A Traction Engine is a wheeled steam engine used to move heavy loads, plough ground or to provide power at a chosen location. The name derives from the Latin tractus, meaning 'drawn', since the prime function of any traction engine is to draw a load behind it. They are sometimes called road locomotives to distinguish them from (railway) steam locomotives that is, steam engines that run on rails.

Ploughing Engine

Large Fowler "Ploughing Engine" at Belvoir Castle show 2008

Beeby bros No4 set Fowler 2479 -NR1213 rhs

One of Beeby Bros No.4 set Fowler ploughing engine NR1213

Cable pulled plough closeup

Balance Plough in action at Holcot Steam Rally 2008

Steam ploughing Holcot 2008

ploughing engine hauling 6 furrow Plough with Furrow press through stubble at the Holcot Steam Rally

Beeby bros No4 set Fowler 2479 NR1213 lhs

Part of Beeby Bros No.4 set of Fowler ploughing engine NR1213

Fowler Ploughing engine 15231 drum

Ploughing engine Fowler no. 15231 showing the winding drum, at Bromyard Show 2008

Fowler Ploughing engine 15231

Fowler engine no.15231 "Prince" at Bromyard show 2008


Traction engines tend to be large, robust and powerful, but heavy, slow, and poorly maneuverable. Nevertheless, they revolutionized agriculture and road haulage at a time when the only alternative prime mover was the draught horse (Shire horse).

They became popular in industrialised countries from around 1850, when the first self-propelled portable steam engines for agricultural use were developed. Production continued well into the early part of the 20th century, when competition from internal combustion engine -powered tractors saw them fall out of favour, although some continued in commercial use in the UK into the 1950s and later. All types of traction engines have now been superseded, in commercial use. However, several thousand examples have been preserved worldwide, many in working order, with more being restored every year by enthusiastic and dedicated collectors.

Traction engines were cumbersome and ill-suited to crossing soft or heavy ground so their agricultural use was usually either "in the belt" powering farm machinery by means of a continuous leather belt driven by the flywheel or in pairs, dragging an implement on a cable from one side of a field to another, this configuration being known as "A pair of Ploughing engines". However, where soil conditions permitted, direct hauling of implements "off the drawbar" was preferred in the U.S., this lead to the divergent development of the Steam Tractor.

Ploughing engineEdit

A distinct form of traction engine, characterised by the provision of a large diameter winding drum driven by separate gearing from the steam engine. Onto the drum a long length of wire rope was wound, which was used to haul an implement, such as a plough, across a field.

The winding drum was either mounted horizontally (below the boiler), vertically (to one side), or even concentrically, so that it encircled the boiler. The majority were under-slung (horizontal), however, and necessitated the use of an extra-long boiler to allow enough space for the drum to fit between the front and back wheels. These designs were the largest and longest traction engines to be built.

Mostly the ploughing engines worked in pairs, one on each side of the field, with the rope from each machine fastened to the implement to be hauled. The two drivers communicated by signals using the engine whistles.


A variety of implements were constructed for use with ploughing engines. The most common were the balance plough and the cultivator - ploughing and cultivating being the most physically demanding jobs to do on an arable farm. Other implements could include a mole drainer, used to create an underground drainage channel or pipe, or a dredger bucket for dredging rivers or moats.

The engines were frequently provided with a 'spud tray' on the front axle, to store the 'spuds'(lugs) which would be fitted to the wheels when travelling across claggy ground, but could not be used on the road.

The man credited with the invention of the ploughing engine, in the mid-nineteenth century, was John Fowler, an English agricultural engineer and inventor.

Ploughing engines were rare in the U.S.; ploughs were usually hauled directly by an agricultural engine or steam tractor.

Manufactures Edit

Some of the British builders included;

U.S. (agricultural) traction engineEdit

Favourable soil conditions meant that U.S. traction engines usually pulled their ploughs behind them, thereby eliminating the complexities of providing a cable drum and extra gearing, hence simplifying maintenance. American traction engines were manufactured in a variety of sizes, with the 6 horsepower Russell being the smallest commercially made, and the large engines made by Russell, Case, and Reeves being the largest.

One of the largest steam traction engines manufactured in the U.S.was the 150 horsepower Case steam traction engine had driving wheels 8 feet in diameter, and was over 25 feet long.

American ManufacturersEdit

Some of the American manufacturers were

many other smaller firms also built a few examples.

Other CountriesEdit

Countries such as Germany also built ploughing engines for use there colonies.

The company of Ottermeyer being one that built them till quite late for export markets such as Africa. The largest models were rated at over 300hp.


John Fowler ploughing engine

Fowler ploughing engine (sn ?)

From the 1950s, the 'preservation movement' started to build up as enthusiasts realised that these lumbering beasts were in danger of dying out. Many of the remaining engines were snapped-up by enthusiasts, and restored to working order. Traction engine rallies began, initially as races between engine owners and their charges, later developing into the significant tourist attractions that takes place in many locations each year. It has been estimated that over two thousand traction engines have been preserved.

Preserved Machines Edit

Aveling & Porter no. 8890 plg Field Marshall Haig - DO 1943 in Thursford 09 - IMG 6830

Aveling & Porter no. 8890 at Thursford Steam Museum

List of some of the know machines currently in preservation;

Template:Ploughing engine list

See alsoEdit


Web LinksEdit

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