Let's Talk Rusty Iron

'Father of the Modern Plow'

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Above: The Father of the Modern Plow, Jethro Wood.Patent and portrait from Jethro Wood, Inventor of the Modern Plow, by Frank Gilbert published in 1882 by Rhodes & McClure, Chicago, Ill.

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Jethro Wood faced battles on the field and in the courtroom

Agricultural methods today are drastically different than those used 50 or 100 years ago. In these days of no-till and minimum till, it's difficult to remember that the moldboard plow once reigned supreme. The plow was the basic primary tillage tool and farmers were judged by the straightness of their furrows and the cleanliness of their plowing. Plowing loosened, inverted and aerated the soil, controlled weeds and insects, and turned under vegetation and manure to rot, adding to the organic matter in the soil.

The first plow was nothing more than a forked tree limb, with the end of one fork sharpened. Later, the sharpened end was reinforced with a flint, bronze or iron point. In the 17th century, the Dutch developed a plow with a curved, wooden moldboard reinforced with an iron point and cutting edge, two handles and a coulter.

During the 1700s, English inventors improved the primitive plows of the day, while in America, farmers themselves, or the village blacksmith, made wooden plows similar to the European versions. Thomas Jefferson and Daniel Webster made improved wooden moldboard plows for use on their own farms, but these didn't become popular with other farmers. In 1797, Charles Newbold patented a plow with a solid wrought-iron bottom, but farmers, believing the iron poisoned the soil, refused to use the plow. Also, as it was cast in one piece, the whole plow bottom had to be replaced when the point wore down.

The hero of our story, Jethro Wood, called by some "The Father of the Modern Plow," was born in Dartmouth, Mass., on March 16, 1774. His father was a prosperous farmer and Wood was given a good education. One story from his childhood survives: "When only a few years old, he moulded a little plow from metal, which he obtained by melting a pewter cup. Then, cutting the buckles from a set of braces, he made a miniature harness with which he fastened the family cat to his tiny plow, and endeavored to drive her about the flower-garden." No one recorded how the cat felt about the experiment, but Wood received a "good old-fashioned whipping."

Wood later lived on a large farm in Cayuga County, N.Y., where he "whittled away, day after day," trying to hit upon the exact shape he wanted for his plow's moldboard. His neighbors thought he was "mad on the subject," and called him the "whittling Yankee." Wood carved various moldboard shapes out of "large oblong potatoes," and corresponded with Thomas Jefferson on the subject of plows. A patent was issued to Wood in 1814, but that plow wasn't satisfactory. After five more years of whittling, Wood patented his final design on Sept. 1, 1819. The new plow was light and strong, and the cast iron parts were held together by lugs and locking pieces, doing away with many bolts and much weight, complexity and expense. It was the first plow in which the parts most exposed to wear could be renewed in the field by the substitution of new parts.

Wood began to manufacture his plows, spending a large part of his fortune in the process. However, his neighbors called the device "Jethro's folly," and all agreed that it would never work. Even though the old superstition that cast iron would poison the soil was no longer widely believed, many farmers were sure that a plow made of cast iron would be brittle and break easily, saying: "You might as well attempt to turn up the earth with a glass plowshare."

Finally, Wood convinced one of his neighbors to try the thing, and a large crowd gathered to see the plow fail. The farmer selected a field studded with stones. "To their astonishment and Wood's satisfaction, it went around the field, running easily and smoothly, and turning up the most perfect furrow which had ever been seen." The farmer deliberately guided the plow against large rocks, but the plow merely jumped out of the ground and slid around or over the rocks without damage. It was also found that the draft was so much less that two horses could do the work that had previously required "a yoke of oxen and a span of horses." Wood was vindicated, and Jefferson sent him a congratulatory letter. Unfortunately, by the time the plow was proven to be superior to others then on the market, Wood was broke.

Wood had proven his plow to be superior, and other plow manufacturers immediately began to copy it. Patent laws in the early days of the United States were not strong, so there was very little protection for inventors such as Wood. The patent expired in 1833, but Wood persuaded Congress to extend it for 14 years.

Wood was in debt, but he seemed to be more worried about establishing his rights as inventor and patentee than in building and selling plows. He spent his last years in fruitless efforts to maintain his rights against what he considered to be, and what undoubtedly were, patent infringements. Wood died penniless in 1836, leaving his large family with no means of support.

Wood's oldest son, Benjamin, took up the struggle to "wrest justice from the unwilling hand of the law." He traveled to Washington and lobbied Congress through several sessions to strengthen patent protection laws. Several powerful Congressmen had known Wood and were familiar with his plow. They took up Benjamin's cause and important changes to the patent laws were enacted.

Back in New York, Benjamin hired William H. Seward as his attorney and went to court. Most implement manufacturers were now selling cast iron plows similar to Wood's, and they opposed Benjamin with all the legal talent they could muster. At one point toward the end of the trial, when the manufacturers feared that Wood was going to win, one of the plow makers tried to get him thrown into jail for unpaid debts.

The younger Wood, however, had been tipped off, and he jumped on his horse and rode hard for the Albany courthouse, 150 miles away. Right after his arrival in Albany, in late 1845, the trial started up again and the court finally ruled in Wood's favor. From then on, plow makers had to pay the Wood heirs a royalty on every plow made.

This was great news for Benjamin and his siblings, but the patent would again soon expire, so off to Washington Benjamin went to secure another extension. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before accomplishing anything, and the patent died as well.

When the estates of Jethro and Benjamin Wood were settled, less than $550 had been realized from the patent. The four surviving Wood daughters got nothing and, in 1848, the two youngest went to Washington to again petition Congress for relief. The Senate passed a bill that would allow the heirs to collect 25 cents on every cast iron plow built for the next seven years, but the bill was killed in the House and the girls went home empty-handed.

Over the years, several more bills were passed by the Senate to give the Wood heirs a sum of money, but all died in the House. Finally, in 1870, both houses approved a bill that, in the words of a contemporary report, "… offers relief to a very limited degree, taking into consideration the important progress in this art attained by Jethro Wood and the great benefits he conferred upon the public. But the sum of $25,000, which it gives, will alleviate at least the wants of his family, and show the gratitude of the nation to one whose useful invention has added comfort and wealth as well as honor to the people."

Years of legal battles prevented Wood's plow from gaining commercial success, even though it was a viable product. John Deere is famous because he built and sold plows, but because Jethro Wood didn't, no one has ever heard of him.

- Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at: letstalkrustyiron@yahoo.com