Ten Agricultural Inventions that Changed the Face of Farming in America
Ten years ago this month, the first issue of Farm Collector hit the mail-boxes of the first subscribers, so it seems appropriate to do a “Ten Most” column about the history of farming machinery in celebration.
Here, then, are what I consider to be the 10 most significant agricultural inventions during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Some farm machinery advances can be attributed to an individual, but most were the product of many curious and ingenious people who made incremental improvements to the work of their predecessors.
1. Cotton Gin: In colonial times, cotton cloth was more expensive than linen or wool because of the extreme difficulty of separating seed from the clinging fibers. One man could pick the seeds from only about 1 pound of cotton fiber per day.
In 1793, Eli Whitney built a machine consisting of a row of close-set wheels with saw-like teeth around their perimeters. The wheels protruded through narrow slits between metal bars into a hopper filled with cotton bolls. As the wheels revolved, the teeth caught the cotton fibers and pulled them through the slits, which were too narrow for the seeds to pass, thus separating the two.
Whitney’s cotton gin allowed 1,000 pounds of cotton to be cleaned in the time it took one man to do 5 pounds by hand. As a result, the price of cotton cloth plummeted, the cotton plantation culture of the South was established and the use of slave labor in growing cotton became entrenched.
2. Reaper/Binder: Small grains had been harvested by hand for centuries, cut with sickles or scythes, hand-raked and tied into sheaves. Grain harvesting machines first appeared in Great Britain in about 1800, and in the U.S. a decade or two later, but most failed. Obed Hussey and Cyrus McCormick developed successful reapers during the 1830s. McCormick’s machine became the more popular one; today he is credited with inventing the reaper. Those early machines still required the sheaves to be bound by hand, but in 1857 the Marsh brothers equipped a reaper with moving canvases that carried the grain to a platform where it was tied into bundles by a worker riding on the machine.
The first twine knotter was demonstrated in 1867 by John Appleby. Sylvanus Locke developed a wire binder in about 1874 and it was adopted by McCormick. Wire dominated for a short while, but bits of wire got into the grain and ended up inside livestock and flour with disastrous results. William Deering adopted the twine-tying mechanism for his popular Deering harvesters, and in about 1881, McCormick did as well.
3. Thresher: When grain was being cut by hand, the method for separating the kernels from the straw was equally slow and labor intensive. Grain was hauled to a barn where it was spread on a threshing floor and either beaten with hand flails or trampled by animals. That knocked the kernels free of the straw, which was then raked away. The remaining mixture was winnowed by tossing it into the air where the wind was relied upon to blow the chaff and lighter debris away from the heavier grain, which fell back onto the threshing floor.
The first threshing machine with a revolving, toothed cylinder and concaves was invented in 1786 in Scotland by Andrew Meikle. Brothers Hiram and John Pitts are credited with invention of the first successful American separator in 1830, as well as with adapting a horse tread power to run the thing. Hiram soon added a fanning mill to the threshing drum to separate and clean the grain at the same time.
Later improvements resulted in machines that extracted virtually all the grain from the straw and thoroughly cleaned it.
4. Steam Engine: Until the end of the 18th century, American farmers relied primarily upon their own strong backs and arms and those of family members, hired men or slaves. New farm machines then being developed required more power, so oxen, horses and mules were pressed into service. Stationary steam engines were used early on to run cotton gins and mills. The additional power required by improved threshing machines led to the development of portable steam power, which made its first appearance in 1849.
At first, horses were used to haul portable steam engines from job to job. During the 1870s, several inventors developed practical drive systems and the self-propelled steam traction engine became common as power for the many threshing rigs around the country. Such machines were also used to pull multiple gangplows in the large fields of the wheat belt.
5. Combined Harvester-Thresher: By the 1920s the steam traction engine was on it’s way out, but it paved the way for the gasoline tractors that followed.
Although a “traveling thrasher” (or combined harvester-thresher) was patented as early as 1828, the first successful machine was built by Hiram Moore in 1834. Moore’s combine successfully cut and threshed grain, although it had to be winnowed later. After the Civil War, big horse-drawn, ground-driven combines were developed in the wheat-growing regions of the Northwest. In 1871, B.F. Cook put a steam engine on a combine to drive the mechanism, decreasing the number of horses needed to pull the machine. In about 1886, California farmer George Berry built a combine around a steam traction engine and voilà: the first self-propelled combine.
6. Auto Truck: Machinery, critters and crops, among other heavy things, all need to be moved around the farm or to market. Two-wheeled carts sufficed for early farmers. Soon 4-wheeled wagons became the norm and were universally used for a couple of centuries. It’s impossible to pin down the first motor truck, but steam-, electric- and gas-powered commercial vehicles made their appearance at about the turn of the 20th century and by 1910 were common in urban areas. The first real attempt to make a vehicle to replace the ubiquitous farm wagon was by International Harvester with its “Auto Wagon” introduced in 1907. Since that time farm trucks of all sizes have proliferated and today no self-respecting farmer is without his pickup.
7. Gasoline Tractor: Steam tractors required a lot of water and fuel (coal, wood or straw), and a trained engineer at the wheel. The internal combustion engine, developed in the 1890s, offered an alternative to steam. John Froehlich is generally credited with inventing the first successful tractor in 1892. The first commercially successful tractor was built in Charles City, Iowa, by Charles Hart and Charles Parr. Early tractors were big, heavy, awkward and none too reliable, but by 1920 the better ones had survived and were becoming hugely popular on American farms for heavy tillage and belt work.
8. General Purpose Tractor: During the 1920s, row-crop work such as planting and cultivating was still largely done by horses as tractors were too heavy and not versatile enough for those lighter jobs. Several lightweight row crop tractors had been tried, but most were not satisfactory. Several manufacturers offered motor cultivators during the ‘teens, but few farmers were willing to buy a machine that was used only a month or two each year.
In 1924, IH introduced the Farmall, the first real general purpose tractor that could pull heavy tillage and harvesting machines as well as plant and cultivate row crops. The Farmall quickly caught on; by 1930, IH was churning out 200 Farmalls per day. Soon, every major tractor manufacturer offered a similar row crop machine. The swift mechanization of American farms that occurred during the late 1930s and early 1940s was on its way.
9. Rubber Tires: Steel-lugged wheels limited speed, vibrated, shook bolts loose and quickly dug themselves into soft ground if they spun, not to mention what they did to the driver’s innards.
Solid rubber tires began to be fitted to industrial tractors in about 1920, and Florida citrus growers experimented with large truck tires on tractors in 1928. Harvey Firestone became interested and in 1932, fitted large, low-pressure tires to an Allis-Chalmers U owned by farmer Albert Schroeder. The tires were a huge success and AC began to offer air tires on the Model U tractor late in 1932, an industry first.
The advantage of pneumatic tires over steel wheels in fuel economy and performance, not to mention driver comfort, sold farmers on their advantages and by 1940, 95 percent of tractors were ordered on rubber. Harvey Firestone’s dream of putting the farm on rubber was on its way to being reality.
10. Hydraulic Implement Lift with Draft Control: The first tractor mechanical lift appeared in 1927, and a hydraulic lift in 1934. These lifts, however, were just that: lifts. They raised and then dropped the implement without the operator having to wrestle a hand lever but depth control still required frequent manipulation of a lever or crank.
Irishman Harry Ferguson can claim credit for the first hydraulic lift with automatic draft control. By 1933, he had perfected a way of attaching an implement to a tractor by three arms. The tension load on the lower arms and the compression load on the upper arm caused the “virtual hitch” point to be near the tractor’s front axle, thus keeping the front end of the tractor on the ground. In addition, the top link compression load operated a hydraulic valve that caused the implement depth to be automatically regulated according to the draft needed to pull it.
Ferguson’s 3-point hitch was probably the most revolutionary improvement in tractor and implement technology during the first half of the 20th century. Today, virtually every tractor sold anywhere in the world features a 3-point hitch based on Ferguson’s system.
So there’s my list. I’d be interested in hearing whether readers agree or think I’m crazy, so be sure to let us know. FC
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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