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SNAPSHOT 358: 1908 Hornsby 20HP Heavy Oil Tractor

Richard Hornsby & Sons manufactured engines and machinery in Grantham, Lincolnshire from 1828 until 1918. The company grew into a major manufacturer of agricultural machinery and went on to produce steam engines used to drive threshing machines, and other equipment such as traction engines: their portable steam engine was one of their most important products and the market leader.

Work with Herbert Akroyd Stuart in the 1890s led to the world’s first commercial heavy-oil engines being made in Grantham. This Hornsby-Akroyd oil engine design was hugely successful: during the period from 1891 to 1905, a total of 32,417 engines were produced.

Hornsby are credited with producing and selling the first oil-engined tractor (similar to modern-day tractors) in Britain. The Hornsby-Akroyd Patent Safety Oil Traction Engine was made in 1896 with a 20 hp engine. In 1897, it was bought by H.J. Locke-King (later famous for creating the Brooklands circuit), and this is the first recorded sale of a tractor in Britain.

After successful trials with the British military in 1903 with a heavy-oil-engined tractor, in 1904 David Roberts, Hornsby’s managing director, patented a new form of crawler track which was applied to various prototype vehicles. In April 1908 The Automotor Journal reported on trials of two versions: one powered by heavy oil (as in our Snapshot) and one powered by petrol. Earlier attempts at laying down a temporary iron track to aid adhesion had been limited to individual wheels; the Hornsby was the first to apply the principle to the whole length of the machine, thus ensuring that its entire weight was available for traction. One of these tracked machines was tested by the War Office and in 1909 was ordered from Hornsby for military use. It was given the nickname Caterpillar, supposedly coined by soldiers who watched it moving along.

By 1911, the prospects for Roberts’s machine were fading and the War Office was no longer interested. He sold the patents to the Holt Manufacturing Company in America for £4,000. Learning of the Hornsby’s nickname, Holt registered “Caterpillar” as a trademark in 1911. Holts later merged with C. L. Best and became the Caterpillar Tractor Company.

When the First World War broke out, Roberts’s chain-track played no direct part in the development of the tank, although Lt-Col. R. E. B. Crompton, who later had an important role in its creation, had been present at some of the early trials and was influenced to some extent by the Hornsby. The first British tanks had no sprung suspension, and the track plates were an improved version of those of another American vehicle, the Bullock tractor.

In 1918, Richard Hornsby & Sons became a subsidiary of the neighbouring engineering firm Rustons of Lincoln, to create Ruston & Hornsby.

Photo courtesy of The Richard Roberts Archive:

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