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.



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