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 over the soil. By the mid 1860s Fowler had devised his basic ploughing engine design which was to remain, with improvements, until the last ploughing engine left Fowler's works in England in 1933, superseded by the development of the internal combustion engined tractor.
Ploughing engine sets were very costly to buy and operate in Britain. Far more were exported around the world, to the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Turkish empires, developing the great potential of their vast land resources, and to Egypt, Tunis, South Africa, the Transvaal, Mozambique, Australia, Hawaii, Peru and Brazil.
Owing to the nature of land use in Australia, steam cultivation was not common here. Most holdings were too large, the country was too rough and fuel and water supplies were too scant in many areas. It has been estimated that only about one hundred Fowler ploughing engines were used throughout Australia. The first to operate was in the 1860s in South Australia, closely followed by Victoria, Western Australia, and then Queensland in 1881 and New South Wales in 1882.
Many ploughing engines were not imported for agricultural purposes but for construction of large earth tanks. These techniques were developed for outback sheep stations in the 1870s. During the 1880s some travelling stock routes were improved by government-owned Fowler ploughing engines with excavating scoops.
Steam ploughing was used during the development of the irrigation areas along the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. During the 1920s ploughing engines were used by the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission to clear and plough land for soldier settlers around Griffith. Another big user was the Queensland sugar industry. where steam ploughing was used on plantations until World War II.
The museum's ploughing engine is the left hand side of a pair of wood-burning engines, Nos. 5933 and 5934, built at John Fowler & Co.'s Steam Plough Works, in Leeds, England in 1889. They were ordered by Michael O'Shaunnassy for his Jerilderie property in New South Wales. The engines were later sold to the pastoralist and philanthropist Sir Samuel McCaughey (1835-1919). McCaughey was a significant sheep breeder in New South Wales and owned numerous stations. In 1900 he bought a North Yanco property and it was there that he employed the two Fowler ploughing engines. 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. In 1912 McCaughey sold the ploughing engines to the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission for operation at Leeton to remove silt from water channels and to deepen watercourses in catchment areas.
In the 1930s the two engines were separated and the museum's engine, No. 5933, was used one farm for water pumping and another for driving a circular saw. In 1965 the engine went to the Goulburn Steam Museum for display and it was subsequently acquired by the Powerhouse Museum and restored to steaming condition. It has been displayed at steam rallies around Sydney to promote the museum.
Goodman, Ross, 'The Rebirth of Fowler ploughing engine 5933' in "Steaming : The Magazine of the National Traction Engine Trust", Vol.36, No.1, Winter 1992/93, pp.12-15.
Lane, Michael, 'John Fowler and the Company he Founded' in "Steaming :-The Journal of the National Traction Engine Club, (UK)", Vol.23 No.2, March 1980, pp. 73-87; Vol.23, No.3 , June 1980, pp.145-53; Vol. 23 No.4, Sept 1980, pp. 221-28.
Lane, M.R. "The Story of the Steam Plough Works", Northgate Publishing Co. Ltd, 1980.
Assistant Curator, Transport