Ploughing Pioneers: Tractor history through The MERL collections

Nothing symbolises the modern English countryside quite like the tractor. Used predominantly for pulling farm implements, such as ploughs, tractors have accelerated agricultural production enormously in the last hundred years.

The MERL holds a treasure trove of archival documents which any researcher of tractor history would benefit from. This blog is your guide to how our collections reflect the story of this mechanised giant of the farming world, with our archives including records of Marshall, Deere, Ferguson and Brown, to name just a few. We’re not sure if there is a national tractor museum, but we’d like to stake our claim!

Click the links as they appear throughout the article and you’ll be taken to the relevant collections page, where you can begin your journey through the archives.

Steam power on the farm – underrated or underwhelming?

It comes as a surprise to most that the mechanisation of farming did not begin with the tractor. Following the widespread success of the steam powered railway locomotive in the early 19th century, several pioneers attempted to apply steam to farm tasks. The UK was the leading nation in agricultural steam power, which in the case of ploughing involved two steam traction engines at either end of a field, powering a windlass that moved the plough back and forth. Dominating the market for agricultural steam machinery was John Fowler & Co, a company based in Leeds who exported all around the world. Another innovator of steam was Marshall, Sons & Co, who focused on steam traction engines, which were small tractor-like vehicles that moved independently. They were otherwise known as road locomotives to differentiate them from their railway counterparts.

Fowler image for tractor blog
A Fowler steam traction engine pulling a plough in 1888. (MERL TR FOW PH2/2/B23)

So why isn’t British steam power on the farm celebrated more widely? Why were ploughs and other steam machines never as successful as the tractors that followed them? Put simply, animal power remained prominent throughout the years of steam inventions. Cable ploughing was only effective in dry conditions and with light soil, whereas a horse was more versatile. Traction engines also failed to impress throughout the breaking of prairie lands in Mississippi and Missouri around 1900, due to the vast quantities of water and fuel required. In most contexts, labour was far cheaper and more versatile than steam.

Fowler steam ploughing for tractor blog
Steam ploughing with a Fowler engine and cable in the 1930s. (MERL P DX289 PH1/687)

The Early Years – Bigger isn’t better

The rise of the internal combustion engine in the 1880s and 1890s had great potential for the farming world, with John Charter building the first oil powered tractor in 1889. Richard Hornsby & Sons sold the first tractor in the UK in 1897, and went on to sell… well, no others. In truth, early tractors were highly experimental and were little more than oil powered traction engines. There seemed to be a fascination with building bigger and more powerful machines, which just ended up being sluggish and hard to manoeuvre.

Enter Daniel Albone, and the Ivel Agricultural Motor in 1903. Based in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, Albone was a bicycle salesman and brought the principles of lightweight design to tractor manufacture. His invention was more like a car than a traction engine, and weighed far less than any road locomotive of the time. It was the forefather of the modern tractor more than any other machine, which contradicts the common perception of the tractor being an American invention. Documents relating to the Ivel Agricultural Motor exist within our Lee Irvine Archive.

Ivel motor image for tractor blog
A early prototype of the Ivel Agricultural motor, featured in Implement and Machinery Review. (MERL LIBRARY PER OPEN ACCESS--FAR/M-IMP 1895 volume 28)

Throughout the following decade, England was the world’s largest tractor exporter. The giants of steam power either had to adapt and make their own tractors – like Marshall – or go into decline – like Fowler. A critical moment for the future of the tractor came in 1908, when the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition held its first major show featuring these vehicles. This heralded something of a tractor frenzy in the USA, whilst similar shows held by the Royal Agricultural Society of England failed to garner similar interest.

This American enthusiasm for tractor manufacture first manifested as the ‘Waterloo Boy’, known also as the ‘Overtime’, which was exported in large numbers by the Waterloo Gasoline and Engine company. Based in Iowa, this company controlled the market in the early 1910s. It was also the foundation for John Deere & Co’s emergence into the field of tractors (no pun intended). Having purchased the Waterloo company in 1918, Deere enjoyed moderate success for many years, albeit in Ford’s shadow. However, it came emphatically back to the forefront in 1960 with the invention of four and six cylinder engine models, with the 4020 model becoming arguably the best selling tractor of all time. Our John Deere collection features leaflets and booklets, mostly dating to this period.

Deere booklet for tractor blog
This booklet, dating to 1938, highlighted Model A, B and G Deere tractors. The model G was the most powerful, with the ability to pull three ploughs. (MERL TR DEE P2/A1)

The Fordson – light, compact and dominant

Back to the 1910s, and the most iconic machine in across the history of tractors was on the horizon. Experimental tractor designs continued to rise and fall quickly, and they remained hugely expensive for the consumer. As with so many elements of English society, the First World War forced a change. Britain needed food, to both supply the Western front and become self-sufficient. Shipping produce from the USA across the Atlantic was inefficient and in this, the motoring pioneer Henry Ford spotted an opportunity. Tractors, as a concept, had already been proven to work with the Ivel and the Overtime. However, what was needed was a simple, cheap, light tractor that could be mass produced.

Overtime tractor image for tractor blog
This image of the Overtime tractor dates to 1916, just before the Fordson’s emergence. (MERL LIBRARY PER OPEN ACCESS--FAR/M-IMP 1st December 1916)

Ford turned his significant resources, gained from the success of the Model T car, to finding a solution. Eugene Farkas, his chief designer, came up with a frameless design which had engine, gearbox and rear axle as separate case iron units. The Fordson was an enormous success, selling 745,000 units in the eleven years after 1917, remaining essentially unchanged in design. Between 1916 and 1918, English wheat production increased by 50% as a result of its distribution. Ford’s production capacity and resulting efficiency and low prices cut out much of the competition. The Fordson was necessitated by war but became a common sight on farms around the world even in peace. Since 1917, attempts to improve on Farkas’s basic design have ultimately failed.

Although we do not hold an archive collection dedicated solely to Ford or Fordsons, this tractor was so influential that many of our other archives feature relevant photographs and publications.

Fordson tractofor tractor blogr photograph
A Fordson tractor during the Second World War. Aside from the tyres, its appearance had changed little since 1917. (MERL P FS PH1/K29619)

Harry Ferguson – The greatest mind in tractor innovation?

Into the 1930s, the Fordson continued to dominate, adding improvements such as pneumatic tyres which allowed speeds of up to 15mph. This finally established the tractor as the superior plougher to the shire horse, as it was faster, more powerful and could plough for longer periods at a time.

Yet the creativity in tractor design was not limited to American corporate giants like Ford. The impact of individual genius still had a part to play. Harry Ferguson, a mechanic from Northern Ireland who originally worked on cars, cycles and planes in his youth, was critical to the next chapter of tractor development. Hired by the Irish Board of Agriculture in 1916 to investigate methods of mechanising food production, Ferguson watched the Fordson tractor trials of 1917 and was so impressed that he travelled to Detroit to meet with Henry Ford himself. Immediately recognising Ferguson’s potential, Ford offered him a job but Ferguson refused, stating that he would only accept a relationship where the two were on level terms.

Harry Ferguson statue for tractor blog
This life size statue of Harry Ferguson stands in the Ferguson Memorial Garden near Dromore, Northern Ireland. Accessed via Openverse, credit Albert Bridge

Harry Ferguson was one of the few tractor producers at the time who sought to improve on the Fordson, not just copy it. Most famously, he invented the three point linkage system in 1920, which hitched attachments to the tractor rather than just pulling them behind. A hydraulic version followed in 1926. In addition, Ferguson perfected a system of draught control, an issue which had stumped Ford’s engineers for years. This countered the Fordson’s propensity to tip over backwards when ridden. Ferguson sold his machines through his own company, Harry Ferguson Ltd, and they were built by an English firm, David Brown Ltd. Brown’s manufacturing experience, combined with Ferguson’s inventive genius and knack for sales, began to see real success. 2000 units were sold in the UK between 1936 and 1939.

David Brown badge for tractor blog
A badge for David Brown tractors, who manufactured Ferguson’s designs from 1936 onwards. ( MERL 2007/39/2)

The handshake agreement

All of this was a preamble to the legendary ‘handshake agreement’ between Harry Ferguson and Henry Ford in 1938. Nothing was ever contractually agreed, but the fitting of Ferguson’s inventions to Fordson tractors created a machine of unmatched brilliance. By the end of World War 2, 90% of all tractors in England were Fordsons, and only three companies were manufacturing and selling tractors in the UK; Ford, David Brown and Marshall. Only one of these – Marshall – was not working to designs perfected by Harry Ferguson.

Fordson tractor for tractor blog
This Fordson tractor, which sits in our Forces for Change gallery, was manufactured around the time of the ‘handshake agreement’. (MERL 80/44)

The partnership between Ford and Ferguson did not end happily, however. Unfortunately for Ferguson, his deal with Ford was only ever verbal and so when Henry Ford died in 1947, his company pulled out of their agreement, cutting Ferguson’s turnover from $59 million to $11 million. He sued Ford and began making his own tractors in Detroit, as well as ramping up production in the UK. One result of this was the iconic TE20, which championed three point linkage and came with a choice of 60 implements sold by Ferguson’s company. His influence on the world of tractors was far from done, as he sold his assets to Massey-Harris in 1953, forming the company of Massey-Ferguson. They are still giants in the tractor sector today.

Massey Ferguson transmission poster for tractor blog
Massey-Ferguson continued to be technical innovators even after Harry Ferguson's time, demonstrating the interior of their 12 speed tractor transmission in this poster. (MERL TR MAS)

Will Ferguson and Ford ever be improved upon?

Whilst the last 70 years have obviously seen improvements to tractors, such as the introduction of diesel tractors in the 1950s, computer systems in the 1980s, and even cloud based self-driving tractors recently, the core design has changed little from that created by Ferguson and Ford. We must also remember the contribution of the often forgotten Dan Albone, whose lightweight tractor set the template for his successors. Will this design ever improve? We at the MERL cannot say for sure, but one thing is for certain; if change does occur, it will be tracked in our archives, forming new collections like the ones we have highlighted in this article.

Why not sign up to our newsletter?

Use the form below to select the newsletters you would like to receive!

Share This Post :

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Visit us

    Visit Us

    The Museum is now fully open, following a major redevelopment, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

    Free Admission

    The Museum of English Rural Life

    University of Reading

    Redlands Road


    RG1 5EX

    Plan my visit