The National Museum of Australia has one of the earliest combustion engine tractors built in Australia on display in the Canberra museum’s Gandel Atrium for a limited time.
The tractor, a McDonald ‘Imperial’ oil-powered ‘EB’ model, was the product of Australia’s first tractor manufacturer, A.H. McDonald & Co. of Melbourne. Built by Alfred and Ernest McDonald in 1912, a time when steam-powered traction engines and the use of horse-drawn equipment for farming was still the norm, the EB was an improved version of another oil burner, the ‘EA’ from 1908, which had been produced in the Richmond-based engineering workshop established by Alfred in 1903.
“Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the early tractors produced by AH McDonald & Co was the relative sophistication of their engineering, which included coil ignition, a three-speed gearbox and automotive rack-and-pinion steering. This reflects Alf McDonald’s capacity to improve the contemporary design of imported American tractors,” said Dr Ian Coates, an NMA curator.
Only three McDonald EBs were built, with the one now in the NMA’s possession purchased new by Frank William Chilcott for use on his 403-acre farm, ‘Lillesdon Park,’ located on French Island in Victoria’s Western Port Bay.
The tractor’s arrival on French Island required a police escort and was described as a memorable event, even frightening for some, which is unsurprising, given powered machinery was still rare at this time.
When Chilcott died in 1919, the tractor passed to his brother-in-law, Richard Bennetts and was used for land clearing at Lillesdon Park and the cultivation of chicory, which was an important crop on the island up until the mid-1960s.
It’s unknown if the other two EBs are still in existence, but imagery provided by the NMA shows a different McDonald Imperial EB in the Northern Territory in the 1910s, but this one appears to be in a transportation role, rather than cultivation.
Described as a revealing insight into the global transformation of agricultural practices that were triggered by the invention of the internal combustion engine in the 1870s, the 1912 McDonald Imperial EB tractor was acquired by the NMA for $250,000 in 2021. The purchase was supported by an anonymous benefactor and funds from the Federal Government’s National Heritage Culture Account, a grant programme that supports the acquisition of significant cultural heritage objects.
NMA Director, Dr Mathew Trinca, thanked the Government for its financial assistance with the purchase of the tractor, which he said is an unrivalled example of Australian ingenuity and design.
“The McDonald EB oil tractor represents a theme of Australian innovation in a revolutionary era for engineering. This acquisition represents our agricultural history, and we are thrilled to share it with Australia.”
The tractor will be on display at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra from 15 May to 23 July, 2023.
For more details, go to: nma.gov.au