Who Was Harry Ferguson?

Brilliant inventor Harry Ferguson’s 3-point hitch revolutionized farming.

| September 2017

The name “Ferguson” has graced the finest agricultural machinery for a century, but who was the man behind the name? Most readers old enough to have experienced World War II would have no trouble answering that question, but younger tractor aficionados may need some background.

The name was Harry Ferguson (actually, Henry George Ferguson, but he always went by “Harry” for reasons lost to antiquity). Ferguson was born in 1884 in County Down, Northern Ireland, in an area then known as Ulster. He was a complex man, to say the least. In his biography of Ferguson, Tractor Pioneer, Colin Fraser said Ferguson, “combined the extremes of subtlety, naiveté, charm, rudeness, brashness, modesty, largesse and pettiness; and the switch from any one to another could be abrupt and unpredictable. And, he had a penchant for confrontation.”

Ferguson’s claim to fame was his invention of the now universally accepted 3-point hitch, which essentially transformed a tractor and implement into a single unit. The dictionary definition of “tractor” refers to the act of drawing or pulling. Since earliest times, animal power has been used in drawing or pulling farming implements. When traction engines came on the scene at the end of the 19th century, they were merely mechanical alternatives to animals. There technology rested until Ferguson developed the 3-point hitch, also known as “the Ferguson System.”

The birth of May Street Motors

Ferguson was the fourth of 11 children born to farm couple James and Mary Ferguson. He did not take to the drudgery of farm life, claiming to be “too light for it.” Nor did he take to school, where he was in constant conflict with teachers. He dropped out at age 14, but as an avid reader, he kept learning. Mechanical contrivances fascinated him, and after his older brother opened a repair shop catering to the budding automobile trade, Ferguson followed him into the business. At that point, newly focused, he did quite well as a student at Belfast Technical College.

Of all the talents Ferguson developed in his youth, those of promoter and salesman may have been the most significant. He embarked on a successful career in auto and motorcycle racing to promote his brother’s business. He was able to convince his brother that building and flying Ireland’s first airplane would also be good for business.

Ferguson started his own automobile business, May Street Motors in Belfast in 1911 and hired 21-year-old Willie Sands, a gifted mechanic and natural engineer, as his assistant. Sands would continue working with Ferguson into the 1950s.