Remember the Titans: International Harvester’s Titan dominated the early tractor industry

I studied History and Classics as an undergraduate. Much of it felt so familiar, and it took some time for me to realize how much classical history surrounds us every day. From the Gemini space program and the Titan rocket, to the naming of elements such as titanium, to an athletic shoe and clothing company you may have heard of—Nike—ancient mythology is all around us. You may even cheer for your favorite team—the Trojans, Spartans, Centaurs, or Titans. By now, you’re probably seeing the theme. Let’s remember the Titans.

First in ancient Greece were the Titans, led by King Kronos, the son of Uranus (the sky) and Gaia (the earth). In an effort to prevent challengers to his throne, Kronos ate his own children. But Zeus, his youngest, outsmarted him, and with the help of his siblings, overthrew the Titans to usher in a golden era of civilization, a civilization whose lives revolved around the cycles of the season.

In early twentieth century America, production on nearly seven million farms continued to be controlled by the cycles of the season (as they are still today). To increase productivity, the farm needed a new Titan, and International Harvester gave it to them.

Harvester sent two experimental tractors by train to the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition Association demonstration in 1909. They were being assembled until the very last minute, and were painted during transport. That year, only two-thousand tractors were built in the United States, and Harvester was preparing to make its move. After the trial, Harvester redesigned their demonstration machines, one of them becoming the Type D. The updated tractor was rated at forty-five horsepower. But the tractor needed a name to match its brute power. You could argue it was born of the earth and the sky, like Kronos, but I’m more comfortable saying it was born of ingenuity, trial, and experience.

Nevertheless, the Titan was reborn. It emerged in late 1910, with versions in development ranging from ten to sixty horsepower. And like the original Titans, Harvester’s tractors soon dominated—for a time. But like Kronos, Harvester’s Titan would too be outsmarted. In this case, a new force, nimble and well-financed, threatened to outflank the incumbent. It was called the Fordson.

Relying on its own dominance to date—more than 80,000 were now in the field—the Titan looked crude and unwieldy by 1916, a relic of a former age. Henry Ford expertly secured guaranteed sales contracts from county war boards that controlled the sale and disposition of farm tractors in the final year of World War I. Compared to the Titan, the Fordson was small, sleek and lightweight.

Harvester fought back with a smaller Titan 10-20 in 1916, and from 1918-1921, Ford and Harvester went toe-to-toe. In 1918 the two combined to sell 56,000 tractors, with Ford having the slight edge. Separation began the following year, and the year after. In 1921, Ford slashed prices. International Harvester countered, offering the Titan 10-20 at a reduced price of seven-hundred dollars. And then, in a last act of desperation, a free plow was thrown in to sweeten the deal. If agents heard of a Fordson demonstration, they were instructed to challenge it in a head-to-head competition.

The Titan 10-20 earned Harvester a strong second position behind the Fordson.

Still, the now $395 Fordson outsold the Titan five-to-one.

In Greek mythology, the original Titans were driven back into the earth. But on the American farm, the Titan would instead evolve into a new form, a redesigned and rebranded line of McCormick-Deering tractors that would extend the fight, waiting until the time was right to renew the battle.

And not to give it away, but that time was not far away. The tractor was called the Farmall, and it would change everything. Again.

My primary source for the evolution of the Titan is A.C. Seyfarth, Tractor History. McCormick-International Harvester Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society, McCormick Mss 6z, Folder 13864.