Ploughing Ahead: The British Tractor Through The Decades

One of the most popular symbols for a metal farm sign or weathervane is a tractor. This is not surprising as it is the faithful workhorse that keeps operations ticking over day to day. Farmers usually take great pride in their agricultural machinery and there have been many iconic tractor designs over the decades. Here’s a look at the history of the tractor.

Steam power

The earliest versions of agricultural machinery were steam-powered and based on railway locomotive engines. However, they never really gained traction, so to speak, because they were cumbersome and expensive to maintain and operate. Most farmers continued to use heavy horses to pull ploughs and other agricultural equipment and produce. 

The first oil powered tractors

The invention of the internal combustion engine in the 1880s led to the development of the first oil-powered tractor in 1889. However, the earliest tractors were not small and agile enough to cope with the rough terrain of farmland. 

The first recognisable prototype of the modern tractor was built by Daniel Albone of Biggleswade in 1903, according to The Museum of English Rural Life. This contradicts the popular belief that tractors were an American invention. During the next two decades, both the UK and the US forged ahead with tractor production.

The invention of the Fordson tractor post-World War One really raised the bar. The Fordson was based on a simple design that was cheap to manufacture and thus an affordable piece of farming equipment. It sold in hundreds of thousands, boosting the UK’s wheat production by 50 per cent. It remained the model for hundreds of imitators to follow.

The rise of the Ferguson

The American Henry Ford may have led the way with the revolutionary Fordson, but the UK was soon to produce its equivalent in Harry Ferguson, a mechanic from Northern Ireland. In fact, the two men met in 1917 and Ford offered Ferguson a job. However, Ferguson preferred to plough his own furrow, so to speak.

The Ferguson tractor was distinguished with a three-point linkage system that allowed attachments to be hitched to the tractor rather than just pulling them, and it was also more stable and less prone to tipping than the Fordson tractor.

The post-war era

Ford and Ferguson eventually agreed to merge their designs after World War Two, producing a superior machine that almost completely dominated the UK tractor market. However, after Ford’s death in 1947, the partnership dissolved. This led to the emergence of the Ferguson TE20, now regarded as a classic of British tractor design.

In 1953, Ferguson sold his assets to Massey-Harris, leading to the birth of Massey-Ferguson, who have remained at the helm of British tractor production ever since. 

Today, tractors benefit from advanced technology such as GPS systems, precision engineering, and eco-friendly engines, but the fundamental design is still very much based on the perfection of the early Massey-Ferguson tractors.