This Day In History: November 24

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John Froelich, the inventor of the first internal-combustion traction motor, or tractor, is born on November 24, 1849, in Iowa.

At the end of the 19th century, Froelich operated a grain elevator and mobile threshing service: Every year at harvest time, he dragged a crew of hired hands and a heavy steam-powered thresher through Iowa and the Dakotas, threshing farmers’ crops for a fee. His machine was bulky, hard to transport and expensive to use, and it was also dangerous: One spark from the boiler on a windy day could set the whole prairie afire. So, in 1890, Froelich decided to try something new: Instead of that cumbersome, hazardous steam engine, he and his blacksmith mounted a one-cylinder gasoline engine on his steam engine’s running gear and set off for a nearby field to see if it worked.

It did: Froelich’s tractor chugged along safely at three miles per hour. But the real test came when Froelich and his team took their new machine out on their annual threshing tour, and it was a success there, too: Using just 26 gallons of gas, they threshed more than a thousand bushels of grain every day (72,000 bushels in all). What’s more, they did it without starting a single fire.

In 1894, Froelich and eight investors formed the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company. They built four prototype tractors and sold two (though both were soon returned). To make money, the company branched out into stationary engines (its first one powered a printing press at the Waterloo Courier newspaper). Froelich was more interested in farming equipment than engines more generally, however, and he left the company in 1895.

Waterloo kept working on its tractor designs, but between 1896 and 1914 it sold just 20 tractors in all. In 1914, the company introduced its first Waterloo Boy Model “R” single-speed tractor, which sold very well: 118 in 1914 alone. The next year, its two-speed Model “N” was even more successful. In 1918, the John Deere plow-manufacturing company bought Waterloo for $2,350,000.