One of the most visually impressive objects in the Museum’s collection is this fabulous steam ploughing engine. It’s an example of the world’s first successful method of powered cultivation, developed by John Fowler of Leeds, England, in 1863 and was part of the mechanisation and industrialisation of agriculture during the nineteenth century.
Before tractors were developed in the early twentieth century, steam ploughing was the first method of mechanised ploughing and cultivating, though nearly all ploughing was still done with horses. Steam ploughing involved two steam traction engines, each with a drum carrying cable suspended beneath its boiler. Located on either side of a field, the engines took turns in winding the cable across the field to which a special balance plough was attached.Traction engines were developed by the early 1860s, but they were too heavy to pull ploughs directly over the soil. By the mid-1860s Fowler had devised his basic ploughing engine design which was to remain, with improvements, until the last ploughing engine left Fowler’s works in England in 1933, superseded by the development of the internal combustion engined tractor.
Ploughing engine sets were very costly to buy and operate in Britain. Far more were exported around the world, to the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Turkish empires, developing the great potential of their vast land resources, and to Egypt, Tunis, South Africa, the Transvaal, Mozambique, Australia, Hawaii, Peru and Brazil.
Owing to the nature of land use in Australia, steam ploughing was not common here. Most holdings were too large, the country was too rough and fuel and water supplies were too scant in many areas. It has been estimated that only about one hundred Fowler ploughing engines were used throughout Australia. The first to operate was in the 1860s in South Australia, closely followed by Victoria, Western Australia, and then Queensland in 1881 and New South Wales in 1882.
Many ploughing engines were not imported into Australia for agricultural purposes but for the construction of large earth tanks or dams for storing water. These were developed for outback sheep stations. During the 1880s some travelling stock routes were improved by government-owned Fowler ploughing engines with excavating scoops. Steam ploughing engines were also used during the development of the irrigation areas along the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. During the 1920s they were used by the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission to clear and plough land for soldier settlers around Griffith in NSW. Another big user was the Queensland sugar industry where steam ploughing was used on plantations until World War II.
The Museum’s steam ploughing engine is the left hand engine of a pair of wood-burning engines, Nos. 5933 and 5934, built at John Fowler and Co.’s Steam Plough Works, in Leeds, England, in 1889. They were ordered by Michael O’Shaunassy for his Jerilderie property in NSW. The engines were later sold to the pastoralist and philanthropist, Sir Samuel McCaughey (1835-1919). McCaughey was a significant sheep breeder and owned numerous stations. In 1900 he bought a North Yanco property, near Griffith, and it was there that he employed the two Fowler ploughing engines. He constructed a complex irrigation system with some 320 km of channels to irrigate 40,000 acres on which he grew lucerne and other fodder crops. In 1912 McCaughey sold the ploughing engines to the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission for operation at Leeton to remove silt from water channels and to deepen watercourses in catchment areas.
In the 1930s the two engines were separated and the Museum’s engine, No. 5933, was used on a farm for water pumping and the other for driving a circular saw. In 1965 the engine went to the Goulburn Steam Museum for display and it was subsequently acquired by the Powerhouse Museum and restored to steaming condition. It has been shown at steam rallies around Sydney to promote the Museum and is currently on display at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre at Castle Hill in NW Sydney.
Builder: John Fowler and Co., Leeds, England
Type: single cylinder
Engine No: 5933
Horse power: 18 nominal horse power
Cylinder bore: 12 inches
Cylinder stroke: 14 inches
Front wheel diameter: 5 feet
Speeds: 4 miles per hour and 6 miles per hour
Fire grate area: 11 square feet
Boiler pressure: 120 pounds per square inch
Water capacity: 318 gallons
Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, June 2014