Tractor Innovations

At the most basic level, a tractor is nothing more than an engine on wheels with a seat for the operator and a way to attach implements like plows, planters and harvesters. When tractors first developed, they were huge, heavy, had limited power and cost way too much for all but the biggest farmers to buy. Yet, throughout most of the 20th Century, most farms were small operations growing more row crops, like corn, than broadcast-seeded crops like wheat. Early tractors simply couldn’t travel down the rows of corn to cultivate those crops.

From the late 1800s to 1940, the story of tractor development is one of smaller size, more power and less expensive machines. For many historians, the culmination of that development was the introduction of the Allis-Chalmers Model “B” in 1937. It was designed to pull a one bottom plow, could cultivate corn, had rubber tires, and sold for under $500 – an unheard of price for the time.

The Allis-Chalmers “B” sold well. Throughout the 1940s, other manufacturers scurried to match the innovation of the Model “B” and to improve on it.

Allis-Chalmers BBy the end of the 40s, tractors had settled into a common ‘dominant design,’ but there were still a host of technical differences and modifications yet to be made. By the end of the decade, the tractors that sold best in the U.S. looked a lot like the Allis-Chalmers Model “B.” They shared –

  • Internal combustion engines powered either by gasoline or diesel fuel that had enough horsepower to do most jobs on the farm.
  • Large rubber tires on the rear driving the tractor with small steering wheels in front either widely spaced or angled together in the middle.
  • A power take off (PTO) shaft at the back of the tractor where implements could be attached so they got their power from the tractor rather than wheels turning on the implement.
  • The three-point hitch with hydraulic control that allowed the farmer to lift implements at the touch of a button rather than brute strength on a large lever. Ford introduced the Ferguson hitch system just before 1940. By the next decade, all major tractor brands had their own versions.

After the 40s, tractor manufacturers refined this basic design. The machines got larger and more powerful. In 1949, American tractor manufacturers built over 550,000 tractors – an all-time record. In 1950, that number slipped slightly, and in 1951 reached the highest number ever – over 564,000 tractors built. They would never reach that height again. By comparison, there were only 210,000 tractors sold in 1970.

In the 40s, there were eight companies that sold the vast majority of tractors in the U.S. Sources differ on the exact market shares of each manufacturer, but all agree that International Harvester’s Farmall models were the most popular. They were followed by John DeereAllis-ChalmersJ. I. Case, Oliver, Minneapolis-Moline and Massey-Harris. Ford started the decade with only small sales – in part because they had been out of the market for most of the 1930s. But the popularity of their Ferguson three-point hitch quickly shot them up the list.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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