Top five significant developments in ag machinery

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As promised last time, here are my five final choices for the top 10 most significant new developments in agricultural machinery during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. I cut it off at 1950 because there have been many, many revolutionary improvements since then in farm machines and practices.

In addition to new and improved implements, high-yielding hybrid seeds and better fertilizers, as well as no-till and low-till practices have been developed that have reduced soil erosion and compaction along with input costs.

More recently, engineers have developed GPS systems that afford exceptional accuracy in the placement of fertilizers and seed, again reducing input costs and improving yields.

Now, back to the list.

VI. Auto truck

Machinery, critters and crops, among other heavy things, all need to be moved around the farm, or to market. Two wheeled carts sufficed for early farmers and soon 4-wheeled wagons became the norm and were universally used for a couple of centuries.

It’s impossible to pin down the first motor truck, but steam-, electric- and gas-powered commercial vehicles made an appearance about the turn of the 20th century, and by 1910 trucks were common in urban areas.

The first real attempt to make a vehicle to replace the ubiquitous farm wagon was International Harvester with their “Auto Wagon,” which was introduced in 1907. Since that time farm trucks of all sizes have proliferated and today, no self-respecting farmer is without his pickup.

VII. Gasoline tractor

Steam tractors required much water, lots of coal, wood or straw for fuel, and a trained engineer to operate. The internal combustion engine that was being perfected during the 1890s offered an alternative to steam.

John Froelich is generally credited with inventing the first successful tractor in Iowa in 1892. The first commercially successful tractor was built in Charles City, Iowa, by Charles Hart and Charles Parr. Early gas tractors were big, heavy, awkward and none too reliable, but by 1920 the better ones had survived and were becoming hugely popular on American farms for heavy tillage and belt work.

VIII. General purpose tractor

By the 1920s the heavy plowing required to break the virgin prairies of the middle and northwestern prairies was mostly finished. Row crop work, such as planting and cultivating, was still largely done by horses as the tractors were too heavy and not maneuverable enough for those lighter jobs. Several lightweight row crop tractors had been tried, but most were not satisfactory.

Several manufacturers offered motor cultivators during the ‘teens, but few farmers were willing to buy an expensive machine that was used only a month or two each year, especially when horses did the job just as well.

In 1924, IH introduced the Farmall, the first real general purpose tractor that could pull heavier tillage and harvesting machines, as well as plant and cultivate row crops. The Farmall quickly caught on and by 1930 IH was churning out 200 Farmall tractors per day.

Soon, every major tractor manufacturer offered a similar row crop machine. The swift mechanization of American farms that occurred during the late 1930s and early 1940s was on its way.

IX. Rubber tires

Steel lugged wheels limited speed, vibrated and shook bolts loose, and quickly dug into soft ground if they spun, not to mention what they did to the driver’s innards. Solid rubber tires began to be fitted to industrial tractors about 1920, and Florida citrus growers experimented with large truck tires on tractors in 1928.

Harvey Firestone became interested and, in 1932, Allis-Chalmers engineers equipped an A-C Model U tractor belonging to Wisconsin farmer Albert Schroeder with a pair of Firestone 48 X 12 airplane tires. The tires were a huge success and Allis-Chalmers began to offer air tires on the Model U tractor late in 1932, a first in the industry.

The advantage of pneumatic tires over steel wheels in fuel economy and performance, not to mention driver comfort, sold farmers on their advantages and by 1940, 95 percent of tractors were ordered on rubber. Harvey Firestone’s dream of putting the farm on rubber was on its way to being reality.

X. Hydraulic implement lift with draft control

The first tractor mechanical lift appeared in 1927, and a hydraulic lift in 1934. These lifts, however, were just that — lifts. They raised and then dropped the implement without the operator having to wrestle a hand lever but depth control still required the frequent manipulation of a lever or crank, or maybe an adjustable depth wheel.

Irishman Harry Ferguson can claim credit for the first hydraulic lift with automatic draft control. By 1933, he had perfected a way of attaching an implement to a tractor by three arms. The tension load on the lower arms and the compression load on the upper arm caused the “virtual hitch” point to be near the tractor’s front axle, thus keeping the front end of the tractor on the ground.

In addition, the top link compression load operated a hydraulic valve that caused the implement depth to be automatically regulated according to the draft needed to pull it.

Ferguson’s three-point hitch was probably the most revolutionary improvement in tractor and implement technology during the first half of the 20th century. Today, virtually every tractor sold anywhere in the world features a three-point hitch based on Ferguson’s original system.

So, there’s my list. I’d be interested in hearing whether readers agree, or think I’m crazy, so if your choices differ from mine let us know what you think are the most revolutionary machines in farming history.

Read the first five significant developments in ag machinery

About the Author

Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules. More Stories by Sam Moore

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