EVOLUTION OF THE THRESHER

Horse power

An early horsepower outfit. Note the method of transmitting the power to the thresher.

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Reprinted from October, 1935 Farm Power

The threshing machine is an evolution, rather than an invention, and to you men and those before you who have concerned themselves with the threshing of grain, belongs a large share of the credit for the modern thresher as it exists today.

The thresher, unlike the automobile, was born of necessity rather than from a desire to produce a machine that would perform an old task in a new way.

Man was originally pretty much of a savage, who lived largely by the fruits of the hunt feasting when game was plentiful and starving when it was scarce. As he became more civilized, he realized that he must of necessity provide stores of food in advance, and as those were the days before refrigeration was known, meat could not be stored for any length of time. The products of the soil rather than those of wing or hoof naturally came to his attention as the one safeguard against starvation, and as grain was the easiest thing to raise to supply his major food requirements, he turned his attention to that particular form of food.

Many a war was fought in those early days between the provident nations who had stored up grain against future needs and the nations which still relied upon the chase for their food supply.

'There was Corn in Egypt' and Egyptian civilization grew, and flourished, and perpetuated itself while many other nations were relying upon flocks and herds which could not be conserved against future needs.

It soon became evident that grain was something that produced wealth and security and men became agrarians rather than hunters and herdsmen. Grain production grew apace, in fact it accumulated to the point where there was an unthreshable surplus. The hand could not rub fast enough the slow moving oxen could not tread out the crop and even the flail failed in its designed purpose.

The grain raiser rather than the manufacturer, turned his attention toward a machine that would separate the wheat from the straw. To such men as Meikle and Menzies belong the credit of making a start towards perfecting a threshing machine back in the 18th century, but the results of their efforts while spelling progress, did not anywhere near meet the requirements.

A Scotchman named Michael Menzies was one of the first of a splendid group of men who experimented with threshing machines and his efforts, while not crowned with complete success, are worthy of notice as paving the way for subsequent experiments. His machine, which was brought out in 1732, consisted of a number of flails attached to a rotating cylinder driven by water power. It was capable of doing a considerable amount of work in a short time and attracted a good deal of attention. The frequent breaking of the flails, however, demonstrated the fact that the really successful machine would not make use of the flail motion in its original form.

The next threshing machine of which we have record was also invented by a Scotch farmer who succeeded in improving upon the Menzies' machine by constructing a rotary cylinder armed with beaters which for the first time correctly applied the principle of flail threshing to a power driven machine. His machine consisted of a vertical shaft supporting four cross arms all enclosed in a vertical cylinder. The grain was fed in at the top of the cylinder and the rapidly revolving arms beat the grain out of the straw during its downward passage. Both grain and chaff fell in a pile at the bottom and separation was afterward performed by hand in the usual fashion of the time by winnowing.

A horsepower outfit once used by U. S. Grant on his farm in Illinois about 1850. This was sometime before Vicksburg or before his days in the White House.

Twenty years later an attempt was made to solve the problem by using the rubbing principle of separating the grain from the straw. This machine employed a large fluted or corrugated cylinder which revolved between a series of small corrugated rollers which were held forcibly against the large cylinder by means of stout springs whose tension could be varied to suit the conditions of the grain. The friction between the corrugations of the rollers and the straw was depended upon to remove the grain from the heads. This machine was experimented with for some time with the hope that it would solve the problem. However, it, too, was found impractical, being slow in operation and liable to crack the grain. The rubbing or frictional machine appeared after these experiments to be valueless and again inventors turned their attention to the flail principle, which had been all but proven successful.

The pioneer work of the early investigators, whose work has just been discussed led to the final solution of the problem a few years later by another Scotchman, Andrew Meikle by name, who constructed a thresher embodying all the essential features of the present successful machine. This machine, however, was a thresher only and not a combined thresher and separator such as we are so familiar with today.

The Andrew Meikle threshing machine marked a new epoch in the grain raising industry. Previous to his time there had been several attempts made to solve the problem of mechanical threshing but they were far from successful, though paving the way doubtless for the success which was finally achieved. Up to the advent of the Meikle thresher the principal method of threshing was with the flail. This was slow and expensive and besides was very wasteful. A large amount of grain was always left in the straw. All things considered it was out of the question at that time to raise grain on a large scale, and yet this was what the world was demanding more than anything else.

During the middle or latter part of the eighteenth century a great industrial revolution set in all over Europe, but more especially in England. Several things transpired to bring this about. James Watt invented, or rather perfected, the steam engine at this time and gave to the world a cheap portable power which could be used to drive machinery in manufacturing.

The cotton and woolen industries gained a foothold in England, there were wars on the continent and the demand for textile goods was enormous. Just about this time, too, spinning and weaving machinery was invented which, coming at the same time with the advent of the steam engine, turned England in a very few years to the greatest manufacturing nation in the world. This caused the cities and larger towns to flourish. Wages were high and laborers flocked from the rural regions into the cities where steady work at good wages could be had.

All this reacted upon agriculture. It created a greater demand than ever for agricultural products to feed the factory workers, and raised the prices of farm produce to prices heretofore unheard of, but at the same time it left the agricultural districts with insufficient help.

Necessity again became the mother of invention. For the first time in the world's history a pecuniary reward was held out for the invention of labor saving machinery and this proved a much stronger incentive than the mere alleviation of human suffering or the fear of famine.

Inventors immediately set to work to solve the various problems involved in building labor saving agricultural machinery, and within a few years after the opening of the nineteenth century, we find at least crude designs of all the leading types of farm implements which are so common and familiar at the present time.

Among the very first to be experimented with was, as previously stated, the threshing machine; and it remained for Andrew Meikle to show the world the correct principles which one must obtain in a successful thresher.

His machine consisted essentially of a revolving cylinder having four beaters faced with iron and extending outward from the body of the cylinder about four inches. A pair of feeder rolls were placed just in front of the beater between which the grain was compelled to pass on its way to the beater. These served to retard the straw until the beaters had knocked the grain out of the husks. The first machines built were over feed machines; that is, the straw was fed in over the top of the cylinder which revolved in a direction exactly opposite to that of the modern thresher. Instead of concaves there was a fairly close fitting cover fitted behind and partly around the cylinder.

Behind and below the cylinder there was a set of slowly moving rakes which separated the straw from the chaff the former passing backward to the rear of the machine, the latter, together with the grain, falling through a grating to the hopper of a fanning mill below.

These machines were made in various types and sizes suitable to be worked by hand, by horse or power, by wind wheels or by water wheels. The small hand machines were worked with a crank, two men and a woman usually constituting the threshing crew. The larger machines were built in place and were rather expensive for the farm, especially where the tenant system of farming prevailed as it did in England, and where the tenants were obliged to furnish all the machinery and tools for doing the work. Consequently, only those who worked considerable land on long term leases could afford to invest in the larger machines. The small tenant farmer was still obliged to use the more primitive methods or else the less expensive and less efficient hand thresher.

A working model of a steam traction engine built by L. K. Wood of Mendon, Utah. It is built to carry forty pounds of steam and is only one-ninth as large as the original, which was built in 1892. It burns coal after being started with a blowtorch.

The next improvement of note in European machines was the substitution of a toothed cylinder and concaves, also with teeth to take the place of beaters. A little later a straw carrier or elevator was added which, with a winnowing machine or fanning mill, made up all the essentials of the modern grain thresher. These machines, to be sure, were large and clumsy. Their capacity was much less than those of the present day, but they were a great improvement in every way over the old hand methods which they supplanted.

And so the advent of the power thresher made better harvesting tools and better tools of tillage a necessity and these quickly followed during the succeeding century the century of mechanical marvels the nineteenth. And not the least of these marvels were the many and wonderful farming implements. But at the beginning of this list, which includes all that we have now, stands the grain thresher.

The early experimental work on threshing machines was done in Scotland, but in this as in most other great inventions, no one country or one individual is entitled to all the credit. While the correct fundamental principles of threshing were worked out across the sea, it remained for American inventors to perfect all the numberless small details which go to make up the successful machine that we are today familiar with. In fact, the perfecting of the many small mechanical devices which make up any complete machine requires more labor and as high an order of genius as it does to conceive the original crude idea. Indeed, in talking with some of these later day inventors and listening to their tales of unexpected difficulties met with and the experimental work which they performed before achieving final success, I am inclined to think their task was the harder.

It is not definitely known whether the first threshers used in this country were made here or imported from Europe. In any event they were rather crude, simple affairs.

It is reported that as early as 1825 there were some simple threshers used in the United States, but it was not until three years later than the subject appears to have attracted the attention of inventors very seriously. About that time a man named Samuel Lane of Hallowell, Maine, took out a patent on a traveling thresher fitted with harvesting attachments. Another patent was issued to the same inventor four years later, but neither proved commercially successful and are mentioned herein merely to fix the date of the active improvement in this line of machinery.

The first inventors of note, whose work influenced all subsequent development, were two brothers, Hiram A. Pitts and John A. Pitts of Winthrop, Maine.

Their first invention in 1830 was an improvement on a treated power which afterward became quite popular throughout the New England states for operating the old-fashioned 'ground-hog,'' 'bull-threshers,'' 'bob-tails,' 'chaff-pillers,' etc., as the old open cylinder machines were variously called. These machines were simple affairs which merely threshed the grain out of the straw without doing any separating. All the chaff and grain fell at the rear of the machine where it was afterward cleaned in a fanning mill after the courser stuff had been removed by hand labor with the use of forks.

It was while operating one of these old 'ground-hogs' that Hiram Pitts conceived the idea of combining it with an ordinary fanning mill. This had been done some years before in Europe, but it was the first time the idea was tried in the United States. This idea was worked out in detail by the Pitts brothers during a period of several years and in 1837 they were granted a patent. This was the beginning of the 'endless apron,' or 'great belt' separators as they came to be known. This machine contained most of the fundamental features of the present day machines. It was provided with a 'beater' and 'picker.' The endless apron ended at the 'picker.' Both beater and picker were armed with spikes and resembled those in use at the present time. The purpose of the picker was to throw the straw from the machine. This machine was also provided with a tailings elevator, but instead of returning the tailings to the threshing cylinder they were retained at the sides of the machine, from which point they were carried to the fanning mill for refanning.

In the year 1835 John Fisher built the first threshing machine built in Canada, fashioned after the Meikle machine in Scotland. The Scotchman's 'Threshing Mill, ' as it was termed, built in Canada by John Fisher, was the forebear of the present threshing machine built by Sawyer-Massey, Limited.

The remainder of the story is largely one of attachments and refinements, and to the threshermen themselves belongs the credit for initiating most of the work that has been done along these lines. The ideas have come largely from the men on the firing line the men in greasy overalls and dust and chaff-laden smocks the men who knew and loved the taste and smell of dustmen like yourselves to whom a thresher was a living, pulsating thing, which performed a task of which they were proud and they revered it accordingly.

The manufacturer has, however, had his part in the perfecting of those ideas. Take for example such a small thing as cylinder teeth. There are perhaps among you many who remember with what rapidity these things used to wear out. A few days of hard threshing would wear them all out of their original shape and the percentage of breakage was heavy. Today, through the use of fine heat-treated steels, a set of cylinder teeth needs very little attention.

Again, the thresher of a few years ago required the constant attention of a man with an oil can to keep the bearings from heating and burning out. Today, through improved antifriction, dust-proof bearings, the oil can is only required occasionally and little or no attention need be given the bearings themselves.

Steel has been substituted for wood, malleable for cast iron and electric welding for bolts and screws which give greater strength, lighter weight and much longer life, and at the same time, the capacity of the thresher has been greatly increased in proportion to the power required to drive it.

The threshing machine industry is resplendent with the names of several men who have passed into The Great Beyond, but who in their lifetime gave to the industry a wealth of ability in making threshing machine progress.

Such men as Menzies and Meikle, the Scotch inventors; John Fisher, McQuesten and Harmor of Sawyer-Massey Limited; George White, founder of Geo. White & Sons, Limited; Robert Bell, founder of The Robert Bell Engine and Thresher Company, Limited; Buehler and Booth, succeeded by Bricker Brothers, founders of The Waterloo Manufacturing Company, Limited; John Goodison, Charles Mackenzie, George Samis, and John Cowan, founders of The John Goodison Thresher Company, Limited; Hiram Pitts, Cyrus Roberts, John Nichols, Jerome I. Case, Ezra Frick, J. C. Landis, Abraham Gaar, Minard Rumely, Lewis Miller, A. B. Farquhar, A. Taylor, Edward Huber, H. E. Robinson, Brainerd Skinner, J. B. Bartholomew, Theophilus Harrison, Messrs, Best, Holt and Harris, and many others gave their time, their hearts and their brains in order to perfect the threshing machine.

In any discussion pertaining to threshermen and threshing, we must not overlook those who were responsible for developing the power equipment which has helped to thresh the nation's grain crop for so many years.

In the beginning it was tread powers that did the work, and the names of John Cox and Cyrus Roberts stand out as the men who did more than anyone else to develop this early class of farm power. When it came to horse powers, the name of Pitts must be mentioned, although Pitts, in this connection, was a manufacturer rather than an inventor. Horse powers were of three types; namely, the down power, the mounted power, and the triple geared power. Without going into the matter in detail the names of Carey, Dingee, and Woodbury must, by all means, be mentioned. It is a rather difficult matter to introduce personalities into the development of steam power for threshing. The steam traction engine is somewhat like the radio receiverit is a combination of many things that have gone before. One man developed a valve gear, another an injector, another a governor, and so on, and the manufacturer of steam threshing engines made use of the different parts developed when perfecting his own machine. We must not, however, overlook such men as Clay, McGregor, Landis, Swenson, Batholemew, Land, Lefevre, Westinghouse, Baker, Pilliod, and many others, all of whom contributed their part towards the development of the steam traction engine, which for a great many years, furnished most of the power which threshed the nation's grain crop.

Other men like Buchanan, Parsons, Marshall, Ruth, Hartley, Palmer and Stacey Hart, James Harrison, Closz, Howard, and Wood Brothers gave us feeders, weighers, and wind stackers, and like the automobile, when you buy a thresher today you do not buy a mere skeleton and equip it with attachments, but you buy a machine complete in every detail, with every attachment built into the machine and designed to work in complete harmony with the machine itself.

This one thing perhaps more than any other accounts for the increase in price of threshers today as compared with those of a few years ago. Who among you would go back to the old horse power driven, straight stackered, hand-fed machine that poured its grain contents into a half-bushel measure. I believe you will agree with me when I say that much progress has been made and for this progress we must hang medals on both threshermen and manufacturer.

It is a peculiar fact, but nevertheless true, that practically every change that has been made in threshers and every new attachment which has been brought out has been the occasion for more or less opposition on the part of the farmers.

When the change was made from apron to raddle or vibrator, the farmers felt that it would waste the grain and it took a large amount of perseverance on the part of threshermen to overcome the objections. The wind stacker was also objected to by farmers who said it would draw the grain from the sieves into the straw pile.

The automatic weigher had its troubles in winning the farmers' confidence, who just could not forsake the old half-bushel in favor of a contraption that would calculate the grain threshed by weight rather than by volume.

The self-feeder also came in for its share of opposition from many farmers who felt more secure in the man who stood at the feed board than in a contrivance that seemed to fairly grab the straw in chunks and force it into the cylinder.

It took many straw pile inspections on the part of farmers to convince them that the kernels were being separated from the heads.

It was the thresherman who took the brunt of this opposition and it was he who passed his ideas for improvements on to the manufacturers, who, in turn, engineered the ideas into better equipment.

The matter of thresher sizes is one which has received considerable attention during the past few years. There was a time a few years ago when it looked as if the small thresher, and by small I mean the 20 inch or 22 inch size, would sweep the field. This was due to the then predominant influence of a certain size of tractor power plant. Many were sold, but it would appear that this craze for the small machine is rapidly passing and that the industry is settling down to a few standard sizes of threshers, and some concerns are not building more than two. This has been brought about largely through a process of elimination, both on the part of threshermen and manufacturers. In addition, the tendency on the part of tractor manufacturers to standardize on power sizes has also had a material influence on the number of sizes of threshers which are now being built.

Another factor which has tended to eliminate the larger size is the increase in the capacity of the modern thresher as compared with the older types, and also the increase in its mobility in moving from job to job and from set to set.

You threshermen have done much to improve the conditions within your own ranks. You have waged a vigorous and steady war against the price cutter. You have more and more applied business methods to the conduct of your own affairs, both of which have been very much appreciated by the manufacturer, because your success is his success and if you fall down on the job he must, of necessity, tumble with you. The success of the industry as a whole is dependent almost entirely upon cooperative effort. Both threshermen and manufacturers are all important links in the chain and both must be of the same relative strength if the industry is to function as it should.

As to what the future has to offer in the way of improvements in threshing machinery it is difficult to say just at this time, or to definitely state just what is on the drafting boards of the various thresher companies at present, but it is safe to predict that several minor and perhaps major improvements will be made in the not distant future. You can rest assured that the manufacturers are watching the needs of the threshermen closely and that improvements in present-day machines will be made just as fast as they can be thought out and worked out.

In this connection I would strongly advise that you threshermen do everything you can to make your wants and ideas known to the manufacturers, for by doing so you can render not only a valuable service to the industry as a whole, but to the whole realm of mechanical progress.

There is one other matter about which I wish to speak briefly in conclusion and that is the matter of second-hand machinery. Did it ever occur to you that a second-hand thresher is about the most useless thing in the hands of a manufacturer that can be imagined, unless it be a long past due lien note. A secondhand thresher may have many days of service left in it when it is operated by a competent thresherman, but in the hands of a manufacturer, it is scarcely worth scrap. There is oftentimes more profit for the owner in a partly worn out machine than there is in a new one. The owner has taken his depreciation and the earnings from the second-hand machines are more nearly velvet. The manufacturer, if he be fair to himself, cannot allow what the machine is really worth to the owner on a trade-in, and in most cases he must work the old machine off at a loss, which loss must be added to the cost of the new machines which he builds.

The day when the second-hand thresher becomes a thing of the past will be a good day for both threshermen and manufacturer, and may its coming be speedy and sure.

In this same connection, the matter of credits and bad debts are other things to which both threshermen and manufacturers alike must give careful attention. Every time a thresherman defaults on his payments he increases the manufacturer's cost of doing business, which increase must be added to the cost of new machines, because it is both inevitable and true that in the end the consumer, who in this case is the thresherman, must pay all the bills.

After all, I know of no business where the interests of both buyer and seller are more closely related than in the threshing machine industry.

A manufacturer can sell a man a pair of pants and he is not particularly concerned with what becomes of either the wearer or the pants. In the case of a threshing machine, however, the manufacturer is very much concerned with both the owner and the machine, and in making the sale a relationship is established which oftentimes lasts throughout the life of the machine itself.

The interests of the one are closely allied with the interests of the other, hence it is good business for the one to work with the other for mutual benefit.

1. You have a right to establish a profitable rate for your work;
2.  You have a right to maintain the privilege and use of highways;
3.  You have a right to maintain and secure just fire insurance rates;
4.  You have and should secure through your own initiative, proper and just liability insurance rates, and mutually maintain just and fair fire and liability insurance premiums.

These four things alone, and the privilege of them, justify the expense and warrant the life of your organization.