Now in the Collection of the Smithsonian Institution

A new source of electrical power - fuel cells - came out of the laboratory to power a vehicle for the first time on October 15, 1959 when it was demonstrated in Milwaukee. The research vehicle developed about 3,000 pounds of drawbar pull, enough to pull a multiple bottom plow.

Fuel cell tractor in operation.

An under-the-hood look at the fuel cell tractor.Larger picture.

The electricity that powered the tractor came from 1,008 individual fuel cells, which can seen in the photograph. These were joined in 112 units of nine cells each. The units were arranged in four banks and electricity could be taken from any combination of the banks. A mixture of gases, largely propane, fueled the cells. The gases were fed into the cells through a system of tubing; and, once in the cells, the gases, including oxygen, reacted in an electrolyte. A catalyst coating the electrodes of each cell aided the reaction.

The chemical reactions within the cells caused a direct current of electricity to flow through an external circuit. This circuit was connected to a standard compact controller (measuring 8 by 11 by 21 inches) that regulated the electricity supplied to a standard 20 horsepower D.C. motor, also supplied by Allis-Chalmers.


Allis-Chalmers Research Division developed the prototype of the fuel cells used in the tractor. The company announced its fuel cell a little more than a year before this demonstration of the first self contained system. Since then researchers developed larger, more efficient fuel cells. Indeed, fuel cells were used to supply electric power for the Apollo space vehicle in its flights to the moon. Due to funding cuts to projects in which Allis-Chalmers had been involved, the Company discontinued its work in fuel cells in 1970.