Retrotechtacular: Rein-Operated Tractors

It’s not unusual for new technologies to preserve vestiges of those that preceded them. If an industry has an inertia of doing things in a particular way then it makes commercial sense for any upstarts to build upon those established practices rather than fail to be adopted. Thus for example some industrial PLCs with very modern internals can present interfaces that hark back to their relay-based ancestors, or deep within your mobile phone there may still be AT commands being issued that would be familiar from an early 1980s modem.

Just occasionally though an attempt to marry a new technology to an old one becomes an instant anachronism, something that probably made sense at the time but through the lens of history seems just a bit crazy. And so we come to the subject of this piece, the rein-operated agricultural tractor.

An advertisement for the Detroit Tractor Company in the Automobile Trade Journal, July 1913. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
An advertisement for the Detroit Tractor Company in the Automobile Trade Journal, July 1913. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At the turn of the twentieth century as the first internal combustion engine powered tractors were being developed, farmers had been using horses for motive power for centuries. Steam power was no stranger to farming, but was not a practical proposition for everyday use. Railroads could afford the staff and infrastructure to support steam locomotives 24/7, farmers couldn’t.

It thus made sense for tractor manufacturers to try to give the farmer something he could use with his existing skills and even his existing horse-drawn implements, so several manufacturers offered machines that were controlled not by levers, pedals, or a steering wheel, but by reins. Period advertisements and photos such as this one from the Wisconsin Historical Society, or rare survivors like this two-cylinder Fowler found on Flickr show these machines being offered by a variety of brands in the first couple of decades on the last century.

Sit-on tractors with what we would now call conventional controls of course won the day, and by the 1920s they dominated in the fields. Horse-drawn implements were adapted for them, and the farming world moved on.

US Patent US2197248A, 1937. The Bonham brothers' Power Horse tractor. Via Google Patents.
US Patent US2197248A, 1937. The [Bonham] brothers’ Power Horse tractor. Via Google Patents.
But the story of rein-operated tractors was not over, for in the mid-1930s two Utah brothers, [Albert] and [Bond Bonham], created the Power Horse, a skid-steered 4-wheel-drive compact tractor. Though it was a capable machine and its 4-wheel-drive put it in many ways ahead of its time, those reins, its complexity, and its relatively high price meant it failed to capture a significant market.

The Power Horse is the most numerous survivor among rein-operated tractors, so as a result there are plenty of pictures and YouTube videos of them to be found. By all accounts they require some skill to drive, as while their operation resembles more recent machines such as a Bobcat skid-steer loader there is a significant possibility for error. The instinctive pull on the reins to stop a team of horses for example risks puting the Power Horse into reverse.

If there is a modern parallel to be drawn from the story of rein-operated tractors it is one of how a user interface works with an intelligent machine. Reins worked with a team of horses because a horse is not quite as dumb an animal as it might seem. A self-preservation instinct might stop the horse from doing something  disastrous like reversing into a barn wall for example, while a tractor has no such scruples and demands a more hands-on interface.

So the rein-operated tractor remains only as an object of curiosity at agricultural shows like the Power Horse shown in the video below the break. Classic Retrotechtacular fodder, complex machines that made a lot more sense at the time they were invented than they do with the benefit of hindsight.

There is something very satisfying about working with large pieces of agricultural machinery, especially those that are slightly out of the ordinary.  We’ve featured one or two tractors here over the years, most recently a screw-drive conversion and an autonomous grain-collecting tractor, we’ve covered the restoration of an industrial tractor, and the attempt by John Deere to use DRM to lock tractor owners into their maintenance program.

19 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Rein-Operated Tractors

  1. I suspect that this “tractor” was more of a stationary engine that could be also used as a tractor, with minor modifications. Stationary engines on old farms could be connected to the various farm machines, so you needed only one engine to run your entire farm. They were often mounted on carriages with wheels to make them easier to move. I actually worked close to one of those engines as a kid. It was scary to start, with a large handle. If not released in time, it could kill you.

  2. I have seen one in an old photo in our town. It’s just hitting the top of the steepest hill in town. Must have hired it out for people unable to get their load up main street. A river valley town in the midwest.

  3. I’m a couple of beers in here but…would the logic of this mean the horse can eventually drive the tractor, true the interface is the same here, intermediate tech. Animals can use technology, animals on trains, gold fish driving their tank, dogs behind the wheel. Hold on where was I..

  4. During the depression a lot of farmers pulled the motors and trannys out of their cars and used them as horse drawn carriages.

    On the “Bobcat skid-steer loader” mention I can confirm the ridiculousness of these controls. Independent left/right controls is great and forward is forward, backwards is backwards but MORE backwards is shit yourself and dump the load in reverse. A few times I set up an oscillation and the bucking stop/reverse/stop/reverse and you need to let go of the controls….

  5. Reminds me of when I was but a lad: I hacked up a few bicycle frames and welded up a nice two-man bike. Whoever was in front got to steer. Whoever was in back supplied all the propulsion (it wasn’t as hard as you might expect.)
    But then my real bike got a flat. I have this nice ~9 foot long bike, but how to sit in the back and steer in the front? Naturally, you tie a length of clothesline to the ends of the front handlebars, and hold the line like reins. Pull left to go left, pull right to go right. It worked so well, and I enjoyed getting stares so much that I used it as my daily rider for probably 6 months.

    Happy days.

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