Jersey Reflections: Promise of the Steam Plow

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Parvin’s invention and success in establishing a manufacturing plant in Illinois, circa 1873, held much promise for the future of steam power.

Cedarville native Robert C. Parvin’s invention of a working steam plow and his subsequent success in establishing the Northwestern Parvin Steam Plow Manufacturing in Farmington, Illinois in 1873 earned him national attention. One person intrigued by his invention was Annie W. Caldwell, a clerk in the office of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture who paid a visit to the Farmington operation and reported on it in an article, “Parvin’s Steam Motor,” published in Report of the State Board of Agriculture to the Legislature of Kansas in 1874.

Caldwell apparently spent the first several days of her visit talking to Farmington inhabitants who, she writes, “would begin to tell me of the wonders performed by the elephantine plow; how it had, with the greatest ease and rapidity, plowed up a meadow which had been in blue-grass for twelve years without being broken, or some other equally wonderful tale.”

Admitting she was “desirous to see for myself,” Caldwell received an invitation from Parvin to visit the facility. She spent a morning there “seeing the motor complete and the parts of one which is being built, from the first draft on up through all the stages of small and large pieces to the boiler, the largest part of the machine, and in listening to Mr. Parvin’s interesting explanations.”

The factory is described as a two-story brick structure with an adjoining foundry that formerly belonged to the Farmington Plow Company. The structure, she writes, is near a coal mine as well as a railway track, “thus affording every facility for shipment.”

“Fuel never costs over eight cents per bushel,” she explains, adding that such conditions are ideal for an enterprise such as this. “The success thus far,” she reports, “has been even greater than anticipated.”

Her description of the steam plow gives us a good idea of its components and why it succeeded. “The invention consists in the application of steam power in such a manner as to propel a vehicle over the land to be plowed and to pull the plows,” she writes. “…The boiler stands upright on a frame, just back of two large wheels…Just back of the boiler and on either side are located two small engines, of seven horse-power each… A brake similar to an ordinary car brake guides the machine, and a handle convenient to the steering wheel shuts off and turns on the steam and regulates the speed.”

Using the metaphor of a railroad train, Caldwell illustrates the accomplishment of Parvin’s invention: “Imagine, if you please, a locomotive moving over a twenty-foot section of rail, and some Titanic power dropping a section in front, and taking one up behind, and you have an idea how this farm engine is propelled.”

Caldwell informs the reader that the steam plow could reach a “three-mile-an-hour gait” at a time when two miles per hour was standard. She learns that the machine can plow two acres an hour, allowing for 20 acres in a 10-hour day, and that it burns three-fourths of a ton of coal in 24 hours.

The versatility of the steam plow is also examined with Caldwell noting that “it turns from twelve to twenty-five acres of sod or stubble per day, according to the amount of steam used and the number of plows attached. At the same time, it draws the necessary harrows and grain-drills, leaving the ground not only plowed, but seeded and the seed covered. By simply attaching a belt-wheel, it does any kind of work required of a farm engine.”

Finally, Caldwell paints for the reader a complete picture of Parvin’s invention, describing a day-in-the-life scenario to demonstrate how revolutionary this machine was at the time. “It thrashes from 500 to 1,000 bushels of grain during the day, loads it into wagons or into one great car at the time of thrashing, and at night hauls the car or wagons to the railroad, twenty or twenty-five miles distant, and, returning at night, is ready for work next day. This is no over-drawn picture, and from the simplicity and positive cheapness of this machine it is safe to predict that in less than five years steam power will propel wagons and omnibuses on our streets and common country roads.” 

Next Week: A Twist of Fate

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