1920s farm tractors and 1990s personal computers: New tech for the coming age

I remember my first computer. It was a Dell Dimension purchased in 1999. It gave me freedom, productivity, and possibilities. It’s the same way I suspect a 1920s farmer felt when a new Fordson, Waterloo Boy, Titan, or Cub was dropped off by their local dealer. Whether the putt-putt of a new tractor in 1920, or the drawn-out tone of dial-up Internet in 1999, new technology is both intoxicating and empowering.

I knew a few people with computers. When my freshman year roommate showed up with one, I knew only one thing. He was filthy rich. (This was not true, but that was my perception of anyone who owned such a luxury.)

This is not my first computer, but a Dell just like this was shipped to me late in 1999.

The early twentieth century farm tractor reminds me of my roommate’s computer. People would visit just to see it, and then ask to use it for a few minutes. It was much more convenient than walking all the way to the computer lab.

I didn’t have a computer myself. Growing up, our typewriter worked just fine. Sure, I hated replacing the ribbon, or using the White Out and then trying to line the paper back up. But if it was good enough for my parents and grandparents, then a typewriter was good enough for me. Or so I told myself.

Early tractor tech

A farmer in 1920 may have known someone with a tractor. Chances are they might have ridden their horse to a local tractor demonstration to see a “mechanical horse” at work. But for many, the tractor was still a strange machine known mostly from editorials and advertisements in farm journals. But by 1920, tractors were becoming more common, and there was definitely a buzz in the air. The latest offerings from International Harvester, Ford, Case, John Deere, Wallis, or some of the hundreds of other manufacturers, could not be ignored.

At some point, a closer look wouldn’t hurt.

Farmers had two reference points when they began to shop for a tractor—horses and steam tractors. Like early computers, steam engines were expensive, complex, and heavy. But if you had a chance to see one up close, you took the opportunity. They were wonders of modern ingenuity. And when farmers began to see smaller, gasoline or kerosene powered tractors during World War I, they might have started to daydream.

And by 1920, most farmers now owned an automobile. In fact, farmers were the largest buyers of automobiles in the country (it helped that half of the American population lived on the farm). And after the debut of the small and inexpensive Bull tractor in 1914, more farmers could envision a tractor on their farm someday. After all, they looked a lot more like their Ford or Chevrolet than a steam engine ever did.

Newspaper advertisement for the Moline Universal tractor.

iMac or Dell?

Of course, the world was changing all around me in the mid-to-late-1990s. Mosaic, then AOL and Yahoo, made the Internet accessible for the first time. eBay remade the auction, and Amazon.com allowed you to buy books online and get them shipped to your house faster than anyone thought possible.

I left the typewriter behind when I moved to college and there was no looking back. I waited in line at the computer lab, even when I had nothing to do. If I was on the computer, I felt productive. I could do so much more than I ever imagined.

After graduate school, I entered the workforce and could no longer delay the inevitable. It was finally time to invest $1,200 on my new Dell computer. I wanted an iMac, but its appearance was too radical for me. Besides, I had only used Windows, and if I was going to take this leap, I wanted something familiar.

The iMac was too different for me. I wanted revolutionary, and familiar at the same time.

Its no wonder that some tractor manufacturers introduced line steer (sometimes called reign steer) tractors. They were driven by leather reins instead of a steering wheel to give horse farmers a familiar feel.

It was also no surprise to me that tractors in the 1920s were sold to farm families as a way to keep their kids on the farm. New technology was a great incentive when nothing else could compete with the literal bright lights of the city.

Apparently, my parents didn’t want me to move back in. They offered to send me the typewriter, but never offered a new computer.

But when my computer finally arrived in the mail in the winter of 1999, I knew that I had finally made it. It cost three month’s rent, and was the first purchase I ever made under an installment plan. It was more than I had paid for my car. But to be productive, I knew I needed one.

Early twentieth century farmers were promised productivity, reduced input costs, and above all else, possibilities. If they didn’t buy today, they would be left behind, stuck with the known results of their parent’s and grandparent’s technology. Yes, it had its idiosyncrasies, but it was reliable—for the most part.

So was our typewriter.

I imagine farmers buying their first tractor in the 1920s felt exactly the way I did with that first computer. They were euphoric with a dash of “I can’t afford this.” But over time, the euphoria overshadowed the worry. The model I chose also didn’t even matter. Most importantly, I made the leap. And now, for the first time, I was on the edge of what could be, not what had already been.