The History and Evolution of Tractors

A man and child riding a tractor with farmland stretched out around them on a sunny day.

MECKY / The Image Bank / Getty Images

The first engine-powered farm tractors used steam and were introduced in 1868. These engines were built as small road locomotives and were handled by one operator if the engine weighed less than five tons. They were used for general road haulage and, in particular, by the timber trade. The most popular steam tractor was the Garrett 4CD.

Gasoline Powered Tractors

According to the book "Vintage Farm Tractors" by Ralph W. Sanders,

Credit goes to the Charter Gasoline Engine Company of Sterling in Illinois for first successfully using gasoline as fuel. Charter's creation of a gasoline-fueled engine in 1887 soon led to early gasoline traction engines before the term 'tractor' was coined by others. Charter adapted its engine to a Rumley steam-traction-engine chassis and in 1889 produced six of the machines to become one of the first working gasoline traction engines.

John Froelich

Sanders' book "Vintage Farm Tractors" also discusses several other early gas-powered tractors. This includes one invented by John Froelich, a custom Thresherman from Iowa who decided to try gasoline power for threshing. He mounted a Van Duzen gasoline engine on a Robinson chassis and rigged his own gearing for propulsion. Froelich used the machine successfully to power a threshing machine by belt during his 52-day harvest season of 1892 in South Dakota.

The Froelich tractor, the forerunner of the later Waterloo Boy tractor, is considered by many to be the first successful gasoline tractor. Froelich's machine fathered a long line of stationary gasoline engines and, eventually, the famous John Deere two-cylinder tractor.

William Paterson

J.I. Case's first pioneering efforts at producing a gas traction engine date back to 1894, or maybe earlier to when William Paterson of Stockton, California came to Racine to make an experimental engine for Case. The Case ads in the 1940s, harking back to the firm's history in the gas tractor field, claimed 1892 as the date for Paterson's gas traction engine, though patent dates suggest 1894. The early machine ran, but not well enough to be produced.

Charles Hart and Charles Parr

Charles W. Hart and Charles H. Parr began their pioneering work on gas engines in the late 1800s while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In 1897, the two men formed the Hart-Parr Gasoline Engine Company of Madison. Three years later, they moved their operation to Hart's hometown of Charles City, Iowa, where they received financing to make gas traction engines based on their innovative ideas.

Their efforts led them to erect the first factory in the U.S. dedicated to the production of gas traction engines. Hart-Parr is also credited with coining the word "tractor" for machines that had previously been called gas traction engines. The firm's first tractor effort, Hart-Parr No.1, was made in 1901.

Ford Tractors

Henry Ford produced his first experimental gasoline-powered tractor in 1907 under the direction of chief engineer Joseph Galamb. Back then, it was referred to as an "automobile plow" and the name "tractor" was not used. After 1910, gasoline-powered tractors were used extensively in farming.

Frick Tractors

The Frick Company was located in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. George Frick started his business in 1853 and built steam engines well into the 1940s. The Frick Company was also well known for sawmills and refrigeration units.


  • Sanders, Ralph W. "Vintage farm tractors: The ultimate tribute to classic tractors." Hardcover, First Edition edition, Barnes & Noble Books, 1998.
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Bellis, Mary. "The History and Evolution of Tractors." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 26). The History and Evolution of Tractors. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History and Evolution of Tractors." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).