Ten Agricultural Inventions that Changed the Face of Farming in America

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: The inventions that stand out in the history of farming and farm machinery.


| August 2008



McCormicksreaper.jpg

McCormick’s reaper. From The Prairie Farmer, January 1941.

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.

Craig Shaw
8/13/2013 1:27:04 PM

My Grandfather bought his 1936 Allis U with rubber tires because the John Deere dealer had only steel wheels in stock.