In preparation for making a model, I (Chris) did a significant amount of research on John Froelich’s 1892 tractor. This is almost certainly not the first gasoline-powered tractor ever but Froelich did manage to parlay it into a company which was in turn absorbed by John Deere and provided their foothold in the tractor market. Apparently it was something of a mechanical marvel as it is always mentioned that it could propel itself forwards and backwards. Perhaps this made such an impression on historians because the steam engines powering its contemporaries actually had to have their pistons move opposite to their usual direction to reverse the vehicle.
John Froelich’s story has been difficult to discern without reading too deeply about it. Sources agree that his family is responsible for Froelich, Iowa (hence the name). He probably became familiar with then-new gasoline engines when using stationary ones for drilling. Inspiration for what would turn out to be his seminal invention came from the trouble of procuring enough clean water for steam engines when threshing on the high plains. Here he may have encountered the Charter Company’s gasoline-powered traction engines: inspiration may have come from these as well, since they had the clear limitation of only being able to move forward.
Assisted by a blacksmith named William Mann, Froelich adapted a 1-cylinder Van Duzen stationary engine to run a custom-built chasis. They may have started by mounting the engine horizontally, only to have it shake the frame apart. Their successful version had the engine mounted vertically amidships, with a platform for the driver to stand on at the front, water tank for cooling the engine at the rear, and the transmission between the water tank and engine.
Looking at photos of the tractor, it’s clear that sources which claim that Froelich and Mann used the chasis from a Robinson and Company steam traction engine are mistaken: the completed tractor used sets of wooden beams set in parallel, a construction method utterly unlike steam traction engines. However, some sources instead claim that the Froelich tractor used parts from Robinson engines which seems much more likely and the likely source of the erroneous claims. In the pictures the steering mechanism, front axle, rear tires, and sprockets all clearly resemble those of steam traction engines.
Supposedly Froelich and Mann clambered onto their tractor for its test drive in front of onlookers, successfully running it in forward and reverse. The tractor may have had two forward gears with speeds of about 2.5 and 3.5mph, or sources claiming such have confused the original Froelich with the later Waterloo produced tractors. The “belt” pulley could be started and stopped independently of the tractor’s running gear. Pictures and models show large levers on the right and left of the driving platform: it’s probably the left-hand lever that operated a clutch to the belt pulley.
Speaking of Waterloo…a visit to that town on invitation from some local businessmen led to the incorporation of the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine company (the term “tractor” wasn’t dubbed by Hart-Parr until 1906) to manufacture Froelich’s tractor.
A sidenote: it’s an inherent commentary on human nature and the need for easy narratives that this is the Froelich tractor, not the Froelich-Mann tractor. Likewise, William Mann disappears from the narrative.
The venture in Waterloo only sold 2 or 4 tractors. Ralph Hughes, in Two-Cylinder Magazine, writes this:
Four tractors following Froelich’s basic design were built in 1893. Two of them were sold (one at Hawarden, Iowa), but both were returned.
This could explain why some sources say 2, and others say 4. All seem to concur that the design was neither an immediate success nor commercially successful. In a classic example of “following the money” the company decided instead to focus on stationary engines. It became the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company and Froelich left.
It’s Froelich’s motivations that interest me. He seems to have been a semi-restless inventor, having held a number positions after leaving the company and continuing to patent inventions until 1917. Was he more of an inventor than a businessman? Were the businesses of his own meant just to support an active mind, constantly thinking up new creations? What is certain is that his inventions varied from timing setups for internal combustion engines to transmissions to washing machines.
I also read an old print of The Grain Harvesters after doing this research and it encouraged me to reflect on how much mechanization has changed agriculture. For centuries, humans have sought ways to detach ourselves from the “chore” of growing and harvesting our food—this comes with problems and problematic attitudes of its own—and the progression from steam engine to gasoline engine is an important one. Perhaps that’s why we’re so anxious for an easily identified start to that revolution. The compact power provided by internal combustion engines has allowed huge migrations away from producing food to other pursuits, for better or for worse. John Froelich would probably appreciate the change, as it would have allowed him time to think even more about possible inventions.