ASME-Landmark:Cooper Steam Traction Engine Collection


The engines at the Knox County Historical Society, built by Cooper & Co. of Mount Vernon, are among the oldest surviving agricultural steam engines to show the evolution from the portable, skid-mounted engine (ca. 1860), to the horse-drawn engine (1875), to the self-propelled but horse-guided engine (1875), and finally to the self-propelled, self-steered traction engine (1883). Such engines powered the conversion to mechanized farming, which was a great hallmark of the Industrial Revolution. Cooper built over 15,000 engines between 1853 and 1890 and other companies built thousands more based on the pioneering Cooper designs.

In 1833, after souring on the coal-mining business, Charles and Elias Cooper sold one of their horses for $50 and invested it in an iron-producing foundry in Mount Vernon. Horsepower was provided by a remaining horse named Bessie until 1836 when they installed a small steam engine. The company produced carding machines, special power machinery and plows, changing over time to include conventional slide-valve steam engines, machinery for the Mexican War of 1846-48 and blowing engines for blast furnaces. In the 1860s, Cooper hired Julius C. Debes to build Corliss-type engines. As chief engineer, Debes updated standard product lines for farms, saw mils, cotton gins, grist mills, and "anything that takes a revolving shaft," according to a Cooper worker.

Cooper's traction engine of 1875 was a highly successful experiment, sold far and wide in 23 states throughout the country and adopted by other manufacturers, who paid royalties to Cooper (Cooper and Co. was the first to manufacture a farm traction engine in quantity and to market nationwide). Steam-traction engines remained in operation on US farms until the 1940s. See ASME website for more information