Hornsby-Ackroyd tractor of 1896 at Newby 09 - IMG 2188

The Hornsby Ackroyd tractor built in 1896 (note the Propane torch to pre heat the cylinder head) at Newby Hall Vintage Gathering 2009. This tractor is part of the R. Crawford collection from Lincolnshire

Richard Hornsby & Sons was an engine and machinery manufacturer in Lincolnshire, England from 1828 until 1918.


The company bearing the name of Richard Hornsby (1790-1864), the agricultural engineer, was founded when Richard opened a blacksmithy in Grantham, Lincolnshire in 1815 with Richard Seaman, after joining Seaman's business in 1810. The company became Richard Hornsby & Sons in 1828, when Richard bought out his partner's ownership, when Seaman retired.

Product range and inventionsEdit

R. Hornsby & Sons grew into a major manufacturer of agricultural machinery, at their Spittle Gate Works. The firm 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. A farm was purchased nearby, where all their new products were tested before being produced.

Later a chain-track was added to an oil-engined tractor: the caterpillar track; these were developed and patented by Hornsby's chief engineer (and managing director), David Roberts, from July 1904. These were first used on tractors which served with the British Army towing artillery from 1910, but were later fitted to tanks which were used in the First World War from 1916. In 1909, a development model called the Little Caterpillar was demonstrated to the War Office. The army officers present at the demonstration believed it would frighten the horses.

First commercial filmEdit

In 1907, a chain-track was fitted to a 40hp petrol-engined car, and trialled in Aldershot, with film footage taken of the 15mph phenomenal machine. The film also showed a team of horses pulling a heavy carriage over a marsh. The horses, without much ceremony, sank. A caterpillar tractor then drove over the same marsh and avoided similarly sinking, and pulled out the horses. This film was shown to cinema audiences in summer 1908, who found it beguiling. It is thought to be the first (long-length) film made for commercial purposes. Shorter length film adverts had also been produced since the late 1890s.

Hornsby Akroyd engineEdit

Work with Herbert Akroyd Stuart in the 1890s lead to the world's first commercial vaporizing oil engines being made in Grantham (from July 8 1892). Other larger engineering companies had been offered the option of manufacturing the engine, but they saw it as a threat to their business instead. Only Hornsbys saw its possibilities. The first one was sold to the Newport Pagnell Sanitary Authority (later to be bought back by Hornsbys and displayed in their office). Later in 1892, T.H. Barton at Hornsbys replaced the engine's vaporiser with a cylinder head, increased the compression ratio, and the engine ran on compression alone for six hours; the first time this had been achieved. This was the first recognisable 'diesel engine', although it was built several years before Rudolf Diesel built his first prototype engines. 32,417 of the vapourising oil ('hot-bulb') engines were made by Hornsbys. They would provide electricity for lighting the Taj Mahal, Rock of Gibraltar, Statue of Liberty (chosen after Hornsbys won the oil engine prize at the Chicago World's Fair]] of 1893), many lighthouses and for powering Guglielmo Marconi's first trans-Atlantic radio broadcast.


After Richard's death in 1864, the firm was owned by his son, also Richard. He died at the early age of 50, quite suddenly, in 1877. The company became a public company, being valued at £235,000. Employing about 1,400 workers, it was managed by the two other sons - James and William. Throughout the First World War, Hornsbys were seconded to producing munitions and engines for the Admiralty. This left them little room for marketing or manufacturing other products - often needing years of development. The management realised their future was in doubt, so looked for a suitable (and preferably nearby) company to amalgamate with, choosing Ruston. On September 11th 1918 when employing about 3,000 people, the company was bought out by Ruston Proctor of Lincoln, Lincolnshire.

Preserved MachinesEdit


Sir John William - Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 6759 - Note the unusual regulator design

As an Early producer the machines are rare. The Traction Engine Register 2008 only lists 15 Hornsby machines in the UK and several of these have been repatriated from abroad.

Preserved machines built by Richard Hornsby and Sons Ltd 15 listed in TER
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Engine No. Name Build Date Type Weight Power nhp Reg No. Owner Image Other info
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 1531 - 1870 PE  ? ton  ? nhp - Owner ? To add At Preston Services 2010
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 1851 - 1871 PE  ? ton 6 nhp - Science museum collection Image needed LHB

In storage at Wroughton
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 2958 - 1875 PE  ? ton 9 nhp - Newcastle Science Museum Image needed LHB

May be at Beamish Open Air Museum
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 3444 - 1878 PE weight 4 nhp - Owner Image needed LHB

Misc info
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 3948 - 1880 PE weight 8 nhp - Owner Image needed LHB

Repatriated from Tasmainia c.1995
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 4171 - 1883 PE weight 8 nhp - Owner Image needed LHB

Imported from Mozambique
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 6239 - 1887 PE weight power - Owner Image needed LHB

Misc info
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 6469 - ~ 1880 PE  ? ton  ? nhp - Owner ? Photo here On Steam scenes
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 6557 Maggie 1889 TE  ? ton 8 nhp FL 2598 C. Hartwright, Abingdon Oxon to add At Welland Steam and Country Rally 2011
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 6759 Sir John William 1899 TE  ? ton 8 nhp BS 8421 Owner ? To add At ?
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 7297 Bob 1892 TE 10 ton 8 nhp - In Museum of Lincolnshire Life collection Image needed LHB

Repatriated from Australia
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 7815 - 1893 PE  ? ton 6 nhp - Preston Services To add At (T87) Preston Services 2010
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 8230 - 1896 PE  ? ton 8 nhp - Owner ? Image needed LHB

Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 8278 - 1899 PE  ? ton 10 nhp - Owner ? Image needed LHB

Semi portable originaly
Richard Hornsby and Sons no. 8623 - 1903 PE  ? ton 8 nhp - Owner ? Image needed LHB

several more survive in Australia and New Zealand Image needed LHB

Richard Hornsby and Sons no. ? Name ? date built type weight power Reg no. Owner Image needed LHB

Misc info
Key References / sources
Machine types Key: PE = Portable engine, PLG = Ploughing Engine, RR = Road Roller, SM = Showmans engine, SW = Steam Wagon, TE = Traction Engine

See alsoEdit


  • One Hundred Years of Good Company (history of R & H), by Bernard Newman, 1957, Northumberland Press.
  • Newby show guide and display board with the tractor.

External linksEdit

Video clipsEdit

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