Motorized Freak of the Week: The Hornsby Steam Crawler Tractor

  • Thursday 6th August 2020

I’ve been on a bit of a steam punk kick with the freaky stuff as of late, but you seem to be into it, so here’s another bizarre creation from the dawn of the 20th century that’s actually the patriarch of virtually every tracked vehicle in the world today. As most things in the “freak” realm the idea was sound, the performance was good, but the machine never became a major market success. In the case of the Hornsby, we’re not 100% sure why the idea did not take off at the time but we do know that it took off after the company had folded up. Believe it or not, the machine you see in these old photos still exists. Not the type of machine, the ACTUAL machine. When you find out there it was working the surprise on that becomes even greater.

At the turn of the century, the world was full of ideas and the industrial revolution had produced enough technology that those ideas, no matter how grandiose or fantastic, could be brought to life. That doesn’t mean they were all great or profitable ideas. Glorious failures were frequent. Such was the case of the Hornsby Steam Crawler, a creation developed with lots of hope and promise but that saw a scant production run of one machine.

The R. Hornsby and Son Company of Grantham, England, was a manufacturing enterprise that built oil-burning tractors, including some crawlers. They had constructed five oil-burning crawling tractors when they got to thinking about a machine that would be able to work in areas where there may be no oil. The idea of a steam-powered machine appealed to them because wood or coal could be burned to make steam.

They constructed this massive beat and showed it to armies, businesses, and whomever else they thought would be interested in buying one and the only people who bit were the owners of the Northern Light Power and Coal company who planned to use the tractor to haul coal in the Yukon region of Canada.

It’s important to note that the Hornsby company invented the chain track. After the company flopped, it sold the rights to the Holt Company in 1914. Holt combined with Best, and the Caterpillar Company was formed. In effect, the Hornsby is the primordial uncle of the modern tracked bulldozer, excavator, and tractor.

The steam crawler’s  job was to haul wagons full of coal more than 40 miles from the mine to a loading area where it could be loaded onto ships for bulk transport to cities and towns. The tractor itself weighs 40 tons and it could pull eight wagons weighing in at 12 tons each.

The engine was rated at 80 hp and who knows what kind of torque it made. Obviously by the weight of the load it could move, the answer is lots!

By all accounts the machine worked in the horrible conditions of the Klondike for 15 years or so. It regularly faced temperatures of 50 degrees below zero or worse.

The crawler was actually found in a Canadian barn a few years ago and is actually under restoration back into working condition. With its 40-ton heft, we guess that it will only be attending local shows.


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