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How were Steam Engines used in agriculture?

Farming -steam -engineSteam power was originally used on the land in the very early 1900s or just before.

The transition from horse to steam power moved slowly; starting with portable engines which looked like classic traction engines but couldn’t move themselves.

They can be thought of as the powerhouse of the farm.

Steam engines were mainly built by local blacksmiths as a secondary stream of income - the engines tended to start off being a bit shoddy but improved; every one the blacksmith built was better than the last one as he learnt what he was doing.

These skills existed in fairly unique areas of the country and those that were most successful took off.

Burrells of Thetford , Leiston Longshopp and Leeds were the big three main producers, but it all started locally.

Steam power replaced horses and horse ploughing as it was more efficient.  You attached your attachments to the side of your portable engine, the engine was probably still moved on a trailer using horses (horsepower moving steam power!), but steam power increased the efficiency of working the land. 

How is a steam engine used in agriculture and one used in locomotion (trains) different?

The only difference between steam on the land and steam in rail locomotion is simply the age when it was built and what technical advances had occurred since.

The early portable engines (we have a couple of here at Bressingham) have to pump their own water; they don’t take water with them, there are no injectors.

(Injectors are a better way of injecting water into a boiler thats already under pressure rather than having to force and manually pump in water.)

There is a fire box at one end where you whack the fire in, there’s the barrel with tubes where the hot gases go through surrounded by water and a chimney mounted on top.

Steam engines started off with really long chimneys - you got a bigger pull on the fire that way.  As they weren’t portable it didn’t matter about aerodynamics and all that.

Basically the engines continued to evolve all the time. The quality of engine you acquired depended on what you paid, the class of man who built your steam engine and what his knowledge was.

Interesting examples of Agricultural steam power at Bressingham Steam and Gardens.

Burrell -Steam -rollerBressingham has a bit of everything. We have a Burrell Portable from Thetford which is currently in steam (In working order).

It is one of the very early example of an agricultural engine. It is what our operators learn to have a go on first.

Then we have a number of traction engines from Thetford, Laceston and Leeds which all were built for a specific job. You could have what you wanted, they had basic designs but if you wanted a narrow one or a lighter one because your soil wasn’t capable of taking a heavy load you could request an altered design.

There are ploughing engines and steam-rollers which as you know, people still call them steam rollers even though they are not powered by steam any more.

Bressingham also has examples of how the people who used them lived.  An actual living van of the bloke who went off to work in his steam roller.

It was no good coming home every night, as it only did 6 m.p.h and you couldn’t go very far in a day, so these people lived on the road and lived behind their engines!

There is a lot of personal history with each engine; details about the people who loved it like they would of loved their horse and looked after it as their livelihood.  

Bressingham -steamcarWe also have a Steam car.

Steam carried on whilst petrol was being developed - a steam car has a petrol burner heating the boiler to create steam, which then propels the vehicle (it's a hybrid!).

They carried on a bit too long with steam so the later steam vehicles barely got any use because petrol had taken over. Companies producing steam engines didn’t then make the leap themselves into making motor vehicles.

How did the use of steam power in agriculture end?

Agriculture saw a quicker ending to the use of steam than the railways - as farmers quickly went over to using petrol tractors during the first quarter of the 20th century.  This was simply because they are more powerful and cheaper to run.

By contrast, the it was 1960 when the last Steam locomotive engine was built in the UK.

Farmers with their individual purchases of things could make that leap much more quickly, rather than British Rail having to suddenly buy a huge rolling fleet as such.

The trouble with all steam is that you are still paying running costs even when it is doing nothing because it’s not an instant start / stop engine.

If you want to use it later on in the day, you have to keep it lit and therefore it’s eating coal and water whilst it’s standing there doing nothing.

Petrol, and then diesel machinery, is only using energy when you turn the key and start them - and they can go from A to B much quicker than a steam vehicle.

Petrol was labour-saving as well; one man on a tractor rather than a couple of farm hands operating a steam engine.

In the end it was just down to economics that farmers changed to using steam in the first place, they wanted value for money!

They could see that steam was working for them, rather than the horse - and then steam was superseded by petrol!

Is there anything we should’ve mentioned?

Do you have any thoughts, comments or views on the use of Steam in farming?

Is there anything you think we should have mentioned?

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By Alastair Baker at 20 Jun 2014, 00:00 AM