, the looser soil is
inverted and thrust down in order to break it up as much as possible,
leaving the surface lumpy but level. With either type of plough body the
ability to turn all the furrows one way eliminated the "heads"
and "open furrows" formed when ploughing round and round in
Michael Lane 1998.