Antique Power magazine articles often refer to a particular tractor’s horsepower or other ratings as determined by the Nebraska Tractor Test results. You might wonder what “Nebraska Tractor Test” means and how those ratings came to be established and accepted everywhere. The origins and evolution of this testing are an interesting part of tractor history, with worldwide consequences.
By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, more and more farms were becoming mechanized. Amazingly, more than 100 tractor manufacturers existed by then, many of whom made outrageous claims about the power, plowing capabilities, and other attributes of their machines. Companies tried to outdo each other with their promises to potential customers, but some of these tractors broke down almost as soon as purchased. It was obvious that farmers needed assurances of quality before letting go of their old-fashioned, but reliable, horses and mules in favor of the newfangled tractors that tempted them.
The experience of a certain member of the Nebraska state legislature named Wilmot F. Crozier became the catalyst for change. He purchased a tractor made by the Ford Tractor Co., a business started by some promoters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that had nothing whatsoever to do with Henry Ford, as Crozier had assumed. This fraudulent company simply hired a young man named Ford so they could legally use that name, thereby deceiving the farmers. This company’s preemption of the name “Ford” required Henry Ford to call the tractor he subsequently produced the “Fordson.”
The Ford tractor Representative Crozier purchased was a complete waste of money. He went through two more tractors before he could find a reliable machine. This frustration inspired him to partner with Nebraska State Senator Charles J. Warner to introduce and promote a bill titled the Nebraska Tractor Test Law and Rules For Official Tractor Tests. Because of the obvious need, the bill passed without objection in 1919 to become the first consumer protection legislation to specifically benefit tractor buyers. It resulted in the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory, established the following year on the campus of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. The law required that every tractor sold in that state be tested and approved by a board of three engineers from the university’s Department of Agricultural Engineering to substantiate the manufacturer’s claims. It also required that the seller must have not only a permit, but also a service station and a parts distribution facility within a reasonable distance.
For the sake of fairness, efficiency, and consistency in conditions, the lab built a special testing track with a surface of soil and cinders mixed together. They acquired an electric Sprague dynamometer (an instrument designed to measure mechanical forces) and other pieces of equipment, such as scales and speed counters. These, along with fuel and tools, were housed in the specially constructed laboratory building—a structure 41 feet wide and 82 feet long, with a 14-foot ceiling.
Several firsts and lasts appear on the historic timeline of the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab, not all of which can be listed here. The first tractor ever tested was a Waterloo Boy, model N 12-25, and the testing took place between March 31 and April 9, 1920. (See the results document for Test 001.) Two years later, in 1922, Test 087 on the McCormick-Deering 15-30 was the first to examine a tractor with a power take-off as standard equipment. Test 229, in 1934, would be the last conducted on a tractor fueled by kerosene—a McCormick-Deering W-12. Test 208, in 1932, was the first done on a diesel tractor, a Caterpillar. The first evaluation of a tractor with pneumatic rubber tires, Test 223, happened in 1934, using an Allis-Chalmers WC. The last test on a distillate-fueled tractor—the John Deere 720 All-Fuel—Test 606, took place in 1956.
Safety measures appeared in tractors as time went on, but comfort was not even a consideration during the infancy of testing. Surprising as it may seem to us now, the popular view the early years of tractor manufacturing was that any farmer who complained about something like a hard steel seat, on which he would be bumping over his fields all day, was not much of a man. That kind of attitude changed as farming continued to modernize, and the testing began to reflect those changes.
Over the decades, a number of different men have served as Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory’s engineer-in-charge, but Lester Larsen (1908-2000) is perhaps the best known. He took this position in 1946 and retired from it in 1975. During his nearly three decades of leadership, he continued to expand, refine, and improve the testing, adding measurements for noise levels, fuel consumption, and much more—all factors in building his legacy, a program that produced results so widely respected, trusted, and useful that the testing concepts influenced other countries to begin testing, too. Now, tractor test stations around the world follow codes established by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab is the official OECD facility in the United States.
In addition to all his technical knowledge, Chief Engineer Larsen sincerely cared about farmers and the progress of agriculture. He could relate to them, as they could to him, and he had great integrity and passion for his work. There was just one thing that disappointed Larsen: after years of collecting tractors and equipment, he always wanted to have a comprehensive tractor museum. His dream would come true in 1980, when the American Society of Agricultural Engineers (now the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers—ASABE) declared the original Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory to be an historic landmark, and it was dedicated as a museum. By then, the lab had moved to larger, more-modern facilities elsewhere on the university campus. Well-deserved honors came to Larsen just two years before the end of his life, when the museum was officially named the Lester F. Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum.
The important institution called the Nebraska Tractor Test has been around for nearly a century. When that 100th birthday comes along, every tractor owner ought to celebrate.
Would you like to order the Nebraska Tractor Test report for your antique tractor? Here’s the place to start: Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory — Publications and Subscriptions.
For a fascinating and extremely detailed report on the beginnings of the Nebraska Tractor Test, please see Transactions of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers Volume XIV 1920 (free download on Google Books)