‘’That’s the great thing about a tractor. You can’t really hear the phone ring’’ — Jeff Foxworthy
Human beings tend to take things for granted and it’s only until we completely lose something that we understand its value. Now, tractors are still with us and can be seen on farms across the world, but as technology continues its fast-paced development and distracts us with its new phones, tablets and screens, they start to feel somewhat distant. If we take a second to redirect our gaze further away from the hustle and bustle of the cities, these large, modest vehicles continue to carry out their various tasks of ploughing, tillage and hauling.We haven’t lost them yet and they continue to appear in debates about their future usage and the various headlines appearing in the news about tractors becoming driverless within the next decade. Fading away is easy in this day and age, but there are some that choose to pay tribute and respect the history and legacy of the past and hold on to it dearly — one of them is the Cheboksary Scientific Museum of the History of the Tractor in Russia which is the only museum in the country that dedicates itself to tractors. It’s safe to say I arrived in one state of mind and left in another.
If you’re taking a trip to any of the cities on the Volga River in Russia, visiting the city of Cheboksary in the Chuvash Republic is a must. I was fortunate enough to find it on the crossroads of my journey in the region and have understood that you need to put some time in if you really want to come to grips with its staggering beauty. The museum itself is less than five minutes from the city centre and can easily be reached by taxi or bus. I was lucky enough to have a guide that showed me around the city itself, so it was no problem getting there.
Upon my arrival to the museum, one of the first things I noticed was an enormous yellow behemoth that looked like a gatekeeper of sorts watching over the building with some smaller ‘’protectors’’ on the side. As I learned later on, it was a historical model that continues its legacy across Russia and ex-USSR countries with its even more up-to-date versions. It was symbolic in a way that it would dictate the priority in the museum respecting the past more than contemporary versions. The image on the left does not do the actual size any justice as it seemed significantly larger in person which is yet another reason why you need to visit. Asking the guide: ‘’This must be one of the largest tractors, right?’’, he responded with a firm no, and went on to explain that there are models that are almost three times its size (!). I had heard a lot about the museum before coming and about the numerous high-profile, international visitors paying a visit to see the rare exhibits in the only museum dedicated to tractors in Russia. From Swedish contingents to visitors from the US, they were all interested to see what’s on display. The principal founder of the museum, Mikhail Bolotin, had the idea of solidifying a legacy of tractors, a field that has been of paramount importance in the family and through the connections in the field across the world, it has allowed for the torch to be passed on to the next generations.
The crucial first steps
The first room contained a general overview of the museum itself, and a noteworthy point was that this unique and one-of-a-kind Russian Museum was launched with the intention to promote education of the general population in the field of tractors and opened its doors on October 29, 2011. The museum is supported by the Russian Union of Machine Builders, the Russian Culture Foundation and the State Corporation ‘’Rostec’’. Anyone can pay a visit and would be interesting to anyone, especially if tractors are your thing — but don’t be surprised if you see a class excursion or two with local students. The exposition of the museum, which is located on an area of over 1500 square meters gives a complete picture of the history and development of Russian and world tractors with each room offering something unique. The museum exhibits do not only come in the form of documents and models of the tractors themselves but authentic images and sample tractors from domestic and foreign production that operate both in Russia and abroad.
As I entered the first room which was dedicated to early history of agriculture, farming and its developments, a thought appeared in my head; tractors really are a remarkable piece of engineering that have undergone significant transitions in steps and through the ebb and flow of history. We seem to have forgotten about the impact and legacy that they have left us in an age where things are changing fast. A tractor can carry, tow and transfer power to a variety of tools used in farming and agriculture and it should therefore be quite logical to understand that the word ‘’tractor’’ comes from the Latin agent noun for ‘’to pull’’ (trahere). While its function may really be to physically pull, it has pulled itself throughout the course of history in a way of ‘’pulling’’ technology from the depths of history. As my guide began his impressive presentation about the museum and the history of the tractor from day 1, I could only stand back in awe as he spoke about the topic in fine detail and knew the ins and outs about this historical piece of engineering. It’s not an everyday occurrence to meet someone that has harnessed something to such an extent.
Journey to the golden years. . .
Already at the end of the 19th century, experiments with agricultural tools were carried out with the help of the steam engine. Before tractors were first introduced to larger farms, and as small farms were merged into larger units, work was carried out with horses and mules. However, around the 1920’s in America, there was an explosion in the arrival of tractors to the farms. The decisive driving force was that the competition from rising industrial wages increased the cost of labour in agriculture. The investment in a tractor was logical when comparing how much a person could do per day. But the world’s first petrol-powered tractor in series production was The Ivel Agricultural Tractor, which was manufactured in Bedfordshire 1902–21. But the patent and first traces of its use are dated much earlier. In the second half of the 19th century on the fields of Great Britain there were already about two thousand traction engines from which the tractor derived from. In 1892, John Frolich from Iowa, invented, patented and built the first tractor operating on oil products. From there one we could see more of its use in steam.
A Russian connection. . .
A farmer by the name of Fyodor Abramovich Blinov from the province of Saratov received a patent in 1879 for the first tracked vehicles (a wagon on continuous tracks) which later developed into the first steam-powered track tractor for use on farms. This design became one of the most respected ‘’ancestors’’ of the modern tractor. Russia should pride itself in the fact that it has developed a vast array of such inventors and farmers that saw the need and implemented these revolutionary measures for farming. Worldwide, however, the first steam ‘’crawler’’ tractor design can be considered the invention of the Englishman John Heathcoat who was also the inventor of the industrial weaving loom in 1832. It all started to move dramatically quicker as the construction in 1837 of a working copy of a machine designed for ploughing and draining the English marshes came about. In 1858, a certain James W. Evans came up with the ‘’№5. Slide Trombone Tractor’’ which had a certain ‘’slide trombone” action, that came about as he designed something for his steam traction engine in New York. A noteworthy name in this was also ‘’Fordson’’ which aspired to be the equivalent of ‘’Ford’s Model T’’ in tractors, which was in fact mass-produced by the very Ford Motor Company from 1917–1920. The museum pays great tribute to Fordson as I noticed.
Fortunately, and as the guide reiterated, this was a great first step into its foundation in Russia, however it came to have a different ending in its name in the form of ‘’Putilovets’’. In 1919, Fordson and the Soviet Union signed an important agreement which made them become very serious partners in the former half of the 20th century. This meant that these ‘’Fordson Putilovets’’ started to become manufactured domestically. It was manufactured at the Leningrad plant “Red Putilovets” from 1924 to 1933 and became the most common country farm tractor at the time thus replacing horses and ploughing which was prevalent in the country at the time. Thus, the mechanization of manual farm labour began in Soviet Russia proper. But we should not forget the Kommunar which became the first Soviet tractor manufactured on the Kharkov Locomotive Plant and was derived from the popular German tractor Hanomag WD Z 50. It was not only operated in the sphere of the national economy, but also in the Red Army as an artillery tractor. From then on, tractors in Russia became established and were cemented in stone as esteemed in the ex-Soviet Union and abroad, including in France.
Legendary status was, of course, attributed to the Belarus series that started in 1950 and are today exported around the world. Following the success, there should be an honourable mention of the S-100 which was the first industrial tractor. A museum visit of this kind should also mention the local production that took place in Cheboksary as part of the concern plant in 1975 which released a series of tractors and bulldozers as part of ‘’Promtractor’’ including the models: Chetra T11, Chetra T15, Chetra T20, Chetra T25, Chetra TG122, Chetra TG222, Chetra TG302, Chetra TG503, Chetra TG511. The first one, however, came to be the T-330. An influential series, indeed.
There was so much information that I could hardly keep up and had to compile some points to ask him later on, including my own personal interest in the future of the tractor. . .
Will tractors become even lonelier with automated technology?
Terry Anderson, an influential inventor from Fargo in North Dakota has stated that we can expect to see driverless tractors in our fields within a few years as was his very prediction back in 2013. His company started to build 15 different test series and we’re already on the path for this realization as the internet of things and technology continues to pave forward. Luckily, my interest in the subject was matched by an exhibit in the museum, namely the potential use of tractors on other planets (as can be shown in the picture below). But let’s get back to Earth. The process behind it is the same and stems from autonomy in technology. If you’re aware of automatic grass cutters and indoor automated vacuum cleaners, you should understand that this advanced technology is very similar. Recently, I read a statement about the future of farming that seemed to add to this. ‘’Most tractors sold in the U.S. already include auto-steering systems that give additional control even in low-visibility situations. By implementing these advanced features in everyday farming, growers can really put the power of tech to work’’. This statement should suggest that we are on a path to reach Anderson’s prediction soon. Could automated tractors become widespread, though?
Blinov’s initial steam tractor has evolved a lot to say the least. Today it is digitized, connected, and works independently since it can do without the driver. Étienne Vicario, an expert in agricultural machinery, stated that satellite navigation makes it possible to treat parcels in a minimum of time and precision (to within 2 centimetres!). He adds that these machines are 100 times less polluting than 20 years ago, especially since we are starting to see electric tractors with fuel cells and fuelled with hydrogen or methane, which is produced on site with agricultural waste. Agriculture is a large consumer sector (therefore very dependent) of fossil fuels, whether in terms of fuel or nitrogen fertilizer. Outside, in a context of energy transition and rising oil price, there are tractors powered by alternative energy sources such as electricity or biomethane.
John Deere, for example, is developing SESAM (Sustainable Energy Supply for Agricultural Machinery), an electric tractor prototype of about 160 hp powered by Li-ion batteries with an autonomy ranging from forty five minutes to four hours depending on the type of work made. The autonomy is so far insufficient and dependent on the performance of the current batteries which should strongly develop in the coming years with the rise of electric cars. It’s safe to say that automation, together with alternative energy being used in tractors will continue to be of interest in the future. After all, this blog is dedicated to how today’s problems can be solved through the looking-glass of tomorrow’s tools.
Learning from a legacy
“Immortality is to live your life doing good things, and leaving your mark behind.” — Brandon Lee
As the tractor’s entrance in agriculture and farming occurred at a time of major transformations of society and became a significant part of these, it should come as no surprise that modern transformations are, on the contrary, becoming a part of the tractor. Respecting the past is not enough — its valuable lessons need to be understood, learned, embraced and improved. The Cheboksary Scientific Museum of the History of the Tractor combines the lessons of the past splendidly and gives comprehensive insight into all things related to the tractor. Being the only museum in the country that devotes itself to this remarkable piece of engineering, it should be proud that it can be crystal clear in its presentation and provide a platform for young and old. Anyone is welcome to partake in the world of the tractor that has, well… one of its doors open on the Volga but tractor museums do exist in other places around the world. Although I didn’t make use of the other resources the museum had available, a contemporary museum is nothing without the use of information technology, so after the tour of the exposition, I had the option to watch videos and work in a special tractor studio, as well as being able to tour the assembly line of the local “Promtraktor”. This shows that the museum, while it dedicates itself to a piece of engineering that has its roots in the past, is forward-thinking and stays on top of things. In a country that has made valuable use of tractors (and continues to do so) and knows what they have contributed to society, it made my visit extra special and educational. I received a ‘’hands-on’’ approach to this unique world. It’s safe to say that I entered the museum in one state of mind and left in another, a mindset of reverence.