The Development of the Grain Drill

Grain drills brought innovation to spring planting, with nearly 50 companies producing them in the U.S. by the late 19th century.

| March 2019

 Tulls-Drill
Jethro Tull demonstrating his seed drill to skeptical bystanders. In the upper right, three men can be seen broadcasting seed in an adjacent field by hand. Mural by A.R. Thomson. Image courtesy British Science Museum.

Grain farmers soon will be getting their grain drills out for the spring planting of cereal grains. Here’s some background on the history of grain drills, as well as a little on the machines made through the years.

A grain drill is a machine used to plant small grain in evenly spaced rows, or drills. The machine forms a series of shallow trenches into which it drops the seeds at a pre-selected distance from each other and then covers them with a uniform layer of soil.

Before grain drills, seed was broadcast (or scattered) over the surface of the ground by hand. A harrow or drag was then pulled over the surface to cover the seeds. In the 17th and 18th centuries, British farmers sang a little ditty as they scattered their seeds: “One for the rook, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow.” The scattering and harrowing method resulted in some of the seed being covered too deeply, causing it to rot before germinating, while some was left uncovered, where it was gobbled up by the “rook and the crow.” Hopefully, a few would be left to grow.



In 1701, British agriculturist Jethro Tull developed a wheeled, three-row machine, with a seed hopper and a ground-driven notched wheel, or cylinder, for each row. As the notched wheel revolved inside the seed hopper, it picked up seeds and dropped them into a tube. Just ahead of the bottom end of each seed tube, a knife coulter made a slit in the soil into which the seeds fell. Shovel-like hoes at the rear covered the seeds. British farmers, however, were very reluctant to adopt Tull’s machine and grain drills didn’t come into widespread use until almost a century and a half later.      

American manufacturers involved early

In America, a seven-hoe drill was developed in 1841 by Samuel and Moses Pennock of Chester County, Pennsylvania. A wooden roller with a series of holes rotated in the bottom of the seed hopper above each of the tubes that led to the hoes. The rollers were turned by spur gears on the main axle and could be thrown in or out of gear individually.



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