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Thumbnail of John Fowler (source)
John Fowler
(11 Jul 1826 - 4 Dec 1864)

English engineer who helped to develop the steam-hauled plough. After seeing the effects of the famine in Ireland, he determined to mechanize land drainage to improve agricultural production.


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John Fowler
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[p.156] The Highland and Agricultural Society’s Premium-Book, published in February, 1837, contained the following intimation :—

“For the practical application of steam or water-power to the ploughing or digging of land, £200. The merits of the invention will be tested by its general applicability, by the character of its work, and by its saving in time, labour, and outlay, as compared with horse-power. The inventor must be prepared to deliver his machine at Stirling by the 1st of October, and to put it in practical operation on such farm in the neighbourhood of that town, and to work it for such a period, and under such regulations, as the Directors may determine— the object being to test its capabilities by continued work, and not by a mere show trial.”

The utmost pains were taken to make the premium known to implement makers, in the hope of securing competition; and though for some time there was a prospect of this, eventually Mr. John Fowler, jun., 28, Cornhill, London, was the only, party who appeared.

The following gentlemen were named as a committee of judges to test the merits of Mr. Fowler’s invention, and to determine how far he was deserving of the premium offered: Messrs. John Miller, of Leithen; James Stirling, C.E., Edinburgh; John Dickson, farmer, Saughton Mains; John Finnie, farmer, Swanston; John Gibson, farmer, Woolmet; William Henderson, farmer, Craigarnhall; and Robert Patterson, Offers.

The neighbourhood of Stirling having been fixed for the trial, all local arrangements were left to the supervision of the Stirlingshire Agricultural Society, by whom the farm of Stewarthall, possessed by Mr. William Forrester, was selected as the place, and the 20th of October named as the time for the trial; and it was resolved that, previous to the public being admitted to inspect the operations, they should be privately conducted for at least three days in the presence of the judges exclusively.

Before entering upon a narrative of the proceedings, it may probably not be out of place to describe, generally, the machinery brought forward by Mr. Fowler. It consists of three main parts—viz., the Plough, the Steam-engine and gearing connected therewith, and the Anchor.

The plough, which is constructed to turn over four ordinary furrows at the same time, consists of a strong framing about 20 feet in length, supported at the centre on two wheels, one of which travels in the last formed furrow, and the other upon the “land,” and by adjustment as to relative heights on these wheels the apparatus is brought into train, and the depth of the furrow to be turned over determined. The two ends of the framing join each other at a considerable angle at the centre, so that when the one end is nearly horizontal and at work, the other is raised at an angle of about 35 degrees, and is thus kept entirely clear of the ground; each end of the framing is supplied with four ordinary plough-heads (share, sock, and mould) closely following each other, and each placed so as to take in and turn over a breadth of 10 inches, or 3 feet 4 inches for the four at each operation. The plough-heads on the two ends of the framing being in every respect reversed to each other, the machine does not require to be turned at the end of the furrow, but by simply elevating the end of the frame last at work, the other end, which balances it, is brought down to working position, and by means of the two carrying-wheels the necessary lateral motion of 3 feet 4 inches is easily and correctly given by the man in charge, and the plough is at once ready for turning over another set of furrows by being pulled in the opposite direction. This pulling is performed in both directions by means of a steel-wire rope of about ¾ inch diameter, passing from the engine at the one end of the field to the anchor at the other end, and back to the engine again.

The steam-engine used by Mr. Fowler is a portable one, very similar to those now so much employed in England for thrashing and other agricultural purposes. For greater facility in getting into motion, and stopping, and otherwise for bringing the engine more completely under the control of the engineman, it is fitted with two steam cylinders working on a double crank at right angles to each other, as in locomotive engines. The cylinders and crank-shaft are placed on and fixed to the upper part of the boiler, and the motion is carried down from the crank-shaft by means of an upright shaft fitted with mitre gear and reversing clutches to two drums, upon which the wire ropes are alternately coiled and uncoiled during the operation of ploughing. The drums are placed horizontally under the framing of the engine, and their gearing is so arranged that either can be at pleasure thrown into gear with the upright shaft, so that, while the one is set loose to allow the uncoiling of the wire rope, the other is at work dragging the plough. The drams with the rope partially coiled on have an effective average diameter of about 3 feet, and are 11 inches in breadth each; by means of the connecting gearing already alluded to, the drums are made to take on the wire rope at the rate of from 2¼ to 2¾ inches an hour, equal to about the rate at which the pistons travel. The pistons being 6½ inches diameter, or 33 square inches each in area, and the steam in the boiler being at say 651bs. per square inch, will exert a tractive strain on the wire rope (allowing a half for loss by friction, &c.) of 2,140 lbs., or nearly one ton. The engine and plough being placed at opposite ends of the field, it is evident that the plough could be drawn towards the engine, and the first set of the furrows turned over, by means of a single rope attached to the plough, and the other end of the rope coiled up on one of the d urns of the engine; but to effect the returning draught it is necessary either to employ another engine with the necessary apparatus at the other end of the field, or, by passing another rope also fixed to the plough over a sheave fixed there, and returning and connecting its other end with the second drum of the engine, to work both directions by one engine. This latter plan has been the one adopted by Mr Fowler, and the simple and ingenious apparatus to which the sheave is attached is termed

The anchor. This consists of a strong low wooden frame about 10 feet long and 5 feet broad, supported when in use upon two axles or rollers; on each of which there are two thin-edged wheels or discs of malleable iron, which sink by the weight of the machine to a depth of 8 or 9 inches into the soil: they are prevented from sinking deeper by the bodies of the rollers (about 9 inches in diameter) coming in contact with the surface of the ground, and bearing up the remaining weight. To the framing between the rollers are fixed the bearings of a large horizontal sheave about 4 feet in diameter, around which the wire rope turns when the plough is being drawn away from the engine; the strain thus thrown upon the sheave, which is double the direct strain exerted on the rope by the engine, is resisted by the four discs, which, being placed at right angles to the line of traction of the plough, act like the flukes of four powerful anchors.

[p.157] It will be apparent that, as the work advances, both the engine and anchor require to be moved slightly forward for every turn of the plough, so as to keep them always in the proper line of traction. This motion in the case of the anchor is ingeniously effected by means of a small capstan or crab attached to the framing, and driven by wheel-work from the large sheave. The engine is provided with a similar apparatus, but it is driven by a direct communication with the gear of the engine. These crabs give motion to their respective machines by slowly coiling up two small wire ropes, the other ends of which are fixed to pawls driven in at suitable points in advance of the machines along the ends of the Geld.

It may be proper to remark that the engine can be made locomotive, so as to be able to move itself along a road or about the farm without any assistance, and that it can also be so made as to be available as a power for thrashing, or any other work about the farm requiring power, as well as for ploughing. At the same time it is considered that the circumstance of Mr. Fowler’s engine not being required to travel the land to be ploughed is a most important feature; and, in the progress of improvement, it may not be far distant when the engine will be enabled to do its work efficiently without the necessity of leaving a corner of the field, and thereby obviate the disadvantage of moving over it.

The trial, as already stated, commenced on the 20th of October, on a grass field consisting of a very stiff tenacious clay, and in a very unfavourable state for ploughing. A considerable extent of ploughing was accomplished, but the greater part of the time was spent in the examination of the various parts of the machinery, and of the mode in which each portion performed its part; and the result of that examination was, that although the judges were of opinion that in one or two minor points the machinery might be improved, the main principle of the apparatus brought forward by Mr. Fowler is correct, and calculated to perform its work in a satisfactory manner. On the 21st of October they had the plough put in operation with the view of testing its power in accomplishing work, and of determining the character of the work itself. The operations were carried on in the same tenacious clay-field, and, upon an experiment of several hours, they found that they might assume the work performed in such time to be about 7 imperial acres in a day of 10 hours: the furrow was in length 330 yards, and about 6 inches deep, and each 10 inches broad, or taking the four plough-heads, the breadth turned over at each operation was 3 feet 4 inches, and the work was very satisfactorily done. The cost appears to be the following: Mr. Fowler states that four men and a boy are required for his apparatus: that the judges found to be sufficient; indeed they think the work might be done by three men and two boys; the daily wages may therefore be assumed at from 13s. to 15s., according to the rate of wages, but say that it is 15s. A horse and cart are required to supply the engine with water, unless in cases where the water may be had in the field; they have, however, to assume this cost in the mean time, and they put it down at 6s. per day. The engine is worked with raw coal, and consumes in the 10 hours what can be obtained at Stirling for 6s., taking the coals at 12s. per ton; oil, and other incidentals, they take at 3s.—making, in all, a daily cost of 30s., exclusive of the tear and wear of the machinery and interest on capital. The judges have not had sufficient experience of the machinery to estimate the cost of the tear and wear, but they think that were they to say 20s. per day it would be sufficient to cover these two items. The total day’s cost would in this way be 50s., and assuming the work performed to be 7 acres per day of such land as they found it, the cost would be a little more than 7s. per acre. With the view of testing this as against horse-power ploughing, Mr. Forrester was kind enough to put at the disposal of the judges a plough and pair of horses, but they found that two horses were not equal to the work of a furrow such as Mr. Fowler’s plough was turning; according to their own estimate, and that of farmers well acquainted with the working of such land, and with whom they consulted, they are of opinion that such land as they had to do with, and at such a season, could not be turned over by horse-labour under a cost of 15s. per acre. According to this, therefore, there is a clear saving of fully half the cost by Fowler’s plough, and the work performed is fully equal to, if not better than, what could be done by horse-labour.

It may by some be apprehended that the allowance for wear and tear is insufficient, in consequence of the liability of the wire-rope to injury from friction on sharp soils; but the risk of this is in a great measure obviated by the facilities for preventing the rope from coming into contact with the ground at all. These facilities are afforded by means of friction-sheaves mounted on small moveable carriages, and these sheaves are in number proportioned to the length of the furrow or undulations of the ground.

The judges having satisfied themselves as to the efficiency of Fowler’s steam-plough for the ploughing of stiff tenacious clay-land, they had the whole apparatus removed to another farm, “Boll-for-nought,” also in the possession of Mr. Forrester, and on the 22nd of October had the plough tried on a stubble-field of deep alluvial soil. The furrow on this field was considerably shorter than that on the other field, being only 220 yards long; its depth was 7 inches and its breadth 10 inches. In this experiment the quantity turned over was at the rate of nearly 10 acres in the day of 10 hours. The judges expected that the engine would have done more work than that, and probably it could when in continuous operation; but they have stated the quantity as they found it, and it will be kept in view that the short furrow tends to diminish the quantity performed. Assuming the cost per day at 50s., as formerly, the rate per acre would be about 5s.; but, on the other hand, the cost of ploughing the same land with horse power would not greatly exceed, if at all, 8s. per acre. The saving, therefore, on light land cannot be so great as it would be on heavy land—or even steep land, where power is so much required. The ploughing was very well done.

On this field the judges had the apparatus applied to trench-ploughing, and the work performed gave the greatest satisfaction, surpassing anything that could be done with horse-labour. Mr. Fowler, in trench-ploughing, did not use the same plough-frame as he did in the ordinary ploughing; the one employed was fitted up to turn two trench-furrows at each operation—each furrow was turned in two lifts, the upper lift in each case being turned into the bottom of the furrow, and the bottom lift being laid over all; and from the speed at which the plough travels, the subsoil is so completely thrown up and broken, that nothing executed by horse-labour can excel, or perhaps equal it. The trenching, 12½ inches deep, was performed at the rate of about 5½ acres per day of ten hours, and at a cost, assuming as formerly, of about 9s. per acre.

The experiments, in so far as the judges were concerned, were completed in the afternoon of the 22nd of October, having occupied a period of three days. On the 23rd and 24th the trials were continued for the satisfaction of the public, and it is believed that those who witnessed them were very generally pleased with the result. The agriculturists in the Lothians having expressed a wish to have an opportunity of witnessing the operations, the whole apparatus was removed to the [p.158] firm of Saughton Mains, near Edinburgh, possessed by Mr. Dickson, and there Mr. Fowler continued his operations for several days, with pretty much the same results. At the same time, it has to be noticed that there were one or two breakages in the machinery, which must have led to some disappointment, but these breakages were not such as to tell against the principle of working as carried out by Mr. Fowler.

Having now described the various trials gone into, the judges are called upon to express the high gratification they experienced in witnessing the performances of Mr. Fowler’s plough, and the results achieved by it. They are of opinion that Mr. Fowler has satisfactorily established, that land of a certain description can be well and economically ploughed by steam ; and they think it due to him to say that he highly merits the approbation of the agricultural public, for the ability, energy, and ingenuity brought by him to bear on the all-important question of turning the soil. In these circumstances, the judges recommend that the premium of £200 offered by the Society should be awarded to Mr. Fowler. At the same time, they do not desire to hold forth Mr. Fowler’s apparatus as faultless; experience will in this, as in all other attempts to apply machinery, suggest improvements, and, indeed, several important modifications have been made by Mr. Fowler since the trials now described terminated; neither would the judges wish it to be inferred from their decision that the apparatus is, in terms of the condition attached to the premium, susceptible of general application, as, in its present form, it is not available for land on which large stones are imbedded. Nevertheless, as Mr. Fowler has produced a machine well adapted for stiff clay and loamy soils, and consequently for the very description of land the most oppressive to horses, and the most expensive to work, the judges consider that he has established a good claim, not only to the amount of the premium offered, but to whatever support and encouragement the Society’s award can afford; and the judges would hope that this liberal interpretation of the terms in which the premium was offered, will operate as an inducement to others to persevere in their efforts to improve the machinery of the farm.

In conclusion, the judges have to express their acknowledgments to the Stirlingshire Agricultural Society for their arrangements; and to Mr. Forrester for the facilities and assistance he afforded in conducting the experiments, as well as for his great attention and hospitality.

J. Miller, Chairman.
John Dickson.
John Finnie.
John Gibson.
Wm. Henderson.
Ro. Patterson.
Jas. Stirling.
Journal of Agriculture.

Images added (not in original text). Sketch of John Fowler from The Practical Magazine: An Illustrated Cyclopζdia of Industrial Information, Inventions and Improvements (1875) Vol. 5, 257. Colorization © todayinsci.com. Second image, ibid., 259. Text from 'Report by the Judges on Fowler's Steam Plough', The Farmer's Magazine (Feb 1858), 13, 156-158. (source)

See also:

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Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

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