The word tractor was taken from Latin, being the agent noun of trahere “to pull”. The first recorded use of the word meaning “an engine or vehicle for pulling wagons or ploughs” occurred in 1901, displacing the earlier term “traction engine” (1859)
The first powered farm implements in the early 19th century were portable engines – steam engines on wheels that could be used to drive mechanical farm machinery by way of a flexible belt. Around 1850, the first traction engines were developed from these, and were widely adopted for agricultural use. The first tractors were steam-powered plowing engines. They were used in pairs, placed on either side of a field to haul a plow back and forth between them using a wire cable. Where soil conditions permitted (as in the United States), steam tractors were used to direct-haul plows, but in the UK and elsewhere, plowing engines were used for cable-hauled plowing, instead. Steam-powered agricultural engines remained in use well into the 20th century until reliable internal combustion engines had been developed.
In 1892, John Froelich invented and built the first gasoline/petrol-powered tractor in Clayton County, Iowa, USA. A Van Duzen single-cylinder gasoline engine was mounted on a Robinson engine chassis, which could be controlled and propelled by Froelich’s gear box.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Charles W. Hart and Charles H. Parr developed a two-cylinder gasoline engine and set up their business in Charles City, Iowa. In 1903, the firm built 15 “tractors”, a term with Latin roots coined by Hart and Parr, and a combination of the words traction and power. Their 14,000-pound #3 is the oldest surviving internal combustion engine tractor in the United States, and is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. The two-cylinder engine has a unique hit-and-miss firing cycle that produced 30 horsepower at the belt and 18 at the drawbar.
In Britain, the first recorded tractor sale was the oil-burning Hornsby-Ackroyd Patent Safety Oil traction engine, in 1897. However, the first commercially successful design was Dan Albone’s three-wheel Ivel tractor of 1902. In 1908, the Saunderson Tractor and Implement Co. of Bedford introduced a four-wheel design, and went on to become the largest tractor manufacturer outside the U.S. at that time.
Although unpopular at first, these gasoline-powered machines began to catch on in the 1910s as they became smaller and more affordable. Henry Ford introduced the Fordson, the first mass-produced tractor, in 1917. They were built in the U.S., Ireland, England and Russia, and by 1923, Fordson had 77% of the U.S. market. The Fordson dispensed with a frame, using the strength of the engine block to hold the machine together. By the 1920s, tractors with gasoline-powered internal combustion engines had become the norm.