By Lloyd Makonya and Chiedza Zharare
As one arrives at the Mutare Museum they are welcomed by a giant traction engine standing at an imposing height of three metres.
Visitors – old and young have been fascinated by this engineering master class which revolutionalized the locomotive industry and today proudly stands dominating the entrance to this museum of transport and antiquities.
A traction engine is a self propelled steam engine used to move heavy loads on tracks. Traction engines wherever you find them are large, robust and powerful but heavy and slow.
Regardless of their huge size and slowness, traction engines revolutionalised agriculture and road haulage at a time when the only alternative prime mover was the draught horse and carts.
The traction engine displayed at Mutare Museum is one of only two 1896 Bow McLachlan traction engines specifically made for the Manica Trading Company to transport goods from Chimoio to Harare using wagons in tow.
Powered by a two cylinder compound steam engine and steered by worm gear and chain, this machine was later used for haulage on various mines.
Formerly on display with the Mining Antiquaria Collection at the Natural History Museum in Bulawayo, the traction engine was transferred to Mutare Museum in 1985 as part of an exercise to centralise road transport related collections at this museum.
The first steam powered vehicle was built around 1672 by Ferdinand Verbiest a member of a Jesuit mission in China and was used as a toy by the Chinese Emperor.
Large steam powered vehicles to transport people and cargo were devised in the late eighteenth century using steam from boiling water to power the engine. Instead of allowing the steam from boiling water to escape it was directed along pipes to drive pistons backwards and forwards inside cylinders.
In Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, the steam engines were first imported in 1894 by The British South Africa Company (BSAC) which used them to haul goods from Beira port to the then Umtali (the present day Mutare).
It is also believed that the traction engines were also used to cart gold ore and other goods to the Theta Mine, near Kwekwe from surrounding small mines like the Antelope mine, Kaka, Abercombie, Park gate and Bowbell mines.
More were imported into the country as a substitute for oxen in the period after the cattle population had severely been affected by rinderpest.
Until the quality of roads improved around the 1920s there was little demand for faster vehicles and engines were geared accordingly to cope with their use on rough roads and farm tracks.
However the advent of petrol lorries which proved to be more efficient and tighter restrictions on the road signalling the demise of the traction engines.
From the 1950s, the ‘preservation movement’ started to build up as enthusiasts realised that traction engines were in danger of dying out.
Many of the remaining engines were bought by enthusiasts who restored them to working order signalling the birth of traction engine rallies and races.
Today traction engines are a significant tourist attraction and it is estimated that only about two thousand of them have been preserved across the world and the one at Mutare Museum is proudly one of them.