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B2265 Fowler steam ploughing engine, No. 5933, 18 nhp, full size, metal / timber, made by John Fowler & Co, Steam Plough Works, Leeds, England, 1889. Click to enlarge.

Fowler 18 nhp steam ploughing engine

This steam ploughing engine is an example of the world's first successful method of powered cultivation, developed by John Fowler of Leeds, England in 1863. This involved ploughing with two traction engines, each with a drum carrying cable suspended beneath its boiler. Located on either side of a field, the engines took turns to drag the cable, to which a special balance plough was attached.

Traction engines were developed by the early 1860s, but they were too heavy to pull ploughs directly …


Object No.


Object Statement

Fowler steam ploughing engine, No. 5933, 18 nhp, full size, metal / timber, made by John Fowler & Co, Steam Plough Works, Leeds, England, 1889

Physical Description

Fowler steam ploughing engine, No. 5933, 18 nhp, full size, metal / timber, made by John Fowler & Co, Steam Plough Works, Leeds, England, 1889, used by Sir Samuel McCaughey at Yanco, NSW, Australia until 1912 and NSW Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission, at Leeton, NSW, Australia, until 1930s

The appearance of the ploughing engine closely resembles the general purpose traction engine but is much larger in scale and features a massive two speed cable drum suspended from the underside of the boiler between the firebox and front axle. It carries a high carbon steel cable 450 yards (411.5 m) in length and three quarters of an inch (19 mm) in diameter neatly coiled on the drum. The strands of wire are laid in the same direction both individually and in groups. This is known as Lang's right hand lay and was renowned for its ability to withstand the severe abrasion casued by dragging over the ground. The drum is driven via bevel gears on the near side of the crankshaft by the flywheel engaging with a similar gear mounted at the top of a vertical shaft. A dog clutch operated by a lever at the driver's platform engages the shaft as required.

The ploughing engine is a single cylinder 18 nominal horsepower type with a riveted steel locomotive-type boiler containing 34 fire tubes and a wood-burning firebox. Fittings include water gauge, shut off cocks, pressure gauge, safety valves, blower, injector, clack and blow down valves, mud holes and manhole inspection door. The single cylinder is lagged and clad with metal. The drain cock is controlled from the footplate. There are crosshead guides, and Stephenson's link gear drives a piston valve. As these engines weighed about 23 tonnes and had to work on soft ground, they were fitted with very wide wheels to spread the load. The whistle mounted on top of the regulator chest was essential for signalling the distant engine across the field, which was also fitted with a cable drum; the cable stretched across the field between the engines and carried a plough back and forth; the engines advanced down the sides of the field so the plough could cover all the ground. In this way, the heavy engines only compacted soil at the sides of the field.

The engine also features worm and roller chain steering, a canopy over the driving platform, and a metal basket attached to the rear of the engine for carrying timber (instead of a coal tender). The livery is black with red, yellow and brown fine lining.


Builder: John Fowler & Co., Leeds, England
Date: 1889
Type: single cylinder
Engine No: 5933
Horse power: 18 nominal horse power (13.4 kW)
Cylinder bore: 12 inches (304 mm)
Cylinder stroke: 14 inches (356 mm)
Front wheel diameter: 5 feet (1.5 m)
Speeds: 4 miles per hour (6.4 km/h) and 6 miles per hour (9.7 km/h)
Fire grate area: 11 square feet (1 sq. m.)
Boiler pressure: 120 pounds per square inch (826.8 kPa)
Fuel: wood
Water capacity: 318 gallons (1446 litres)


The maker's plate reads 'JOHN FOWLER & Co / (LEEDS) LIMo / STEAM PLOUGH WORKS / LEEDS.'



4100 mm


3150 mm


22000 kg



The world's first successful method of mechanical cultivation was devised by John Fowler (1817-1898) of Leeds, England. Fowler was born at Melksham in rural Wiltshire. He came from a Quaker family and it is said that it was his distress at the disastrous potato blight famine in Ireland in 1846 that led him to devote his life to the development of agricultural machinery and the improvement of food production.

With the development and introduction of traction engines in the 1850s and 1860s, it was thought they would be successful in pulling ploughs, harrows, seed-drills and reapers. However, these heavy traction engines caused soil panning and excessive consolidation of the earth. The solution to this was the invention of cable ploughing by E.C. Bellinger of South Carolina, who patented his apparatus in 1833. This was improved upon by John Fowler in 1856 when he used a portable steam engine to power a rope windlass that hauled a plough backwards and forwards across a field. Fowler used a portable engine as he was anxious to evolve a system of cultivation within the financial reach of the average farmer. However, technical difficulties caused him to give up this idea in favour of the two engine system, each comprising a traction engine with a single winch drum suspended beneath its boiler. Such a double engine set of ploughing tackle was first demonstrated to the public at Worcester in 1863. The first engine remained stationary whilst it pulled the cable towards itself. Attached to the cable was a special balance plough, devised by Fowler's friend David Greig, an Essex farmer. Then the engine moved up a few yards to come into line with the opposite engine, which pulled the plough in the return direction. The engines were identical except that one engine pulled the rope from the right and the other from the left.

Fowler's first ploughing engines of the early 1860s had two equal-sized cylinders side by side over the rear end of the boiler, with the crankshaft and flywheel at the front end. However, in the mid 1860s he was building single cylinder engines with the cylinder at the front and the crankshaft at the rear. A massive rope drum suspended beneath the boiler barrel between the firebox and front axle carried a steel-wire rope neatly coiled on the drum by means of an ingenious self-coiling device invented by Fowler in 1863. This design was perfected in 1875 and involved the cable guide ending in two small pulleys (an arrangement known as the monkey's head because of its shape) which rose and fell precisely between the upper and lower drum coils. The movement was timed via a gear and cam so that each drum coil was guided to the preceding one. The system was a great success as the engines were both powerful and durable, but they used a lot of coal and water. The manufacture of ploughing engines developed into a huge export industry and, once evolved, the basic design changed little. The last of these engines was built in 1933.

Following the introduction of the single cylinder ploughing engines by Fowlers in the mid 1860s, the next major development was in 1873 when Fowlers introduced two speed ploughing gear driven from a single vertical shaft for heavy and light operations. Compound engines and higher steam pressures followed in 1881, which helped to reduce the boiler size and economise on fuel and cut running costs. This quickly made the single cylinder engines obsolete.

Nevertheless, the two engine ploughing set was far too costly for all but the largest British farmer to afford and required five man teams to operate. However, the engines were exported in large numbers overseas, especially the early compound engines. Between 1886 and 1899 Fowlers built 737 pairs of ploughing engines. Of these 94% were sent to the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Turkish empires who were developing the great potential of their vast land resources. Other ploughing engines were shipped to Egypt, Tunis, South Africa, the Transvaal, Mozambique, Australia, Hawaii, Peru and Brazil.

The peak of Fowlers' design in ploughing engines was represented in the 18 ton, 16 nhp BB Class compounds which were in production from 1913 to 1926 and the 18 nhp AA class compounds of similar appearance. The largest of the early compounds was designated the ZZ class and these were of 16 nhp and weighed 20 tons (20 tonnes). This class subsequently became the Z7 class after the output was increased to 25 nhp. These were much too big for the English market and nearly all were exported, many to Australia. They were built between 1914 and 1922.

As steam engines became lighter it became more feasible to use them as tractors for pulling ploughs. This was closely followed by the introduction of the internal combustion engined tractors whose arrival meant the end of cable ploughing. The last Fowler ploughing engine rolled out of the Leeds Steam Plough Works in 1933.

The Museum's Fowler ploughing engine is a single cylinder type built at John Fowler & Co.'s Steam Plough Works, in Leeds, England, in 1889, probably at the end of the single cylinder production period just as the more economical compound engines had taken over. It is the left-hand side of a pair of steam ploughing engines with the Nos. 5933 and 5934.



This engine is the left hand one of a pair of steam ploughing engines, Nos. 5933 and 5934, ordered from Fowler's Steam Plough works by Michael O'Shaunnassy for his Jerilderie property in New South Wales. The engines were only used for a short time before being sold to the pastoralist and philanthropist Sir Samuel McCaughey (1835-1919). McCaughey was a significant sheep breeder in New South Wales and over the second half of the nineteenth century owned or part-owned 12 sheep stations in New South Wales and Queensland. He was said to have had a flair for mechanical appliances and regretted he had never taken an engineering course. He was apparently responsible for the design and improvement of many farm implements and it has been said that he pioneered the use of heavy machinery for ploughing and soil excavation in New South Wales. In 1900 he bought a North Yanco property and it was there that he employed the museum's Fowler ploughing engine. He constructed a complex irrigation system with some 200 miles (321.9 km) of channels to irrigate 40 000 acres (16,188 ha) on which he grew lucerne and other fodder crops. After the Federal Land Tax Act was passed in 1910, McCaughey started to dispose of his properties. In 1912 he sold the ploughing engines to the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission (now part of the Water Resources Commission of New South Wales) for operation at Leeton. Their duties included scooping out silt from water channels and deepening watercourses in catchment areas.

In the 1930s the two engines were separated and the museum's engine No. 5933 was driven from Leeton to Currawarna, about 28km north west of Wagga Wagga, and used for pumping water. It was then sold to a farmer, 10km away at Cottee, to drive a circular saw. In 1965, the engine was found by Bruce Macdonald, curator of the Goulburn Steam Museum, where it was displayed. It was later purchased by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and during the early 1980s the engine was transported to Sydney by low loader, prior to being sent out on contract for restoration and return to steaming condition. Unfortunately, the restoration was not well supervised and the work carried out was of a poor standard. The engine was returned to the museum in pieces with numerous parts missing, including the original boiler barrel, and an incorrect and illegal barrel replacement. The museum conservation staff undertook the restoration themselves, and a new barrel was designed and built by a local boilermaker. The original water tender was badly corroded and a new one was made by the Hunter Valley Training Company, near Maitland, an organisation that took on and trained unemployed apprentices. After the engine was reassembled, a steam test was undertaken and the engine was transported to the Campbelltown Steam Rally, where it operated for a number of hours with a local ploughing engine to cultivate a field. The ploughing engine has subsequently been displayed at various engine rallies promoting the museum.


Credit Line

Purchased 1977

Acquisition Date

9 August 1977

Cite this Object


Fowler 18 nhp steam ploughing engine 2022, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 3 February 2023, <>


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