The origin of the word "tractor"

   #1  

Jens767

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Hi :)

Most dictionaries and many tractor books will state that the word "tractor" originates from Latin trahere, but I have not been able to find any books yet, that explains how to get from the verb trahere to the noun tractor. Being a curious person with an interest in languages as well as in tractors, I decided to look into this topic myself, and thereby try to come a little closer to the origin of this word. Sadly, I have a very limited knowledge of the Latin language, so I welcome anyone with more knowledge than I, to come forward and correct me if I have made any errors or omissions.

Trahere is a verb in Classical Latin, which in English translation means: to pull, to drag, to tow, to haul, to draw and the like.

In perfect participle passive, the verb trahere becomes tractus, which in English would be: having been pulled (by someone), having been dragged (by someone), having been towed (by someone), having been hauled (by someone), having been drawn (by someone), and so on.

Finally, the stem of the verb tractus - which is tract - plus the Latin agent noun suffix -or, becomes the agent noun tractor (tract+or), which in English translation literally means: "someone or something that pulls", and so on.

This last step, to form an agent noun from a verb, is in English made by adding the agent noun suffix -er or -ist to the verb. Examples of this could be: to work becomes a worker, and to cycle becomes a cyclist.

Considering the large dominance of Latin during centuries around 2000 years ago, it is no surprise, that it has had a large influence on many European languages, including English. The agent noun tractor, is not the only word with Latin roots, that in modern English uses the Latin agent noun suffix -or: governor, doctor, actor, author, inventor, just to name a few. The Latin prefix tract-, is also used in modern English in words like traction, tractive, extract, subtract and a number of other words. These last words are just a few examples from the long list of words with Latin origin, which has had an immense influence on the English vocabulary, and they are a testimony to the fact that Latin is far from dead - as some might perhaps think.

Around 2000 years ago, the word "tractor" was of course not used to name the vehicle that we are now so familiar with by this name. Fast forward more than 1500 years.


The very earliest use of the word "tractor" - meaning a vehicle build to pull loads on roads or used as a power source for agricultural tasks - that I have found, is in US patent No. 34,471 awarded to Norman W. Wheeler from Brooklyn, New York on February 18, 1862. The patent has the title "Improvement in Tracto-motive Engines", and in the specification - which is part of the patent - Mr. Wheeler writes:

The leading object of this invention is to overcome the difficulties that have heretofore attended the application of the steam-engine as a propelling power or tractor on turnpikes or common roads; but it is by no means limited to these purposes. As a locomotive it may be used for propelling mowing and reaping machines, drawing heavy loads of grain, lumber, stone, &c., for building and farming purposes, and as a stationary engine, into which it may be readily and easily converted. It may be used for driving mills, for thrashing-machines, cotton-gins, hemp-brakes, for operating pumps or blowing-machines, hoisting apparatus, and almost every other purpose to which ordinary stationary engines or horse-power can be applied. It may also be used either as a locomotive or stationary engine for plowing, and therefore for this purpose can be rendered almost as available on rolling land as upon the most level prairies.

US34471A - Improvement in tragto-motive engines - Google Patents

As the link does not show the complete patent, it is difficult to imagine how this vehicle looked, but the above cited part of the specification describes perfectly the wide range of tasks that a tractor was expected to perform in the mid 1800s.

I have not been able to find further information on Mr. Wheelers tractor, and regarding Mr. Wheeler himself, only that he probably died in October 1889:

Norman W Wheeler (Unknown-1889) - Find A Grave Memorial


The next use of the word "tractor" that I have been able to find, is from January 23, 1880, when George H. Edwards (1847-1914) from Chicago, Illinois filed an application for a patent on a traction truck. Patent No. 232,395 was awarded him on September 21, 1880:

US232395A - Traction-truck - Google Patents

In the specification Mr. Edwards writes:

The object of my invention is to provide a tractor, to be propelled by a steam-engine or other suitable mechanical motor over firm or yielding surfaces, for pulling, pushing, and carrying purposes, as may be required for plowing and other uses, and that in such uses will exert a greater traction-power in proportion to its weight than other tractors heretofore produced.

The fact that he was able to write than other tractors heretofore produced, suggest that the word "tractor" was familiar to him at the latest in early 1880, and that it was perhaps used by manufacturers of tractors in the years leading up to 1880. Perhaps he was even aware of the fact that another inventor, Mr. Wheeler, had used this word 18 years earlier in his own patent.

On July 3, 1888, Mr. Edwards is improving on his patent (No. 385,449), but this time he does not mention the word "tractor".

On July 6, 1889, Mr. Edwards is filing an application for a patent on a tractor, using the word "tractor" as the patent title. The patent (No. 425,600) was awarded him on April 15, 1890:

https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/pdfs/3f247789dbc7f9e4b994/US425600.pdf

Just 5 days after filing the previous application, on July 11, 1889, Mr. Edwards is filing 4 applications with improvements to the tracks of his tractor. The patents (No. 425662-425665) are rewarded him on April 15, 1890 - the same day as the above mentioned tractor patent. In all 4 patents he mentions the word "tractor":

Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents - United States. Patent Office - Google Books

Mr. Edwards was also awarded a Canadian patent on his tractor. This patent (No. 32893) was awarded him on November 21, 1889:

http://www.ic.gc.ca/opic-cipo/cpd/e...ry.html?type=number_search&tabs1Index=tabs1_1

I have found it difficult to find further information on Mr. Edwards, as well as on his tractor. A search on "Find a Grave", on George H. Edwards from Illinois, found 11 matching records, but only 1 from Chicago, Cook County, where Mr. Edwards lived in 1889, when he filed the application for his patent No. 425,600:

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/139671748/george-h-edwards


Many tractor books will state that the word "tractor" was invented, either by the founders of the Hart-Parr Gasoline Engine Company, Charles Walter Hart (1872-1937) and Charles Henry Parr (1868-1941), or by W. H. Williams - Sales Manager of their company - to replace the cumbersome term, "gasoline traction engine".

In his very detailed book from 1979, Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, the author C. H. Wendel writes the following, with reference to an article written for the July, 1927 issue of American Thresherman Magazine, where Mr. Williams is reflecting on the early days in the company:

It is often said that W. H. Williams claimed to have invented the word "tractor". Quoting again from Williams' 1927 article: "In 1907 I began using the word "tractor" in our advertising. In 1912 I began to use the term "farm tractor", and the term seemed to be so appropriate that is has stuck with us ever since."

It is difficult to know whether Mr. Williams was familiar with the Latin origin of the word "tractor", or with the patents of Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Edwards, but based on the above quoting, Mr. Williams does not claim to have invented the word, he merely states that he began using it. As I read Mr. Wendels first sentence quoted above, he merely states that It is often said ..., but he does not claim that Mr. Williams invented the word either, as far as I can read.

The above stated connection between the Hart-Parr Company and the origin of the word "tractor", is also mentioned in The Agricultural Tractor: 1855-1950, published in 1954 and written by the author Roy Burton Gray (1884-1975). As Mr. Gray is familiar with patent No. 425,600 however, he states that the word had already been coined by Mr. Edwards in 1890. Mr. Gray does not seem to be familiar with Mr. Edwards even earlier patents though, nor with the 1862 patent awarded Mr. Wheeler.

Mr. Wendel probably describes the contribution by the Hart-Parr company to the modern use of the word "tractor" very well in his book Unusual Vintage Tractors from 1996:

Although the word itself is very old, it was Hart-Parr who made effective use of the word for its own machines, and it was Hart-Parr who popularized the word so that it eventually became part of the vocabulary.


Except for the first Latin part of this post, the rest is based on information found in US patents online or in American tractor books in my library. This means that there might be older occurrences of the word "tractor" in for instance British patents or tractor books, that I am not familiar with.

Some authors are stating that according to the Oxford Dictionary, the word was first used in 1856 in England as a synonym for traction engine. Sadly I don't have a copy of the Oxford Dictionary in my library, but if someone can confirm this, it would be interesting, because in that case it would predate Mr. Wheelers 1862 patent by 6 years. [Liljedahl, 1989]

In The Gatefold book of Tractors published in 1998, the author of the introduction, Stuart Gibbard, has an interesting comment after he has described the 1907 connection between the Hart-Parr Company and the word "tractor":

However, there is evidence that the term had been used in Britain before this date by Ransomes of Ipswich and Sharps of York.

Sadly, Mr. Gibbard does not present his evidence, and I have not been able to find documents or books confirming that either Ransomes or Sharps used the word "tractor" for their traction engines before 1907. Perhaps some of our British members can help?


To summarize:

- The word "tractor" has its origin in the Classical Latin verb trahere, and is around 2000 years old

- According to some authors quoting the Oxford Dictionary, the word was first used in England in 1856

- The modern use of the word, can be traced back to at least 1862, when it is used in Mr. Wheelers US patent No. 34,471

- In 1907 the Hart-Parr Company began using the word, thereby making the word more popular

- Perhaps the word has been used in Britain by Ransomes and Sharps prior to 1907


Best regards

Jens
 
   #2  

CalG

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Traction engines were common enough for a while.
Mobile
 
   #3  

Roadworthy

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You went to a lot of trouble to dig up the etymology of tractor. Thank you, it was indeed interesting though verbose.
 
  
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Jens767

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Hi Roadworthy :)

Thank you very much for your reply - and for your nice comments :)

If you, and perhaps a handful more, have found my post worth reading, it has been worth the effort for me to write it as well.

I found it difficult to write my post much shorter without leaving out something. On the other hand I thought that most members probably have English as their mother tongue, so they should find my post less difficult and time consuming to read, than it was for me to write ;)


Best regards

Jens
 
   #5  

ronaldbeal

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IIRC, Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies Limited, of Ipswitch, Suffolk England, introduced the first "Traction Engine" in 1840, as farm equipment. I believe "Tractor" was derivative of "traction engine".
just a point of research.
RB
 
  
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Jens767

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Hi ronaldbeal :)

You are absolutely right, that Ransomes were among the first companies to produce traction engines in the early 1840s, and their history is definitely worth its own research.

My point with this thread though, was to find the origin of the word "tractor", and to find out when it was first used, and by whom. Like most other manufacturers at the time, I would expect Ransomes to have called their tractors "traction engines", and that is why I didn't include them in my post.

As said, the British author Stuart Gibbard states that there is evidence that the term "tractor" was used prior to 1907. Sadly Mr. Gibbard does no present his evidence, and I sadly haven't been able to find it.

Like so many other words in English and other European languages, we also have to give the Romans the credit for giving us the word "tractor", as they used it some 2000 years ago.


Best regards

Jens
 
   #7  

CobyRupert

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Thanks for the research.

....so is it true that the term "bulldozer" (a tracked crawler tractor) is also racist?
 
 
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