The Twine-Tie Challenge

The twine-tie grain binder was not the work of a single inventor, despite popular belief.

| December 2015

A few months ago, in one of the hobby magazines, I saw a statement indicating that William Deering had invented the twine-tie grain binder. Well, as Sportin’ Life sings in the opera Porgy and Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

John Francis Appleby was born in New York in 1840; his family traveled by canal and lake boats to Milwaukee four years later. Reportedly the boy was a tinkerer from an early age, and hung out at the small machine shop of George Esterly, who later built reapers.

There are several variations of this story, but one is that, at age 18, Appleby was helping a farmer bind gavels of grain put on the ground by a self-rake reaper. Proud of his new reaper, the farmer asked the boy what he thought of the machine and young Appleby said, “Oh, it works fine, but I believe I can make a binder,” a statement much ridiculed by the farmer.

After many false starts, Appleby succeeded in whittling a gadget that looked for all the world like a bird’s beak that would open, receive the twine, close to hold it and then turn to form the knot. Of course, many other parts were necessary to make the knotter work: a knife to cut the twine, a way to compress and size the bundle, and a way of getting the grain to the knotter (the band was placed in the middle regardless of the straw length), and the boy had no money to experiment.

During the 1850s and ’60s, a whole host of inventors were at work on the problem of binding grain. Many attempts were made to use the straw itself to bind bundles (that was the method used in hand tying), but all were unsuccessful. A number of semiautomatic binders were invented, but all required a person to pull a lever, turn a crank or finish the knot manually. Not only was a practical knotter not available, but suitable twine was scarce and expensive, making wire the banding material of choice.

The short-lived wire-tie binder

Meanwhile, Appleby enlisted in the Union Army and served throughout the Civil War. In about 1864, he invented a breech-loading, magazine-fed rifle and sold the patent for it for $500, giving him some postwar capital.