Reforming an Industry: The Nebraska Tractor Test Lab

Tractor in building

The first test conducted at the NTTL, a best test on the Waterloo Boy "N" 12-25

Zachary Temple, History 250: The Historian Craft, Fall 2019

The University of Nebraska Tractor Test Lab, located on East Campus, formerly University Farm, has been the most trusted name in tractor specification testing for over 100 years. In the early twentieth century when the tractor industry was moving faster than the wheels of legislation, the University of Nebraska was instrumental in reforming the industry's early issues. The test lab leveled the playing field in a way that helped farmers understand the true quality of the machinery they were purchasing. Through the development of standardized methods of tractor testing, the implementation of the Tractor Law through House Roll 85, and the utilization of the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab, the tractor industry in Nebraska was improved for both consumer and manufacturer.

In the early 20th century, farming was being revolutionized by the introduction of tractors and traction technology. In the past the preferred method of farming had been through the utilization of animal labor such as oxen, mules, or horses. These beasts of burden were used to pull a variety of farm implements through the fields as well as miscellaneous heavy hauling needed on a farm. These animals however, required food and shelter, and were still limited by their own physical strength. The implementation of machinery to replace load bearing livestock was found to be very advantageous. These machines, which quickly came to be known as tractors, were able to do the same work as livestock but often in a faster and more efficient way. Farmers were able to find an almost limitless list of uses for these early tractors, allowing them to exponentially increase a farm’s productivity.  However, the relatively expedient appearance of the tractor in the world of agriculture, coupled with the demand for enough tractors to support the livelihoods of a large number of farmers, led to a unique, but unsurprising problem. Many of the tractor companies were more concerned with making money than making reliable tractors or producing honest advertising material. There were numerous cases in which a farmer would purchase a tractor and quickly find themselves in a position with a faulty or underperforming tractor, no way of attaining parts for said tractor, and in some cases, no way of contacting the company. [5]

In order to standardize tractor specifications and be able to accurately compare and contrast the performance of these machines, methods of testing them needed to be developed. The man at the forefront of this movement was the Chairman of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Nebraska, Leon Wilson Chase. Chase’s position of authority in the University had made him aware of this issue of tractor reliability. However, it was not until he worked as a judge at the Winnipeg Motor Contest, where he watched farm machinery compete against each other in various ways, that he became inspired to advance the science behind testing this equipment.[5] Beginning in 1915, Chase, along with Agricultural Engineering Professor O. W. Sjogren, began conducting trials, similar to those in Winnipeg, in Fremont, Nebraska.[5, 7] Professor Chase then used his platform as head of Agricultural Engineering, as well as his influence in the American Society of Agricultural Engineers, and the Nebraska Tractor and Threshermen's Association to promote his cause. [5, 7]

In 1917 Chase met with the Agricultural Engineering Department at the University of Minnesota. Chase’s reasons for the visit were to observe Minnesota’s new Agricultural Engineering building to help decide how to best furnish the one being built in Lincoln, and to attend a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers. While at the meeting, Chase was able to convey to them the importance of tractor testing development, and successfully arranged for a meeting of the society to be held at the UNL campus. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the means of standardized testing of tractor engines. [1]

By the time the official tractor testing began at UNL in 1919, there were nine different tests split into two major categories of standard tractor engine tests in use at the University, belt tests, and drawbar tests. These tests used an apparatus called a dynamometer to measure the power output of tractor engines. Belt tests measure the amount of horsepower tractor was able to deliver to a single belt. To conduct this test the tractor engine is belted to a Sprague dynamometer (a specific variation designed to test belt power) while the belt driving power of the engine is tested at varying levels of resistance. Drawbar tests require the tractor to pull a special apparatus known as a dynamometer car. The dynamometer car was specifically designed for the tractor testing. It was controlled by an engineer who rode in its cab and controlled the instruments, meanwhile it was pulled by the test tractor and recorded the amount of horsepower being delivered to loads of varying weight.[11]

Although the system for testing tractors had been established and proven effective, without any requirements for the tractor companies to have their machinery tested, it was chiefly academic. While many companies were more than happy to submit their tractors to these tests, there was nothing preventing bad business on the part of less reputable tractor companies. Seeing this as an issue that would only be solved through legislation, L.W. Chase joined forces with Senator Charles Warner of Lancaster County and Representative W.F. Crozier of Osceola, both were state politicians that had experienced these issues firsthand through their own endeavors in production agriculture. In 1919, this triumvirate drafted a piece of legislation which would require tractor companies to have their tractors tested in Lincoln at the, then new, Tractor Test Lab at University Farm before it would be permitted for sale in the state of Nebraska.[4, 5] The bill was introduced to the house by Crozier.[5] After passing the house it was sent to the Senate, where Senator Warner pushed it through with all but one vote.1 Much of the law was actually amended by Professor Chase, who argued for it in both legislative bodies and was the chief authority on the subject.[5]It is important to note that at the time when this legislation was passed Nebraska was still using the traditional bicameral system of legislating. It was not until 1937 that the unicameral was adopted.

The Tractor Law, House Roll No. 85, was enacted into law during the 37th session of the Nebraska legislature. It stated that as of July 15, 1919, no tractor can be sold in the state of Nebraska unless it has been tested and evaluated by a board of three capable engineers and the chief engineer at the University test lab, then confirmed by the state railway commission. The submitted tractor was required to be a stock version with no add-ons or extra features that would not be present on the tractor at its most basic package. The law also put a stop to dishonest and misleading claims or statistics in the advertising material of tractor companies. Additionally, any tractor company doing business in Nebraska was required to have a service station in the state with a full supply of replacement parts and the ability to ship said parts to anywhere in the state. In this arrangement, the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab would evaluate the tractor, conduct its tests, and look for anything noteworthy. An official report was then sent to the railway commission, which handled the legal side, in regard to placing reprimands on companies and generally enforcing the law.[13]

Following the passing of Roll 85, tractor companies had no choice but to comply with the regulations if they desired to do business in the state of Nebraska. Due to unforeseen delays in receiving the necessary equipment, testing was not able to begin on schedule.[3] This led to a small panic as many of the tractor companies questioned whether they would be able to continue doing business after the cutoff date. In response, the railway commission assured the companies that they would be granted temporary sales permits as long as they had submitted an application to have their tractor tested.[9] In the first year, there were 103 applications submitted for testing, however, 35 or these withdrew their applications before even appearing, and another two withdrew after testing had already begun.[6]

The first tractor tested at the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab was the Waterloo Boy “N” 12-25. In addition to the standard testing for horsepower, the tractors were also evaluated for overall performance, handling, endurance, fuel consumption, as well as anything else they found noteworthy. Besides the evaluation of the machinery, the advertising materials were analyzed as well. This practice was done to ensure there were no claims or statements made by the company which could potentially mislead the consumer. Official test reports included general notes on the tests, a list of repairs and replacements done to the equipment, and a general comment section. These reports included any comments on what the engineers believed should be changed about the machine or its specifications. This was also where corrections and critiques on the advertising materials were made. Once finished, reports were sent to the state railway commission where they were evaluated and published, along with their official changes in the state railway commission annual report.[2]

The importance and quality of the work being done at the test lab can be exhibited through the quick and positive reactions from the agricultural engineering and farm machinery community. Within the first year of testing, the lab was already receiving inquiries from many of their departmental peers in other institutions as well as interest from engineers in both Canada and England among other nations.[8] A French company sent numerous letters regarding interest in these new methods of testing farm machinery to Nebraska City, believing it to be the state’s capitol.[12] This illustrates how quickly the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab’s success occurred and helped to put the University of Nebraska on the map in regards to agricultural science and research. 

It soon became clear that the testing was not only advancing engineering research but had a long-term effect of the design of the tractors coming off the assembly line. Eight years after the establishment of the lab the chairman of engineers Oscar W. Sjogren, one of the lab's founding engineers, commented on this development.[5] He stated “A general improvement in operation and design is noted...Practically all now employ air cleaners and enclosed gears as a protection against effects of dust, and show also, that considerable attention has been given to the simplification of design and improving ease of operation and of servicing.”[5] The testing methods conducted at the University of Nebraska would go on to become the official national standard, as designated by both the Society of Automotive Engineers, as well as the American Society of Agricultural Engineers.5 The test lab would go on to become the world standard in its respective field, the lab’s methods make up a majority of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s code for the testing of farm machinery.[5] To this day, the University of Nebraska Tractor Test Lab remains the most trusted name in tractor testing and the advancement in tractor testing technology. 

Through the development of the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab at the University of Nebraska, and the passing of House Roll 85, L.W. Chase and his agricultural engineering staff had as far reaching an impact as any faculty in the University’s history. It was additionally forward thinking of the Nebraska lawmakers of the time to value both the importance of tractor testing regulation and cooperation with the state university. Because of the efforts of these men and the foresight of the University, the farmers of Nebraska, the United States, and ultimately the world were better equipped to purchase quality equipment to feed their families as well as the world. Though Equipment and techniques have changed, the practical concepts, as well as the principles, of the tractor testing done 100 years ago still form the foundation for testing conducted at the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab today. 

Endnotes

  1. “Automotive Engineers Will Meet Here Soon” The Daily Nebraskan(Lincoln, NE), Dec. 17, 1917. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE. https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1917-12-17/ed-1/seq-1/#words=tests+tractor
  2. Claude K. Shedd, “Report of Official Tractor Test No. 1” (Lincoln, NE, 1919) RG 08-07-05, Box 1, Tractor Test No. 1, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, LDRF Reading Room, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.
  3. Correspondence from Claude K. Shedd to The Advance-Rumely Thresher Co., La Porte, Indiana, September 16, 1919, RG 10-01-02, Box 34, Agricultural Engineering Tractor Testing 1920-1921 (A#2), University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, LDRF Reading Room, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.
  4. Correspondence from Prof. E. E. Brackett to Allis-Chalmers Mfg. Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, July 27, 1919, RG 10-01-02, Box 34, Agricultural Engineering Tractor Testing 1920-1921 (A#2), University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, LDRF Reading Room, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.
  5. Elvin J. Frolik and Ralston J. Graham, The University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Agriculture: The First Century Part V, Departments, Quasi-Departments, and Liaison with Administrative Units Outside of the College/IANR (DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1987), 165-167. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1005&context=ianrhistory
  6. “Local News Items” Dakota County Herald(Lincoln, NE), Mar. 24, 1921. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Dakota City, NE. https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/2010270500/1921-03-24/ed-1/seq-5/#words=testing+Tests+tractor+Tractor
  7. “Farm Instructors Attend Meeting of Engineers” The Daily Nebraskan(Lincoln, NE), Jan. 4, 1918. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE. https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1918-01-04/ed-1/seq-1/#words=tests+tractor
  8. “New Tractor Testing Methods Grow Popular” The Daily Nebraskan(Lincoln, NE), Mar 17, 1920. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE. https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1920-03-19/ed-1/seq-1/#words=TESTING+TRACTOR
  9. Photo013, 1919, photograph, Lester F. Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum Archive, Lincoln, NE, USA. 
  10. Photo014, 1919, photograph, Lester F. Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum Archive, Lincoln, NE, USA. 
  11. “Series of Tractor Tests Completed at Uni Farm” The Daily Nebraskan(Lincoln, NE), Dec. 2, 1920. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE. https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1920-12-02/ed-1/seq-3/#words=tests+TESTS+TRACTOR+tractor
  12. “Think Neb. City is State Capital” The Daily Nebraskan(Lincoln, NE), Dec. 6, 1920. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE. https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1920-12-06/ed-1/seq-1/#words=testing+tractor
  13. “Tractor Law” (H.R. 85, Lincoln, NE, 1919) RG 05-10-02, Box 1, Folder 1, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Bibliography

  • “Automotive Engineers Will Meet Here Soon” The Daily Nebraskan (Lincoln, NE), Dec. 17, 1917. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE. https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1917-12-17/ed-1/seq-1/#words=tests+tractor This Daily Nebraskan article highlights the fact that L.W. Chase would be meeting with his peers regarding the tractor testing. This meeting was designed to form a trend for the what would eventually become the standardized tests that can reliably test tractor power.
  • Claude K. Shedd, “Report of Official Tractor Test No. 1” (Lincoln, NE, 1919) RG 08-07-05, Box 1, Tractor Test No. 1, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, LDRF Reading Room, Lincoln, NE, USA. This document is the first official report of the test lab engineers, hundreds like it would follow. Each highlights a different tractor and the overall results of testing it, as well as any recommendations or what was found noteworthy. It shows what the engineers were looking for and the rhetoric they used in their recommendations.
  • Correspondence from Claude K. Shedd to The Advance-Rumely Thresher Co., La Porte, Indiana, September 16, 1919, RG 10-01-02, Box 34, Agricultural Engineering Tractor Testing 1920-1921 (A#2), University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, LDRF Reading Room, Lincoln, NE, USA. A letter between Claude K. Shedd, the chief engineer at the time, and the Advance-Rumely Thresher Company. This letter gives insight to the both the difficulties being had with setting up the lab, and the companies worry that this new law will cause them to lose money.
  • Correspondence from Prof. E. E. Brackett to Allis-Chalmers Mfg. Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, July 27, 1919, RG 10-01-02, Box 34, Agricultural Engineering Tractor Testing 1920-1921 (A#2), University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, LDRF Reading Room, Lincoln, NE, USA. An account of the meeting held between Chase and some of his peers and the tractor company representatives, told via a letter between engineer E.E. Brackett, and the Allis-Chalmers company which was unable to attend. This letter shows the compliance that reputable tractor companies had for the law. They felt that it would eliminate subpar competition that was only successful due to having low prices by producing poor equipment.
  • Elvin J. Frolik and Ralston J. Graham, The University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Agriculture: The First Century Part V, Departments, Quasi-Departments, and Liaison with Administrative Units Outside of the College/IANR (DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1987), 165-167. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1005&context=ianrhistory This is an excellent source from an online book about the history of the University of Nebraska. It provides a fairly brief but well written summary of the test labs history and helps in the understandings of the overarching narrative.
  • “Local News Items” Dakota County Herald(Dakota City, NE), Mar. 24, 1921. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE, USA. https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/2010270500/1921-03-24/ed-1/seq-5/#words=testing+Tests+tractor+Tractor This article gives an account of the number of tractors that withdrew from the testing. It gives insight into the number of subpar tractors on the market at that time.
  • “Farm Instructors Attend Meeting of Engineers” The Daily Nebraskan(Lincoln, NE), Jan. 4, 1918. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE, USA https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1918-01-04/ed-1/seq-1/#words=tests+tractor This article discusses Chase’s experiences judging tractor contests. It gives background and understanding to his motives as well as providing a more fleshed out genesis for the idea of tractor testing.
  •  “New Tractor Testing Methods Grow Popular” The Daily Nebraskan(Lincoln, NE), Mar 17, 1920. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE, USA. https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1920-03-19/ed-1/seq-1/#words=TESTING+TRACTORThis Daily Nebraskan article discusses the international attention that was being gained by the test lab in its early years. This adds credence to the important and groundbreaking nature of their work.
  • “Series of Tractor Tests Completed at Uni Farm” The Daily Nebraskan(Lincoln, NE), Dec. 2, 1920. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE. https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1920-12-02/ed-1/seq-3/#words=tests+TESTS+TRACTOR+tractor Daily Nebraskan article that depicts the specifics of the actual testing and gives many technical reasons for how the tests were conducted and how they worked.
  •  “Think Neb. City is State Capital” The Daily Nebraskan(Lincoln, NE), Dec. 6, 1920. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE. https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1920-12-06/ed-1/seq-1/#words=testing+tractor Provides additional sources the amount of fame that the test lab was achieving in the agricultural engineering community.
  •  “Tractor Law” (H.R. 85, Lincoln, NE, 1919) RG 05-10-02, Box 1, Folder 1, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA. This document contains the full H.R. 85 Tractor Law. This allows for a full understanding of what was implemented and how it kept the tractor companies in check. It also provides excellent context for the connection with the test lab.
Reforming an Industry: The Nebraska Tractor Test Lab