What comes to mind when you hear the word “tractor”?

Fig. 1. Dog “Driving” a Fordson Tractor, circa 1919. THF135205. From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

Tractor. What comes to mind? Do you immediately conjure an image of a four-wheeled vehicle hitched to a plow? Do you picture a particular manufacturer? Think about horsepower? Link internal combustion engines to fossil-fuel consumption? Wonder about tractors in relation to organic agriculture? Ponder autonomous tractor use in agriculture? Think about the business of manufacturing and marketing or repair and maintenance? Wonder how tractors relate to the United Nation’s SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) or global initiatives such as AIM4C (Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate)? Do all of these come to mind?

The historical resources documenting tractors in The Henry Ford’s (THF) collection yield countless authentic stories of innovation, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. At the heart swirls significant change in sources of draft power and in agri-culture (i.e., the relationships between humans, animals, and the environment). These collections also prompt us to ponder tractors from a planetary perspective. What role will tractors play in future food systems? This is a work in progress with many chapters yet to be written.

Fig. 2. John Burroughs on Ford Experimental Tractor, Michigan, 1916. THF241331. From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

Guests encounter tractors in numerous ways via THF’s digital collections, blogs, and expert sets. If you search for “tractors” in THF’s digital collections nearly 500 items appear, most photographic and archival evidence of the mechanical innovation. For an overview of early tractors you can consult the expert set, Emergence of the Tractor. This digital resource introduces tractor history and includes 15 historical resources in THF collections, each with a description of no more than 400 characters that describes key points in early tractor manufacturing and use.

Fig. 3. Luther Burbank on a Fordson Model F Tractor, 1918. THF126966. From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

If you visit the site, you will see the Fordson tractor that Henry Ford dubbed the “first” (though its serial number is 1,555). It is on exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Ford sent this tractor, manufactured by Henry Ford and Son, to Luther Burbank in early 1918 with an Oliver no. 7 plow (THF has an Oliver 7-A hitched to the Fordson). Two years later, Ford asked Burbank to return it so he could add it to his growing collection, and Burbank did so in February 1920. This preceded the 1929 legal formation of The Edison Institute, Inc. (now doing business as The Henry Ford).

Archival materials confirm the global nature of tractor manufacturing and distribution systems at the time. During the Great War, Ford and Son produced tractors in the United States and exported the first to England. By 1920, Ford bought out shareholders of Ford Motor Company, consolidated FMC with Ford and Son, and built new Fordson factories in the United States (1917) and in Cork, Ireland (1919). Fordson production continued in Ireland and the U.K. after 1928 when Ford stopped Fordson manufacturing in the United States. The Dagenham factory in England opened in 1933.

Fig. 4. Russian Women Operating a Fordson Tractor with plow, Rostow, 1926. THF89385. From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

The Soviet Union ordered thousands of Fordsons, starting in 1919. At least 25,000 were delivered from the U.S. and Irish factories. In 1926, a team of FMC technical experts toured Russia, training mechanics, and assessing potential for parts manufacturing.

Fig. 5. Cutaway of Fordson Tractor, 1926. THF187315. From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Agencia Ford Stabile (Rosario, Argentina).

Customer education went hand-in-hand with marketing. FMC used cutaways to teach dealers and buyers about internal combustion, power generation, and transmission. A Ford distributor in Rosario, Argentina, Antonio Stabile, instructed his service department manager, Bernardo Paglini, to make this cutaway of a 1926 Fordson tractor to display in his showroom and at exhibitions. Model changes made the cutaway obsolete, and Mr. Stabile shipped it back to Ford in late 1931 (and Ford added it to THF collections).

1920s Fordson product literature in THF collections includes foreign language editions in Danish, Dutch, French, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Ukrainian. Additional languages represented in 1920s parts and service literature includes Arabic, German, Italian, Polish, Romania, and Slovakian. 1930s parts and service literature expanded to include Bulgarian, Chinese, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian, Spanish, and Turkish.

Fig. 6. Employees with the 4,000,000th Ford Tractor and a Fordson Tractor at the Highland Park Plant, 1972. THF708121. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

This short overview barely scratches the surface of tractor marketing and distribution systems. FMC promotional literature 55 years after the Fordson’s introduction conveys the company’s global reach. The caption for the photograph of the 4,000,000th Ford tractor (a Model 9000 completed on May 18, 1972) included a sign with languages from some of the 130 countries where Ford sold tractors. Photographs of Ford Tractor Operations Facilities in Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom factored into corporate public relations in 1974.

This global reach, honed through competition with decreasing numbers of tractor companies during the twentieth century, transformed agriculture. The almost wholesale adoption of fossil fuels by 1950 (the last year that the U.S. Census of Agriculture counted horses on farms) coincided with the Great Acceleration, a time when carbon emissions overwhelmed the earth’s natural capacity to sequester carbon. Global warming resulted. Today, agriculture accounts for around 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), and most of that comes from tractor use (along with methane from livestock operations).

Fig. 7. Autonomous tractor, designed for market gardens and orchards, demonstrated at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, USDA, during the AIM4C summit, May 2023. Photograph by Debra A. Reid.

Climate-smart agriculture, with AIM4C representing a currently global effort, seeks to reduce GHGE. Mechanical and biological engineering factor into solutions. Some researchers have targeted electric autonomous tractors as part of the strategy. Others argue for a return to organic draft methods (horses, donkeys, oxen, water buffalo, etc.). Tractors remain a work in progress, and agricultural museums have the responsibility to bring this work to the attention of guests, raise questions and provoke more thought about the significance of the technology and its work.


You can read more about this topic by consulting these recent sources (many with extensive bibliographies):

Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate. https://www.aimforclimate.org/

Dahlstrom, Neil. Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester, and the Birth of Modern Agriculture. 2022.

Dalrymple, Dana G. “The American Tractor Comes to Soviet Agriculture: The Transfer of a Technology.” Technology and Culture. 5, no. 2 (Spring 1964). Pp 191-214. https://doi.org/10.2307/3101161

Ford Tractor and Implement Literature Collection, 1917-1986 (bulk 1948-1962) Accession 179, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan, available at http://www.dalnet.lib.mi.us/henryford/docs/FordTractorandImplementLiteratureCollection_Accession179.pdf.

McNeill, John and Peter Engelke. The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945. 2016.

White, William. “Economic History of Tractors in the United States.” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 26, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/economic-history-of-tractors-in-the-united-states/

Author: Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, The Henry Ford