Mike Hand Books

Ontario Industrial Histories

Engineering on Adams Wagon



When Peter Adams started his wagon building company in Paris, Ontario in 1863, designs were very basic and relatively simple from an engineering point of view.

Adams Wagon

Demand was such that hundreds were shipped from Paris to Winnipeg in a season and soon Adams was building a new factory to increase production.

His wagons were well built and were worked hard by the farmers who purchased them. But farmers were renowned for ignoring the load limits of their equipment. If the wagon could carry it, it was loaded on for shipment. The results were inevitable – a considerable number of broken axles, despite the fact that the axle beams were 6” x 4” hardwood section. By the mid 1800’s, Peter had solved his problem with a relatively sophisticated (for the day) engineered solution, one that had so far only been used primarily on bridge truss construction.

Axle showing truss

A length of half inch diameter round steel bar, threaded both ends, was installed under the axle beam resting against two cast iron supports. The two ends were bent up slightly and the bar ends passed through the centre of the cast iron skein bearings as they were installed on the beam ends. A nut was installed on each end of the bar and tightened to apply tension to the bar. This truss took any weight that deflected the wood beam, and had the effect of doubling the strength and carrying capability of the axle beam.

View of truss under rear axle

Peter Adam’s problems with axle breakage from customer overload became a thing of the past. And, despite Adam’s having patented this design, it was soon a feature that many competitors tried to copy with varying degrees of success.


Small to Large Engines


In 1847, after working in a wagon shop in Woodbridge for a couple of years, young English immigrant, John Abell was keen to have his own business. After building his own shop from logs, making his own lathe and tools, he then made himself a steam engine for power and was in business. With an inventive mind, he built a ditching machine for the local farmers and soon was building steam engines for sale.

Early Abell steam engine

In keeping with his thinking, his first steam engines for sale were an unusual design. The cylinder and piston were built inside the boiler, with the crankshaft and flywheel above the boiler. His rationale? With the cylinder inside the boiler, all the parts could expand at the same rate maintaining the tolerances for better operation. Admittedly, it was not a big engine, but he advanced from there and within twenty years had over 100 employees making threshers and reapers as well.

Abell Toronto plant 1903

After unsuccessfully fighting with the local railroad for better access and service for shipping of his products, he closed his factory after forty years in Woodbridge and moved the complete business to Toronto. Here, Abell built a huge new factory and was soon shipping threshers and steam traction engines all over Canada.

Abell plowing engine

His plowing engine was one of the largest in production in North America, and true to form, was a little different to his competitors. The two front wheels were mounted close together on a turntable, with a worm gear drive to steer. It proved much easier to steer than other traction engines.

From small engines to huge engines, John Abell always maintained his independent thinking.



Southworks factory 1910

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Southworks factory store outlet mall in Cambridge, Ontario. These fine old stone buildings stand out among many in the old part of Cambridge, formerly known as Galt, around the banks of the Grand River which flows majestically through the city. On the north side of the buildings, an old steel press mounted on a raised concrete platform provides some insight into the history of these buildings.

The Goldie McCulloch Company founded their business in 1859 and operated on this site for 120 years, the factory closing in 1980. From these buildings emerged huge steam engines, boilers and power plants, woodworking machinery, safes and vaults, water turbines and gasoline engines. As the company grew, the additions were always built with stone to maintain uniform appearance, including the square building between the factory and the river used mainly as a storage warehouse. As a result, we have today the wonderful old buildings forming the outlet mall. When they ran out of space for expansion, a new factory, the Northworks, was built on Hespeler Road. However this factory, now Babcock and Wilcox, was a more modern construction and did not have the timeless appearance of the Southworks.

Inside, as you walk through some of the stores in the south building, the remains of old lineshafts and pulleys can be seen at the roof level.

Lineshaft still visible above

The many machine tools used in the factory to make the engine parts were driven by belts running from these shafts which obtained their power from huge steam engines in each building. In between the two main buildings are the remains of the power house where the steam for the engines and for heating the factory was generated.

Southworks foundry 1900

The west half of this building housed the foundry, where the workers spent their days on a sand covered floor building the moulds into which the molten iron would be poured to cast the engine parts.

Today, it is difficult for the visitor to imagine the buildings as a noisy thriving manufacturing operation with over 200 workers toiling under conditions that would be considered less than acceptable in the modern world.

Change continues. Unfortunately, today’s retailing environment has made it difficult to stay profitable and the Southworks Mall, falling victim, was closed mid 2017. It is now in process of being transformed into housing units and I suspect the remaining line-shafts will fall victim also to this change.



Lancaster Bomber Airfields

As a boy growing up during World War Two in the east of England, we saw many things that at the time we did not consider important, but looking back to that time, we now realise would never be repeated.


Location of bomber bases in Lincolnshire

The British government, during the first years of the war, saw the need for bomber bases that were able to reach into Germany. They built quite a number of these bases throughout the county of Lincolnshire which was situated on the east coast of England. By the end of 1942, some 25 bases had been established, 15 of which were within a thirty mile radius of our home.(see map) In addition, within this radius were two large airfields built as Air Training bases, Cranwell and Manby, the latter being within three miles of my home. As this placed us almost within Manby airfield circuit pattern, we became extremely familiar with every plane operated by the RAF as they flew endlessly over us. Spitfires, Hurricanes, Lancaster bombers, Mosquito fighters, and many others we soon could identify just by their sound.


Lancasters heading to Germany

Fifty years later, this allowed me to instantly identify a Lancaster bomber approaching my home in St. George, Ontario in the late 1990’s before I could see it, when the Hamilton Warbirds took their newly rebuilt Avro Lancaster for its first flight. When this plane flew to England in 2014 and toured with the only other airworthy Lancaster in the world, they spent time at several of these old bomber bases, Waddington near Lincoln and Cranwell, ten miles further south and now surviving as one of the RAF’s major training colleges.


Model made by author in 1980

I remember several times during the latter part of the war, seeing the evening sky filled with hundreds of Lancaster bombers massing from all these bases, fully loaded for their attack into the heart of Germany and heading for the coast on one of their “thousand bomber raids”. Many times over the years have I wished that I had had a camera to record this never to be seen again sight that is still etched in my memory. Frequently we would be wakened in the early hours of the morning as, one by one they straggled back, some fighting to stay airborne until they reached their home base, their engine noise sounding much different than when they had departed hours earlier burdened down with their bomb load. Losses were high, and one base about fifteen miles from us recorded the loss of around 140 Lancasters from their field alone during this period.

Scampton, the base immediately north of the city of Lincoln, housed the squadron of Lancasters that achieved fame for their daring raid to destroy the dams at Essen, and earning the name “Dambusters”. When I served my engineering apprenticeship in Lincoln from 1947 to 1952, some of the pubs we frequented had signed photos on the walls of many of the dambuster crews who had been regular customers, and we heard many tales from the bar keepers of their “exploits” while unwinding in town.


Kirton former Lancaster base

Most of these airfields were closed after the war’s end, but the outlines of the runways from which the bombers flew can still be identified in most. Satellite photos clearly show these runways, some still with weed filled concrete surfaces, but most just as outlines showing in the disturbed earth that they were there, a memento to the time when the sleepy farm country in Lincolnshire was anything but.

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.

Factory Working Conditions

Over the last century, great steps forward have been made in the working conditions in factories. In the latter part of the 1800’s, safety concerns were virtually non existent with hazards like high speed belts and pulleys all over the place, no ear, hand or eye protection and poor heating in winter. In one of my books, From Wagon to Trailer, I recount an interview with a man who started work in the factory in the early 1930’s when conditions still did not seem to have improved too much. He told of a man fatally injured when his coat got caught in a line shaft driving the belt pulleys and was spun round and round until the drive could be shut off. And of the painters who worked all day over large paint tanks dipping the finished product with no fumes protection.

Working conditions

Belt driven machines

In the mid twentieth century a well-known novel writer, Thomas B Costain, wrote about a young man growing up in an industrial city in his book “Son of a Hundred Kings”. It is well accepted that the city he based it on was Brantford and the young man’s experiences when first working at a foundry, also accepted as that of the Buck Stove Company, described graphically the conditions under which they worked in the latter part of the 1800’s.

Even in the 1940’s, when I served a five year engineering apprenticeship with a large engine manufacturer, many of the working conditions encountered would be totally unacceptable today. One machine on which I worked doing finish machining on compressor crankshafts, required a constant stream of cutting oil to run on to the workpiece. At the end of the shift, the full height leather apron I had to wear would be soaked in oil to the extent that every night, it was cleaned with trichlorethylene to remove the oil before the next day’s use.

In the forge adjacent to that machine shop, so much soot covered the windows,lights and floor that it was very difficult to see what was going on until one’s eyes adjusted to the dim light. Minimal eye protection was used and hearing protection was zero.

working conditions

Forge department – 1940’s

Even in a relatively clean place, as in this 1880 factory building steam engines, most times the work area would be so crowded that it became hazardous.

working conditions

Engine assembly shop – 1880

Today, health and worker legislation is such that one could no longer find such conditions in most of the advanced nations. In contrast, one factory that I recently wrote about had some of the best working conditions that I have ever seen, and I have been through hundreds of plants in my time. The plant was fully air conditioned, most of the machinery was computer controlled, and the walls and floors one could literally eat off. No, this was not an electronics manufacturer, but a company machining metals and making special assembly machines and tools.

A big step from the “good old days”.

DCI Steel Statue


At the front entrance to a modern factory in New Jersey stand three statues. These are unusual in that they are made of a special steel that forms a rust colored coating that protects them with no further treatment. These were cut by a computer controlled plasma cutter with the images downloaded from photos to the computer. They depict one of the founders, recently retired Frank Fisher, a view of the truck container transfer unit, and the system equipment designer, Mike Hand.

container equipment

statues outside DCI plant

Through the 1960’s, I was involved in the early development of containerisation, first as Chief Engineer and subsequently as General Manager, of Steadman Containers Ltd. The company was a leader in Canada in manufacture of ISO containers and of container handling equipment, with systems for use in trucking and for road-rail transfer of containers.

The Trucktainer system was licensed into the USA through General American Corp. and built and sold by Truck Container Systems of New Jersey. When the owner, Carl Winston died, the company was run by his son for a few years and closed. The plant manager of that company, Frank Fisher, partnered with a young marketing graduate, Rustin Cassway and formed a new company to carry on the business in 1989 under the name Demountable Concepts Inc. headquartered in Glassboro, NJ.


Mike in Steel

This company successfully builds and markets the Trucktainer system equipment, originally designed in the early 1960’s, throughout North America and Mexico. Following the company’s twenty fifth anniversary, the president, Rustin, had these statues made and installed to honor the occasion. Visiting the plant at that time, I was present when the statue of myself was cut when I pressed the switch to start the machine.

It was one of the greatest honors of my career and life, to be recognised in this way as the “father” of their equipment and to see it still made and used internationally after 50 years.


For more information about this company see Demountable Concepts Inc. web page

Beatty Water Bowl


As a kid growing up on a farm in England in the early 1940’s, one of our chores before leaving for school each morning was to fill a 100 gallon tank with water using a hand pump that drew water from a well. You know how many pumps that took?

My father would then carry water in pails to the milk cows stalled in the milk shed. Cows drink a lot of water and each required several pails during a day.

In 1943, a deep well was drilled outside between the house and the milk shed, giving us a fast flowing source of good water. The well indeed supplied water at such a pressure that from a hose, it could shoot it over the house! Complaints from nearby farmers that it was running their wells short resulted in father capping the well with a tap, solving the problem and avoiding wastage. The water was instead piped as needed to the house and other buildings on the farm.

One day shortly after this, a man arrived and installed “drinking bowls” at each stall in the milking shed. Our daily chore of pumping water was suddenly eliminated. Yeah! The bowls were, to a boy’s eyes, a marvellous invention. The cow merely had to put its muzzle into the bowl to drink its fill. The pressure of its nose pushed back a flap that operated a tap allowing water, piped from the well to the shed, to enter the bowl, stopping when the animal removed its nose from the bowl.


Beatty water bowl

The name cast into the bowl was one that I had never heard of- BEATTY. Many years later I was to become familiar with this company which was in Fergus, Canada, a world away from a small farm in Eastern England. In Fergus, Beatty was a huge company making everything you needed on a farm, later becoming one of the pioneers and major manufacturers of washing machines. Drinking bowls was one of the more successful items that it exported.


Beatty Fergus plant

Read more about the Beatty Company in my book Where Did They Go.

Early self propelled grader


The early pioneer equipment manufacturers were never short of ideas to incorporate into their products. Take, for example, this early 1920’s road grader made by the Sawyer Massey Company of Hamilton.

Prior to this, graders were primarily pulled by horses, or later by steam rollers, an arrangement that was not only cumbersome but limited in its capability. How to make one with its own power was their problem, unable to develop their own power unit, transmission and drive axle.

sawyer massey

Sawyer Massey grader with Fordson tractor power unit

What evolved was quite original and effective, and although the concept was only used for some ten years in production, it enabled them to take grader development to the next stage. A standard farm tractor, whose development had reached the stage where they were no longer huge gasoline engine conversions of a steam traction engine, was built into the rear portion of the grader. With the rear wheels and drive axle left in place to power the grader, the front axle of the tractor was removed and replaced with a supporting bracket.

Initially, a Fordson tractor was used, as shown above, and later a McCormick Deering tractor, a product of the International Harvester Company took its place.

sawyer massey, IHC

Sawyer Massey grader with McCormick Deering power unit

Bingo, a first for Ontario, a self-propelled grader

For more, see my book Steam Engines and Threshers

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