By Lauren Schwark
On June 28th, 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip. One month later, World War I had officially begun with Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. There were almost forty million casualties by the time the war was finished. Many people, particularly in Germany and the United Kingdom, suffered from lack of food, mostly due to the disruption of trade by sea in the Atlantic U-boat campaign. This food shortage is a direct cause of the invention of the Henry Ford & Sons tractor, later called the Fordson tractor, in 1916 and its availability on the market in 1917. The Fordson tractor illustrates a mastery over nature that had not been seen previously, and forever changed the course of human history for the better through changes in the environment, particularly in farming, opposing Malthus’s view that increasing population would eventually outstrip production of food.
The anthropocene is the concept that humans have created a new geological age by their influence over nature and the environment. It is characterized by a change from “adapting to our environment to making it adapt to us”, specifically in the way that humans have change natural processes and ecosystems. This is exemplified in the astonishing increases in carbon emissions warming the earth, and population necessitating changes in the physical environment and natural processes (i.e. flow of rivers, damming to create reservoirs, overuse of fertilizers, etc.). A specific example of this is modern agriculture. Modern agriculture necessitates irrigation, fertilizers, machinery, and all of the consequences that come along with these things, such as lack of access to water for non-agricultural purposes, possible displacement from changes in the flow of water, the creation of dead zones in bodies of water, acidification of soil, carbon emissions caused by fossil fuels, and extraction of resources.
World War I, and the food shortage that came along with it, was a direct cause of the rise of the tractor. Although, by many accounts, the tractor had been invented in 1892 by John Froelich, a farmer from Iowa who though trial and error pieced together already invented components and concepts (like internal combustion, steam power, and gas engines) in a Frankenstein-like patchwork of a machine. Froelich’s tractor was a “gasoline traction engine that powered a thresher and pulled the rig from field to field”. Other than the fact that he created the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company based on his design, which was absorbed by Deere and Company in 1918, not much is known about Froelich. He and many other tractor manufactures found themselves popular and profitable for only a few years before the tractor boom during World War I. This is mostly due to the fact of the dominance of the Fordson tractor and the fact that these manufacturers were too early in their designs.
By the time World War I was in full swing, around 1916 through 1918, tractors became incredibly profitable because those countries fighting the war on the front lines, namely the United Kingdom and France, were fatigued and did not have as much access to food as they had previously, due to the U-boat campaign. As the war lengthened, the campaign took a toll on British and French civilians, especially in regard to the “horses and mules that pulled the wagons, caissons, ambulances, and hearses [which] suffered a high mortality rate that soon resulted in a world-wide shortage of horses”. While the U-boat campaign caused a shortage of imported food, this shortage of horses caused a shortage of domestically grown food as well.
The solution to this was self-sufficiency in the agricultural sector. There was an increasing need for a machine that was “a durable, self-contained power plant, so light as to neither waste power in moving it nor compress the ground passing over it, capable of performing every operation from driving stationary machines, to plowing, pulverizing, seeding, cultivating, harvesting, and hauling the crop”. Additionally, the machine had to be “low in cost, both initial and operative, economical of labor and repairs, and capable of utilizing economically whatever fuel may be most abundant and procurable”.
The design of the Fordson tractor that had been manufactured was just this. The machine was described as incorporating the “well-known Ford idea of simplicity and accessibility, lightweight and good materials.” Farmers were delighted to realize that the tractor would “readily do the work of four horses in plowing and harvesting.”
The main attributes of the tractor that were the most desirable were its versatility and efficiency. Farmers could not only seed, cultivate, and harvest their fields, but they could haul the crop around and transport other items across long distances, all while using a wide range of fuels and saving money on labor and repairs. It was a compact machine, replacing many different instruments, and an affordable one, reducing the cost of farm maintenance. It also did four times as much work in the same amount of time, allowing for an exponential increase in food production. This was the perfect situation for solving a food shortage.
Fordson tractors were sold both in the United States and overseas in Europe. Surprisingly, though, Ford was late to the game. Not only were tractors being bought and sold for many years prior to this, Ford did not actually produce any tractors until 1917, three years after the war had started. Ford announced that his company would begin to make tractors in 1916 and he began negotiations with the British government around this time. The British government was very interested in this deal because of Ford’s famous assembly line, but Ford’s company did not actually start manufacturing tractors until 1917, when the British government, “which desperately needed tractors for the wartime food effort,” put intense pressure on him to begin manufacturing. Once this deal was settled and the tractors were delivered to the United Kingdom, Ford began manufacturing tractors in the United States as well. He, however, announced that he would only sell tractors through state governments, initially. Of course, the tractors eventually became commercially available to the common American farmer. This had the built in bonus of improving the public perception of the company, playing off of American patriotism, while at the same time reducing the cost of creating a distribution network on his own. Ford’s efficient assembly line production method eventually flooded the market and this is when the tractor became available commercially.
The Fordson tractor’s extraordinary ability to exponentially increase food production, among other technological advances of the time period, silenced Malthusian critics. Malthus believed that eventually human population growth would increase at an exponential rate, while production (particularly food production) would only increase at a linear rate. With the manufacturing of the tractor and the advent of use of mechanical tractors, farmers were able to increase food production at an exponential rate, escaping from the confines of linear growth and escaping from Malthusian thinking. However, the exponential increase in food production also caused an exponential increase in resource use (fuel, fertilizer, etc.) and effects of increased land use (soil exhaustion, displacement of topsoil, etc.) that forever changed the landscape.
Eventually, though, the profits and popularity of the Fordson tractor diminished. The public image of the Ford company began to be associated with cheapness instead of efficiency. Ford only sold a few implements with his tractor, while competing companies sold many. The war ended in 1918, decreasing the demand for tractors. It was not only Ford who was hit by this slump in the tractor market, but he was arguably hit the hardest, particularly because of his peculiar unwillingness to sell ‘add-ons’ with his tractors and the reversal of his image based on his assembly line. Eventually, Ford’s tractors became fossils of the past.
This, however, does not mean that the tractor itself became a fossil, or diminishes the impact the Fordson tractor made on the history of the tractor as a whole. Millions of farmers across America, and the world, continue to use tractors to cultivate their fields. As they do so, however, they force the environment to adapt through changing landscapes, natural processes, and ecosystems, and the resulting environment is forever changed.
Crutzen, Paul, “Geology of Mankind” Nature, Vol. 415, 3 January 2002.
Pagé, Victor Wilfred, The Model T Ford Car and Ford Farm Tractor, New York, USA, 1918.
Robert Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, London: 1798. Read Chapters 1, 2, and 5, pp. 1-11, 23-31
Syvitski, James, “Anthropocene: An Epoch of Our Making” Global Change, Issue 78, March 2012, pp.12-15.
Williams, Robert C., Fordson, Farmall, and Poppin’ Johnny: A History of the Farm Tractor and Its Impact on America, University of Illinois Press, 1987.