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Byron Shire
May 22, 2024

Early tractor finds forever home at National Museum

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The 1912 McDonald EB Imperial tractor no. 140 on display in the Gandel Atrium of the National Museum
of Australia. Photo – Jason McCarthy. 

Farming is not what it once was and innovations in all areas of agricultural industry have seen processes become faster, more productive and hopefully safer.

But it’s always good to look back where we came from, and one of the earliest surviving Australian-made tractors, the vintage 1912 McDonald ‘EB’ oil tractor, which has recently joined the National Museum’s collection in Canberra, highlights some of the transformative changes in farming over the years.

McDonald ‘EB’ tractor at work at Pine Creek in the
Northern Territory, approximately 1910s.
Sourced from: PH188/0062 and 0071, William Charles Miller, Library & Archives NT.

Significant transformation of Australia’s agricultural industry

These changes are represented by this extraordinary tractor, which is going on display in the Museum’s Gandel Atrium today.

The tractor, built in 1912, substantially adds to the Museum’s National Historical Collection and supports its mission to tell remarkable stories from Australian history.

It was acquired by the National Museum for $250,000, with the support of an anonymous benefactor, together with funds from the Australian government through the National Cultural Heritage Account, a grant program that assists Australian cultural organisations to acquire significant cultural heritage objects.

The McDonald ‘EB’ oil tractor is one of three complete examples manufactured in Australia by AH McDonald & Co of Richmond, Melbourne.

Three men, possibly Bennetts family members, with this ‘EB’ tractor at French Island, 1926.
Photo – G Bennetts
Museums Victoria MM 6538.

An improved ‘EB’ was made in 1912

In 1908, innovative Melbourne engineers Alfred and Ernest McDonald produced the first
Australian-made, oil-powered tractor, known as the ‘EA’. The improved design of the ‘EB’ followed in 1912.

It provides a revealing insight into the global transformation in automotive and agricultural practices triggered by the invention of the oil-driven internal combustion engine in the 1870s.

National Museum director Dr Mathew Trinca thanked the Australian 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,’ said Dr Trinca.

Purchased for a farm on French Island

The tractor was originally purchased new in 1912 by Frank William Chilcott for use at ‘Lillesdon Park’, his 403-acre farm located on French Island in Victoria’s Western Port Bay.
It was likely used for land clearing as part of the local chicory cultivation industry, which was a prolific industry on French Island until the mid-1960s.

Museum curator Dr Ian Coates, who coordinated the acquisition of the tractor, said it has historic significance because of its association with Australia’s first tractor manufacturer.

‘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 Coates.

The tractor will be on display at the National Museum of Australia from 15 May to 23 July 2023.

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