Timing, they say, is everything. And George White's was bad. The Kansas inventor came up with a then-revolutionary idea — a machine that would both harvest and thresh wheat — during a period of immense societal change. The invention failed to get the attention it might have received in calmer times. But his idea didn't die for lack of determination.
White, who farmed near Hutchinson, Kansas, toiled for more than 20 years in designing what we today would identify as a combine. White's design went through significant evolution from 1916 to 1923. Ultimately, he designed a downsized implement that would be installed on a Ford car, but later deemed that application impractical and turned to the Fordson tractor. Small enough to be operated by one man, White's "Get It All" weighed just 950 pounds, compared to similar devices of the day that weighed more than 7,000 pounds.
"It is constructed so the driver of the tractor not only heads and threshes the wheat but also sets the sacked grain upon the ground back of the thresher," notes an article in an August 1923 article in American Blacksmith and Motor Shop. "The changing of but four bolts and two cotter keys is all that is required to change the tractor into a thresher. The change can be made in 30 minutes."
"A most unique" machine
White's Get It All was not his first invention. The subject of a lengthy article in the May 6, 1916, edition of the Hutchinson News, White's earlier invention was a behemoth that would harvest, thresh and — using a trailing gang plow — work the ground for the next crop.
"His machine is a most unique one," noted the article, "and will thresh the wheat from the standing grain, leaving the straw standing, which is then plowed under by the gang plow pulled at the rear of the unique harvester thresher. A 60 hp gas engine runs the machine."
The May 6 account went on to note differences between the White harvester and other machines of the type. "It does not cut the grain, nor does it strip the wheat from the heads, but it catches the heads and pulls them in against the thresher, which takes the grain from the heads."
For want of a wheel...
For his invention, White designed a unique wheel. Instead of being solid, the wheel was described as "broken" with the parts set at angles. "This makes it possible to run the heavy machine through mud, Mr. White says, without miring or stalling.
"I have been working on that wheel for 13 or 14 years," he told the Hutchinson News, "and have finally perfected it. The Moline Company and others have been trying to buy this wheel from me, but I won't sell." The wheel, though, proved his undoing. "He has these worked out in wood," the article noted, "but even his complete foundry and machine shop is stumped at making these wheels, for they must be out of steel. He could make them out of cast iron, but is not equipped to make steel wheels.
"And I can't get any of the steel mills to make the wheels for me," he told the reporter. "They are all tied up with rush orders because of the war, and I can't get them to look at me. I don't know just what I can do about it."
White was not a man to give up easily. Unable to interest foundries and machine shops in producing his experimental machine, he created his own machine shop and foundry, where he built his prototype. "Unlike the average man with a great idea," the Hutchinson News reported, "Mr. White has money enough to develop his inventions. The income from several wheat farms, two or three Hutchinson business blocks and a lumber yard give him money to finance it."
White's shop was described as being "the largest machine shop in Hutchinson, and also the best equipped." Used as a private shop solely for his own inventions and projects, it was said to contain 30-40 of the "most modern machines, lathes, drill presses, forges, saws and everything else needed... in a large and well-built concrete building. Electric power runs all the machines. In one end of the building is a well-equipped foundry, where he makes his own castings."
An experienced machinist who visited the shop estimated that the machinery and equipment alone represented the cost of $75,000 (the equivalent of $1.7 million today). For more than a year, White and his son and one or two assistants worked at building and testing the machine.
"I don't know how many times I have built this machine, working out the parts," White told the Hutchinson News, "and breaking them up when they failed to work as expected. But I have kept at work on it and now I am just about ready to turn the machine out as expected."
White announced plans for field testing just weeks later, but if the tests took place, they were not noted by the local newspaper.
Setting an ambitious goal
Seven years later, in the June 7, 1923, edition of the Hutchinson News, White resurfaced with a new invention: the Get It All, a harvester-thresher attachment designed for use with a Fordson tractor.
"George White and his son, Edward C. White, of the George White and Son Mfg. shop on South Main, have invented and are now producing the very latest thing in the way of a combined harvester and thresher," the account read. "The machine is constructed as an attachment for a small Fordson tractor, which a man can steer with his feet and sack the grain with his hands. Patents have been secured for the various parts of the invention."
White produced his first Get It All combine in 1922. "It was given a thorough trial and operated very successfully," the article noted. "After the trial, a few small improvements were added and now they have already made the parts for 10 complete machines which are now being assembled."
Production of 10 units — priced at $500 ($7,350 today) — was planned for the 1923 wheat crop. "But if everything goes well," the Hutchinson News reported, "he and his son expect to put out 1,000 of the combines next year." With the exception of the 8-foot cutter bar and the sickles, White produced all of the combine's parts at his Hutchinson machine shop.
How it operated
The combine's cutter bar, sickle reel and grain carrier extended out in front of the Fordson. After being cut, the grain was carried to the right side of the tractor where it fell into the threshing attachment.
The grain was pulled loose from the head by a toothed cylinder instead of being knocked out as it was by other units. The grain was then tossed out onto a riddle through which it sifted down on to a small elevator that carried it to a small sacking chute located near the driver's seat, making it possible for the driver to sack the grain and drop it at the corner. The straw was then carried out and scattered behind the tractor.
White told the reporter that farmers long thought that a big, bulky separator was necessary to thresh grain, but he disagreed. "He believes we should remember that threshing was originally done with only a flail and a scoop shovel," the reporter noted.
No wheat left behind
In another 1923 article, American Blacksmith and Motor Shop also reported on White's invention. "There are today on the market almost as many Ford car attachments as there are parts to this popular automobile. And now attachments for the also popular Ford tractor are beginning to make their appearance. A standing grain thresher attachment has been invented and seems to be successful.
"The cutting platform is regulated so but little straw is cut by the arrangement of a special cycle and combing device; almost no straw is taken with the heads of grain. This small amount of straw and the chaff is scattered along behind the machine as it moves around the field. The heads are carried by the canvas belt elevator to the threshing chamber where the grain is shunted into a spout delivering it to sacks on the driver's platform. If the wheat comes too fast, the driver can stop the tractor while he sews the sacks and sets them on the ground.
"The main advantage claimed for this new type of thresher is that it can be run directly up into square fence corners and thus cut all of the wheat that is left standing by other kinds of threshers. The Fordson is merely backed out instead of turning around. The attachment weighs but 700 pounds and will no doubt be made much lighter when the parts can be made of steel or malleable iron."
Trail goes cold
White applied for a patent for an improvement to the Get It All's header in 1927, suggesting that the venture was still a going concern. But the patent was not awarded until Dec. 10, 1929 — just six weeks after the crash of the stock market, signaling the beginning of the Great Depression, when many American commercial concerns abruptly ended. Again, White's timing may have thwarted his success.
For all that is known about George White and his inventions, more is unknown, likely forgotten forever. How many Get It All combines were produced? Did they work, or were they duds? Do any still exist? Does anyone know anything more about them? FC
Leslie C. McManus is the senior editor of Farm Collector. Email her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com. Farm Collector gratefully acknowledges the efforts of Richard Stout and his granddaughter, Ashley Stout, in sharing their research on the inventions of George W. White.