Early Thoughts on the Threshing Machine

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The first threshing machine wasn’t produced in this country but in the British Isles when a Scotsman, Andrew Meikle, improved upon a semi-successful thresher built by an English farmer named Leckie. Meikle used a rotary cylinder with beaters around the circumference, as well as powered feed rollers to carry the grain into the cylinder and, eventually, a cleaning fan to blow away dirt and chaff. Meikle’s machine, which was patented in 1788, wasn’t portable, however, and was built into a barn and powered by a water wheel or a horsepower.

Arthur Young, an English agricultural writer wrote in 1808, warning the farmer to keep a sharp eye on the men doing his threshing (with a flail and winnowing basket). He wrote: He may lose immensely if his straw be not threshed clean; and as it is work generally performed by measure, the men are too apt to turn it over too quickly, and thresh out only that (grain) which comes the easiest from the ear. In respect to pilfering, the work gives them great opportunities so he should have a sharp lookout, and take care now and then to meet the men of an evening in their home, and to come upon them in the barn at various times and unawares. Such conduct will keep the men honest, if they are already, and will prevent many knaves from practicing their roguery. According to this, British yeomen must have been an untrustworthy lot.

Young then described the advantages of the new threshing machines: If the farmer has one of these most useful implements, he is safe from such dirty work and dishonesty. The expense of a fixed mill is from sixty to one hundred guineas [the guinea was 1 pound, 1 shilling, or 21 shillings, but it’s beyond my ability to translate that into today’s money]. It will thresh about fifteen quarters [a quarter is eight bushels] of wheat in eight or nine hours, and from fifteen to twenty quarters of barley, oats, peas, or beans. Barley is the hardest to thresh with a machine, but I have seen several that do it well, such as Mr. Asbey’s at Blyborough, Suffolk. His price for a fixed machine, 75 guineas, and for a moveable one, 120 guineas. The granary should always be located over the fixed mill that the grain may be drawn up at once, and lodged safe under the farmer’s key.

While this is a much later thresher than Andrew Meikle’s, it is an early 19th century horse-powered machine from Europe, probably French. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Straw was commonly used as cattle feed in Great Britain and Young alluded to this: For feeding cattle, fresh-threshed straw is better than old; for litter they are equal; but it is best for eating straw to cut it into chaff by the power of the threshing mill and to have the chaffhouse adjoining so it can be immediately stored. This house should have brick walls, so that fermentation does not set fire to anything, and then if water be thrown on the chaff, it ferments and is much more nutritious than when used in the common way. Mr. Young seems to have known a bit about silage.

Threshing was something of an all winter job in those days. Young wrote: The threshers must be kept constantly at work throughout this month [December], that the cattle feeding on the straw may have a regular supply. Many farmers who keep large stocks of lean or dry cattle thresh their worst straw first and the best last throughout the winter, that every change of straw may be for the better. This cannot fail of having good effects on the cattle, who often fall away on a change of straw that is for the worse. The wheat should be threshed first as it makes the worst fodder; next the oats, then the barley, and lastly, the barley or oats that had much clover mown with them; for in wet seasons, the clover grows so high that the straw is almost as good as hay.

Arthur Young finished up his article with: A threshing-machine is an object of such importance to every [grain] farmer that no intelligent one will be without it.

It always interests me to read these old accounts of how farming was back in “the good old days.”

– Sam Moore

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