When traction engines ruled the roads

They were big and robust, but slow, with limited manoeuvrability. Nevertheless, they revolutionised agriculture. Perry Rice muses about traction engines.

Traction engines were a part of everyday life for many folk, town and country, for less than a hundred years. Yet, like steam railways, there is a great fascination and nostalgia for them.

They were the land equivalent, I suppose, of canals. Like canals, the invention was timely, labour saving and even time and cost saving perhaps. The invention of the ‘road locomotive’ has an uncertain history. Who ‘the’ inventor was does not seem to have been discovered.

Many inventions over the years have contributed but it does seem the perhaps it was a chap Aveling who adapted a stationary engine to produce a traction engine. One fellow thinks it may have been Ransomes who manufactured the first traction engine for sale around 1840. Both Aveling and Ransomes went on to be among the best known manufacturers of these monsters.

The thing is, while they were labour saving in their day, they were as inefficient as the canals were. Canals were overtaken by railways – traction engines were overtaken by tractors and petrol-driven lorries.

So, they became popular about 1850 but by 1950 they were pretty much all gone from revenue earning work. Hundreds, if not thousands, have been saved from the scrap merchant all over the world. Here in New Zealand there are traction engine rallies from time to time but they are planned well in advance – it takes a long time to get to wherever you’re going.

Speed limits imposed on traction engines made them horrendously uneconomical as, no matter the fuel cost, men had to paid for their time and at 12mph (20kph) against a lorry going 45mph (in the olden days) the cost was just too much. Then there was the matter of drivers. A traction engine under modern regulations has to have an engine driver and a steerer. Each has to have a full class one driver’s licence and a qualification for pressure equipment operation or a steering qualification. And we thought it was simple – set the fire going and take it easy.

In this photo, the power and versatility of traction engines is well demonstrated. This is, by modern day terminology in Australia, a road train. The progress of this load would necessarily be quite restrained. You would not want to explain how come the entire job jack-knifed! Equally, who would like to reload the wagons if they tipped taking a corner too fast?

Speed was an issue perhaps, although one of the grand old English motor mags (Autocar or The Motor) had a bit of fun in one issue – they tested a Traction Engine against a Harrier Jump Jet. The Harrier won most of the tests. (See? – those Top Gear blokes think it’s all new.)

Versatility? Many engines were designed and/or adapted to haul agricultural equipment over the fields without the machine itself moving. The same engine would operate the thresher. They could be converted to a steam roller (in half a day) or could sit idly by while a dynamo generated power for side shows or shearing shed equipment and suchlike. They just had to be tended all the time and they still can’t be operated by any known software.

By Perry Rice, Hamilton Central Libraries.

Email Perry here.

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