NotesThe 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.
MadeFowler, John 1889