Mike Hand Books

Ontario Industrial Histories

Month: January 2017

Steam Plowing Engines


Canadian Plowing Engines

As the far western part of Canada began to be settled by immigrant farmers, the task of opening up the land to arable condition was a huge challenge. The smallest property sold for this purpose consisted of a quarter section, about one half mile square, approximately 160 acres. The hard ground, matted with roots from centuries old grass covering it, was particularly difficult to plow. The opening of the western prairies around the turn of the century coincided with the growth of the steam engine for use in pulling plows.

steam engine plow

Engine gang plow

In the 1900 to 1910 period, the steam traction engine manufacturers started building huge engines with maximum weight for traction. Plow manufacturers like Cockshutt Plow Co. of Brantford developed large plows to take advantage of this extra power to more quickly open up the land for agriculture. The tremendous pulling load imposed by these huge plows, turning as many as twelve furrows, soon caused structural failures in some engines and most of the manufacturers undertook specialised reinforcing for this purpose.

Steam engines

Robert Bell plowing engine

The Robert Bell Company of Seaforth, Ontario encountered boiler leaks in its engines from these loads and subsequently added an independent steel frame running from the front axle to the rear, and  containing the countershaft, gear shaft and rear axle mountings to relieve the boiler of all gear strain. No one bothered about the extra weight which was considered a bonus for added traction.

steam engines

Waterloo engine pulling gang plow

Other major engine manufacturers such as Sawyer Massey, Waterloo, George White and Abell, heavily reinforced the rear drive wheel mounting, increased the size of the drive gears, and increased the size of the drive wheel spokes. Some moved to twin cylinder compound engines, with rated horse power from 32 to 40 hp., to handle the plowing, when the 20 hp. size engine had to date been more than adequate for all other purposes. Extra large water tanks were usually fitted to ensure that long days could be worked.

Abell engine plowing

Abell built one of the largest engines, weighing some 24 tons, and equipped it with worm gear operated front steering wheels mounted close together to make it easier to steer, and giving it a “row crop” look (although that term was still in the future).

Despite all of this development work, the steam plowing engine enjoyed only a short career as the gasoline engine tractor was introduced in the first decade of the 1900’s. Its relative ease of operation and ability to start up quickly, as compared to a steam engine that took up to several hours after lighting the fire to get the steam up to pressure, soon proved a desireable factor for the operators. By around 1920, the big steam plowing engine had had its day, especially as the once turned over prairie no longer required such large power units for subsequent plowings, and as the gasoline tractor became more efficient and less costly, it quickly rendered the steam engine obsolete.

See also my book Steam Engines and Threshers


Ruston Engines


Ruston horizontal engine

Like many, I love to wander around the steam shows looking over the frequent displays of venerable old Ruston and Hornsby horizontal diesel engines, many thousands of which were built and shipped to all corners of the world in the first half of the twentieth century. I ‘m always fascinated by the smoothness with which they run, and almost hypnotised when I look at the rim of the huge spinning flywheel, so accurately machined that it appears stationary.

Spinning engine flywheel

My memory inevitably takes me back to when I served an engineering apprenticeship with that manufacturer in their multiple factories in Lincoln, England back in the late 1940’s. I can still see in my mind’s eye, the huge Bullard vertical lathes on which the flywheel castings, up to 72 “ in diameter, were machined on the perimeter and then at the centre for the crank shaft mounting.
As part of my training, I worked on many of the machines used to make various engine parts. One of my early assignments was the machining of the huge piston castings for the horizontal engines in preparation for the finish grinding. The castings were so heavy – the pistons were up to fourteen inches in diameter – a hoist was needed to lift them into the lathe.

Horizontal engine pistons in machine shop

As the core of the casting mould was not always central, first operation in the lathe was to measure the variation in wall thickness and offset it in the four jaw lathe chuck so that when machined on the outside, the walls of the piston were of equal thickness all around. If the core was out one quarter of an inch, it meant that the first roughing cut on the outside could be as much as half inch deep while minimal on the other side. After machining down to within .020” of finished diameter, the piston ring grooves then had to be cut. If the centring of the piston was not done accurately enough, one could find the ring groove tool penetrating through the piston wall on one side – a sure way to bring the foreman’s wrath down on one’s head. The final operation was to machine the convex shape of the head to match a template, honing one’s skill at simultaneously moving the cutting tool in two planes to obtain the right shape.


Side shaft gear cover

The engine side shaft operating the valves on the Ruston horizontal engine is driven by two to one ratio spiral helical gears on the end of the crankshaft. The gears are enclosed in a cast-iron housing, three pieces bolted together. One of my jobs for a while was to machine the end cap hole and the shaft bearing hole after the housing parts had been milled, drilled and bolted together.

As I look at the restored engines, I often wonder if I am looking at pistons or gear housings that I machined myself many years ago.

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