EVOLUTION OF THE THRESHER

1 / 6
An early horsepower outfit. Note the method of transmitting the power to the thresher.
2 / 6
J. S. Witmer.
3 / 6
4 / 6
5 / 6
An early self-feeder and wind stacker attached to a clover huller, 1895.
6 / 6
This style of steam traction engine was built between 1876 and 1885.

Reprinted from October, 1935 Farm Power

The threshing machine is an evolution, rather than an invention,
and to you men and those before you who have concerned themselves
with the threshing of grain, belongs a large share of the credit
for the modern thresher as it exists today.

The thresher, unlike the automobile, was born of necessity
rather than from a desire to produce a machine that would perform
an old task in a new way.

Man was originally pretty much of a savage, who lived largely by
the fruits of the hunt feasting when game was plentiful and
starving when it was scarce. As he became more civilized, he
realized that he must of necessity provide stores of food in
advance, and as those were the days before refrigeration was known,
meat could not be stored for any length of time. The products of
the soil rather than those of wing or hoof naturally came to his
attention as the one safeguard against starvation, and as grain was
the easiest thing to raise to supply his major food requirements,
he turned his attention to that particular form of food.

Many a war was fought in those early days between the provident
nations who had stored up grain against future needs and the
nations which still relied upon the chase for their food
supply.

‘There was Corn in Egypt’ and Egyptian civilization
grew, and flourished, and perpetuated itself while many other
nations were relying upon flocks and herds which could not be
conserved against future needs.

It soon became evident that grain was something that produced
wealth and security and men became agrarians rather than hunters
and herdsmen. Grain production grew apace, in fact it accumulated
to the point where there was an unthreshable surplus. The hand
could not rub fast enough the slow moving oxen could not tread out
the crop and even the flail failed in its designed purpose.

The grain raiser rather than the manufacturer, turned his
attention toward a machine that would separate the wheat from the
straw. To such men as Meikle and Menzies belong the credit of
making a start towards perfecting a threshing machine back in the
18th century, but the results of their efforts while spelling
progress, did not anywhere near meet the requirements.

A Scotchman named Michael Menzies was one of the first of a
splendid group of men who experimented with threshing machines and
his efforts, while not crowned with complete success, are worthy of
notice as paving the way for subsequent experiments. His machine,
which was brought out in 1732, consisted of a number of flails
attached to a rotating cylinder driven by water power. It was
capable of doing a considerable amount of work in a short time and
attracted a good deal of attention. The frequent breaking of the
flails, however, demonstrated the fact that the really successful
machine would not make use of the flail motion in its original
form.

The next threshing machine of which we have record was also
invented by a Scotch farmer who succeeded in improving upon the
Menzies’ machine by constructing a rotary cylinder armed with
beaters which for the first time correctly applied the principle of
flail threshing to a power driven machine. His machine consisted of
a vertical shaft supporting four cross arms all enclosed in a
vertical cylinder. The grain was fed in at the top of the cylinder
and the rapidly revolving arms beat the grain out of the straw
during its downward passage. Both grain and chaff fell in a pile at
the bottom and separation was afterward performed by hand in the
usual fashion of the time by winnowing.

A horsepower outfit once used by U. S. Grant on his farm in
Illinois about 1850. This was sometime before Vicksburg or before
his days in the White House.

Twenty years later an attempt was made to solve the problem by
using the rubbing principle of separating the grain from the straw.
This machine employed a large fluted or corrugated cylinder which
revolved between a series of small corrugated rollers which were
held forcibly against the large cylinder by means of stout springs
whose tension could be varied to suit the conditions of the grain.
The friction between the corrugations of the rollers and the straw
was depended upon to remove the grain from the heads. This machine
was experimented with for some time with the hope that it would
solve the problem. However, it, too, was found impractical, being
slow in operation and liable to crack the grain. The rubbing or
frictional machine appeared after these experiments to be valueless
and again inventors turned their attention to the flail principle,
which had been all but proven successful.

The pioneer work of the early investigators, whose work has just
been discussed led to the final solution of the problem a few years
later by another Scotchman, Andrew Meikle by name, who constructed
a thresher embodying all the essential features of the present
successful machine. This machine, however, was a thresher only and
not a combined thresher and separator such as we are so familiar
with today.

The Andrew Meikle threshing machine marked a new epoch in the
grain raising industry. Previous to his time there had been several
attempts made to solve the problem of mechanical threshing but they
were far from successful, though paving the way doubtless for the
success which was finally achieved. Up to the advent of the Meikle
thresher the principal method of threshing was with the flail. This
was slow and expensive and besides was very wasteful. A large
amount of grain was always left in the straw. All things considered
it was out of the question at that time to raise grain on a large
scale, and yet this was what the world was demanding more than
anything else.

During the middle or latter part of the eighteenth century a
great industrial revolution set in all over Europe, but more
especially in England. Several things transpired to bring this
about. James Watt invented, or rather perfected, the steam engine
at this time and gave to the world a cheap portable power which
could be used to drive machinery in manufacturing.

The cotton and woolen industries gained a foothold in England,
there were wars on the continent and the demand for textile goods
was enormous. Just about this time, too, spinning and weaving
machinery was invented which, coming at the same time with the
advent of the steam engine, turned England in a very few years to
the greatest manufacturing nation in the world. This caused the
cities and larger towns to flourish. Wages were high and laborers
flocked from the rural regions into the cities where steady work at
good wages could be had.

All this reacted upon agriculture. It created a greater demand
than ever for agricultural products to feed the factory workers,
and raised the prices of farm produce to prices heretofore unheard
of, but at the same time it left the agricultural districts with
insufficient help.

Necessity again became the mother of invention. For the first
time in the world’s history a pecuniary reward was held out for
the invention of labor saving machinery and this proved a much
stronger incentive than the mere alleviation of human suffering or
the fear of famine.

Inventors immediately set to work to solve the various problems
involved in building labor saving agricultural machinery, and
within a few years after the opening of the nineteenth century, we
find at least crude designs of all the leading types of farm
implements which are so common and familiar at the present
time.

Among the very first to be experimented with was, as previously
stated, the threshing machine; and it remained for Andrew Meikle to
show the world the correct principles which one must obtain in a
successful thresher.

His machine consisted essentially of a revolving cylinder having
four beaters faced with iron and extending outward from the body of
the cylinder about four inches. A pair of feeder rolls were placed
just in front of the beater between which the grain was compelled
to pass on its way to the beater. These served to retard the straw
until the beaters had knocked the grain out of the husks. The first
machines built were over feed machines; that is, the straw was fed
in over the top of the cylinder which revolved in a direction
exactly opposite to that of the modern thresher. Instead of
concaves there was a fairly close fitting cover fitted behind and
partly around the cylinder.

Behind and below the cylinder there was a set of slowly moving
rakes which separated the straw from the chaff the former passing
backward to the rear of the machine, the latter, together with the
grain, falling through a grating to the hopper of a fanning mill
below.

These machines were made in various types and sizes suitable to
be worked by hand, by horse or power, by wind wheels or by water
wheels. The small hand machines were worked with a crank, two men
and a woman usually constituting the threshing crew. The larger
machines were built in place and were rather expensive for the
farm, especially where the tenant system of farming prevailed as it
did in England, and where the tenants were obliged to furnish all
the machinery and tools for doing the work. Consequently, only
those who worked considerable land on long term leases could afford
to invest in the larger machines. The small tenant farmer was still
obliged to use the more primitive methods or else the less
expensive and less efficient hand thresher.

A working model of a steam traction engine built by L. K. Wood
of Mendon, Utah. It is built to carry forty pounds of steam and is
only one-ninth as large as the original, which was built in 1892.
It burns coal after being started with a blowtorch.

The next improvement of note in European machines was the
substitution of a toothed cylinder and concaves, also with teeth to
take the place of beaters. A little later a straw carrier or
elevator was added which, with a winnowing machine or fanning mill,
made up all the essentials of the modern grain thresher. These
machines, to be sure, were large and clumsy. Their capacity was
much less than those of the present day, but they were a great
improvement in every way over the old hand methods which they
supplanted.

And so the advent of the power thresher made better harvesting
tools and better tools of tillage a necessity and these quickly
followed during the succeeding century the century of mechanical
marvels the nineteenth. And not the least of these marvels were the
many and wonderful farming implements. But at the beginning of this
list, which includes all that we have now, stands the grain
thresher.

The early experimental work on threshing machines was done in
Scotland, but in this as in most other great inventions, no one
country or one individual is entitled to all the credit. While the
correct fundamental principles of threshing were worked out across
the sea, it remained for American inventors to perfect all the
numberless small details which go to make up the successful machine
that we are today familiar with. In fact, the perfecting of the
many small mechanical devices which make up any complete machine
requires more labor and as high an order of genius as it does to
conceive the original crude idea. Indeed, in talking with some of
these later day inventors and listening to their tales of
unexpected difficulties met with and the experimental work which
they performed before achieving final success, I am inclined to
think their task was the harder.

It is not definitely known whether the first threshers used in
this country were made here or imported from Europe. In any event
they were rather crude, simple affairs.

It is reported that as early as 1825 there were some simple
threshers used in the United States, but it was not until three
years later than the subject appears to have attracted the
attention of inventors very seriously. About that time a man named
Samuel Lane of Hallowell, Maine, took out a patent on a traveling
thresher fitted with harvesting attachments. Another patent was
issued to the same inventor four years later, but neither proved
commercially successful and are mentioned herein merely to fix the
date of the active improvement in this line of machinery.

The first inventors of note, whose work influenced all
subsequent development, were two brothers, Hiram A. Pitts and John
A. Pitts of Winthrop, Maine.

Their first invention in 1830 was an improvement on a treated
power which afterward became quite popular throughout the New
England states for operating the old-fashioned
‘ground-hog,” ‘bull-threshers,”
‘bob-tails,’ ‘chaff-pillers,’ etc., as the old open
cylinder machines were variously called. These machines were simple
affairs which merely threshed the grain out of the straw without
doing any separating. All the chaff and grain fell at the rear of
the machine where it was afterward cleaned in a fanning mill after
the courser stuff had been removed by hand labor with the use of
forks.

It was while operating one of these old ‘ground-hogs’
that Hiram Pitts conceived the idea of combining it with an
ordinary fanning mill. This had been done some years before in
Europe, but it was the first time the idea was tried in the United
States. This idea was worked out in detail by the Pitts brothers
during a period of several years and in 1837 they were granted a
patent. This was the beginning of the ‘endless apron,’ or
‘great belt’ separators as they came to be known. This
machine contained most of the fundamental features of the present
day machines. It was provided with a ‘beater’ and
‘picker.’ The endless apron ended at the ‘picker.’
Both beater and picker were armed with spikes and resembled those
in use at the present time. The purpose of the picker was to throw
the straw from the machine. This machine was also provided with a
tailings elevator, but instead of returning the tailings to the
threshing cylinder they were retained at the sides of the machine,
from which point they were carried to the fanning mill for
refanning.

In the year 1835 John Fisher built the first threshing machine
built in Canada, fashioned after the Meikle machine in Scotland.
The Scotchman’s ‘Threshing Mill, ‘ as it was termed,
built in Canada by John Fisher, was the forebear of the present
threshing machine built by Sawyer-Massey, Limited.

The remainder of the story is largely one of attachments and
refinements, and to the threshermen themselves belongs the credit
for initiating most of the work that has been done along these
lines. The ideas have come largely from the men on the firing line
the men in greasy overalls and dust and chaff-laden smocks the men
who knew and loved the taste and smell of dustmen like yourselves
to whom a thresher was a living, pulsating thing, which performed a
task of which they were proud and they revered it accordingly.

The manufacturer has, however, had his part in the perfecting of
those ideas. Take for example such a small thing as cylinder teeth.
There are perhaps among you many who remember with what rapidity
these things used to wear out. A few days of hard threshing would
wear them all out of their original shape and the percentage of
breakage was heavy. Today, through the use of fine heat-treated
steels, a set of cylinder teeth needs very little attention.

Again, the thresher of a few years ago required the constant
attention of a man with an oil can to keep the bearings from
heating and burning out. Today, through improved antifriction,
dust-proof bearings, the oil can is only required occasionally and
little or no attention need be given the bearings themselves.

Steel has been substituted for wood, malleable for cast iron and
electric welding for bolts and screws which give greater strength,
lighter weight and much longer life, and at the same time, the
capacity of the thresher has been greatly increased in proportion
to the power required to drive it.

The threshing machine industry is resplendent with the names of
several men who have passed into The Great Beyond, but who in their
lifetime gave to the industry a wealth of ability in making
threshing machine progress.

Such men as Menzies and Meikle, the Scotch inventors; John
Fisher, McQuesten and Harmor of Sawyer-Massey Limited; George
White, founder of Geo. White & Sons, Limited; Robert Bell,
founder of The Robert Bell Engine and Thresher Company, Limited;
Buehler and Booth, succeeded by Bricker Brothers, founders of The
Waterloo Manufacturing Company, Limited; John Goodison, Charles
Mackenzie, George Samis, and John Cowan, founders of The John
Goodison Thresher Company, Limited; Hiram Pitts, Cyrus Roberts,
John Nichols, Jerome I. Case, Ezra Frick, J. C. Landis, Abraham
Gaar, Minard Rumely, Lewis Miller, A. B. Farquhar, A. Taylor,
Edward Huber, H. E. Robinson, Brainerd Skinner, J. B. Bartholomew,
Theophilus Harrison, Messrs, Best, Holt and Harris, and many others
gave their time, their hearts and their brains in order to perfect
the threshing machine.

In any discussion pertaining to threshermen and threshing, we
must not overlook those who were responsible for developing the
power equipment which has helped to thresh the nation’s grain
crop for so many years.

In the beginning it was tread powers that did the work, and the
names of John Cox and Cyrus Roberts stand out as the men who did
more than anyone else to develop this early class of farm power.
When it came to horse powers, the name of Pitts must be mentioned,
although Pitts, in this connection, was a manufacturer rather than
an inventor. Horse powers were of three types; namely, the down
power, the mounted power, and the triple geared power. Without
going into the matter in detail the names of Carey, Dingee, and
Woodbury must, by all means, be mentioned. It is a rather difficult
matter to introduce personalities into the development of steam
power for threshing. The steam traction engine is somewhat like the
radio receiverit is a combination of many things that have gone
before. One man developed a valve gear, another an injector,
another a governor, and so on, and the manufacturer of steam
threshing engines made use of the different parts developed when
perfecting his own machine. We must not, however, overlook such men
as Clay, McGregor, Landis, Swenson, Batholemew, Land, Lefevre,
Westinghouse, Baker, Pilliod, and many others, all of whom
contributed their part towards the development of the steam
traction engine, which for a great many years, furnished most of
the power which threshed the nation’s grain crop.

Other men like Buchanan, Parsons, Marshall, Ruth, Hartley,
Palmer and Stacey Hart, James Harrison, Closz, Howard, and Wood
Brothers gave us feeders, weighers, and wind stackers, and like the
automobile, when you buy a thresher today you do not buy a mere
skeleton and equip it with attachments, but you buy a machine
complete in every detail, with every attachment built into the
machine and designed to work in complete harmony with the machine
itself.

This one thing perhaps more than any other accounts for the
increase in price of threshers today as compared with those of a
few years ago. Who among you would go back to the old horse power
driven, straight stackered, hand-fed machine that poured its grain
contents into a half-bushel measure. I believe you will agree with
me when I say that much progress has been made and for this
progress we must hang medals on both threshermen and
manufacturer.

It is a peculiar fact, but nevertheless true, that practically
every change that has been made in threshers and every new
attachment which has been brought out has been the occasion for
more or less opposition on the part of the farmers.

When the change was made from apron to raddle or vibrator, the
farmers felt that it would waste the grain and it took a large
amount of perseverance on the part of threshermen to overcome the
objections. The wind stacker was also objected to by farmers who
said it would draw the grain from the sieves into the straw
pile.

The automatic weigher had its troubles in winning the
farmers’ confidence, who just could not forsake the old
half-bushel in favor of a contraption that would calculate the
grain threshed by weight rather than by volume.

The self-feeder also came in for its share of opposition from
many farmers who felt more secure in the man who stood at the feed
board than in a contrivance that seemed to fairly grab the straw in
chunks and force it into the cylinder.

It took many straw pile inspections on the part of farmers to
convince them that the kernels were being separated from the
heads.

It was the thresherman who took the brunt of this opposition and
it was he who passed his ideas for improvements on to the
manufacturers, who, in turn, engineered the ideas into better
equipment.

The matter of thresher sizes is one which has received
considerable attention during the past few years. There was a time
a few years ago when it looked as if the small thresher, and by
small I mean the 20 inch or 22 inch size, would sweep the field.
This was due to the then predominant influence of a certain size of
tractor power plant. Many were sold, but it would appear that this
craze for the small machine is rapidly passing and that the
industry is settling down to a few standard sizes of threshers, and
some concerns are not building more than two. This has been brought
about largely through a process of elimination, both on the part of
threshermen and manufacturers. In addition, the tendency on the
part of tractor manufacturers to standardize on power sizes has
also had a material influence on the number of sizes of threshers
which are now being built.

Another factor which has tended to eliminate the larger size is
the increase in the capacity of the modern thresher as compared
with the older types, and also the increase in its mobility in
moving from job to job and from set to set.

You threshermen have done much to improve the conditions within
your own ranks. You have waged a vigorous and steady war against
the price cutter. You have more and more applied business methods
to the conduct of your own affairs, both of which have been very
much appreciated by the manufacturer, because your success is his
success and if you fall down on the job he must, of necessity,
tumble with you. The success of the industry as a whole is
dependent almost entirely upon cooperative effort. Both threshermen
and manufacturers are all important links in the chain and both
must be of the same relative strength if the industry is to
function as it should.

As to what the future has to offer in the way of improvements in
threshing machinery it is difficult to say just at this time, or to
definitely state just what is on the drafting boards of the various
thresher companies at present, but it is safe to predict that
several minor and perhaps major improvements will be made in the
not distant future. You can rest assured that the manufacturers are
watching the needs of the threshermen closely and that improvements
in present-day machines will be made just as fast as they can be
thought out and worked out.

In this connection I would strongly advise that you threshermen
do everything you can to make your wants and ideas known to the
manufacturers, for by doing so you can render not only a valuable
service to the industry as a whole, but to the whole realm of
mechanical progress.

There is one other matter about which I wish to speak briefly in
conclusion and that is the matter of second-hand machinery. Did it
ever occur to you that a second-hand thresher is about the most
useless thing in the hands of a manufacturer that can be imagined,
unless it be a long past due lien note. A secondhand thresher may
have many days of service left in it when it is operated by a
competent thresherman, but in the hands of a manufacturer, it is
scarcely worth scrap. There is oftentimes more profit for the owner
in a partly worn out machine than there is in a new one. The owner
has taken his depreciation and the earnings from the second-hand
machines are more nearly velvet. The manufacturer, if he be fair to
himself, cannot allow what the machine is really worth to the owner
on a trade-in, and in most cases he must work the old machine off
at a loss, which loss must be added to the cost of the new machines
which he builds.

The day when the second-hand thresher becomes a thing of the
past will be a good day for both threshermen and manufacturer, and
may its coming be speedy and sure.

In this same connection, the matter of credits and bad debts are
other things to which both threshermen and manufacturers alike must
give careful attention. Every time a thresherman defaults on his
payments he increases the manufacturer’s cost of doing
business, which increase must be added to the cost of new machines,
because it is both inevitable and true that in the end the
consumer, who in this case is the thresherman, must pay all the
bills.

After all, I know of no business where the interests of both
buyer and seller are more closely related than in the threshing
machine industry.

A manufacturer can sell a man a pair of pants and he is not
particularly concerned with what becomes of either the wearer or
the pants. In the case of a threshing machine, however, the
manufacturer is very much concerned with both the owner and the
machine, and in making the sale a relationship is established which
oftentimes lasts throughout the life of the machine itself.

The interests of the one are closely allied with the interests
of the other, hence it is good business for the one to work with
the other for mutual benefit.

1. You have a right to establish a profitable rate for your
work;
2.  You have a right to maintain the privilege and use of
highways;
3.  You have a right to maintain and secure just fire
insurance rates;
4.  You have and should secure through your own initiative,
proper and just liability insurance rates, and mutually maintain
just and fair fire and liability insurance premiums.

These four things alone, and the privilege of them, justify the
expense and warrant the life of your organization.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment