The way it was when engines were young

1903 Haynes Apperson ad
A 1903 Haynes-Apperson two passenger runabout. (Detail from an old advertisement; courtesy of Floyd Clymer)

One hundred years ago gas engines and tractors were still pretty new, and most people didn’t know what made them go when they ran, or what made them stop when they quit.

A number of magazines had popped up, supposedly written by engine experts, to try to help neophyte engineers keep the stubborn contraptions going. One of these, Gas Power, the Magazine of Gas Engine Management, was established in 1903 in St. Joseph, Michigan.

A column in the November 1916 issue of the magazine titled Jack, the Gas Engineer, Says, contains the following tidbits of wisdom:

“When you see your neighbor having trouble with his tractor, don’t laugh at him too much; your turn is coming. No matter how good you are with a gas engine, you will someday run up against one that will make you think very little of yourself as a gas engineer.”

No power

Right now I have an engine on my hands, out of which I simply cannot get the power. It is not the engine’s fault. It has done some pretty stiff work for me, but right now it isn’t giving me the power, and it won’t until I wake up and find out where I am neglecting it.

One time I was running a tractor during threshing season and had gotten along so well that my hat was about two sizes too small. Everything was running so well that I went over to a stool and sat down to have a quiet little smoke.

I wasted three matches trying to light them in the grease on my overalls and was just going back to the tractor to find a place where I could get a match to light, when one cylinder stopped firing.

I tried the spark plugs, they were fine; I tried the coils, they were fine; I tried the compression, it was fine; I tried the valve timing, it was fine; I tried the wiring, it was glorious.

By this time I was getting hot under the collar, and had wasted an overgrown half-hour, when one of the bundle pitchers crawled under the engine and handed me a 1/2 by 4-inch pin. “Has that anything to do with the trouble?” he asked.

It sure had; it happened to be a contact pin, and it wasn’t working very well so far from home. My hat fit me fine for a couple of days after that.

Gas engine

What is a gas engine? A gas engine is: A help or a hindrance. A money-saving machine or an expense account. A safe source of power or a contraption of the devil. A toy or a tool.
In other words, a gas engine is just what you make it, it all depends on you.

Do you love your wife? Yes? Then don’t let her clean her gloves with gasoline beside the kitchen stove. This is a pendulum we’ll call it public opinion.

The editor tells us that somebody tipped the clock up so that the pendulum hung over toward large tractors, but then someone else kicked the clock over the other way and now the pendulum is over small tractors, and soon it’ll hang straight down over medium-sized tractors.

Well he’s a pretty good sort of fellow, and I guess he’s right. But I think when someone takes the trouble to stand that clock up straight, and then wind it, why then we’ll have all kinds of tractors. What do you think?

I hopped onto Bill’s tractor early one day and said, “Morning Bill, you look worried. What’s the matter?”

“Well, Jack, he answered, I don’t know just what’s wrong, but she never sounded like this before, and I can’t tell where the trouble is.”

I listened for a while and couldn’t hear or see anything wrong. She was walking along nicely; pulling eight plows right along, and playing as pretty a little tune as you ever heard.

A few days later, I saw Bill again and said, “What was the matter with your engine the other day, Bill?”

Bill grinned, “Well,” he says, “As near as I can figure it out, that was the first time I ever had her running right, and it didn’t sound natural!”

We have surely come along some in the last 15 years. I remember well the first magneto-equipped automobile that was sold in Harvard, Illinois.

It was a Haynes-Apperson two passenger car that had a one-cylinder motor perhaps it was a two cylinder, but I think not. What I do remember is that every loose man in town came to see that car when it was unloaded.

It was then considered to be a wonderful product of human ingenuity. Probably there were several hundred people interested in that car.

The other day at Cedar Rapids, I watched the cars that were driven onto the grounds. A big 12-cylinder one with all the refinements and improvements of the latest model did not attract any more than passing attention.

Yet it was an immeasurably better machine than the old curiosity of a decade and a half ago. I suppose in a few years we will pay little attention to an airship unless it knocks our hat off.


This man ran a tractor equipped with a high-tension magneto. For some reason, or lack of reason, he removed the magneto. When he replaced it, he failed to get it in time. Of course the motor would not start.

The operator knew the magneto was sparking because he felt it. After wasting a lot of time, and not a few swear words, he sent for a factory man to fix it. It’s surprising how many tractor owners do not know that a magneto must be timed to an engine, or how to do it.

So, as someone once said, And that’s the way it was, back in the days when engines, cars, trucks and tractors were young.


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!

Previous articleExploring the dirty water issue
Next articleYou are what you eat
Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.



We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.