Top 10 farm machinery innovations: My first five


Ever speculate about what were the most significant new developments in agricultural machinery during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries? I was asked this some years ago and this is the list I came up with.

I don’t believe any of them, with the possible exception of the cotton gin, can be attributed to a single individual, but were the product of many curious and ingenious people who made incremental improvements to the work of their predecessors.

I. Cotton gin.  In colonial times, cotton cloth was more expensive than linen or wool, due to the extreme difficulty of separating the seeds from the clinging fibers. One man could pick the seeds from only about one pound of cotton fibers per day.

Eli Whitney built, in 1793, a machine consisting of a row of close-set wheels with saw-like teeth around their perimeters. The wheels protruded through narrow slits between metal bars into a hopper filled with cotton bolls. As the wheels revolved, the teeth caught the cotton fibers and pulled them through the slits which were too narrow for the seeds to pass, thus separating the two.

Whitney’s cotton gin allowed a thousand pounds of cotton to be cleaned in the time it took one man to do five pounds by hand. As a result, cotton cloth became cheap, the cotton plantation culture of the South was established, and the use of slave labor in growing cotton became entrenched.

II. Reaper/binder. Small grains had been harvested by hand for centuries — cut with sickles or scythes and raked and tied into sheaves by hand.

Grain harvesting machines first appeared in Great Britain about 1800, and a decade or two later in the U.S., but most failed. Obed Hussey and Cyrus McCormick both developed successful reapers during the early 1830s.

Inventor. McCormick’s machine became the more popular and he is credited with having invented the reaper. These early machines still required the sheaves to be bound by hand, but in 1857 the Marsh brothers equipped a reaper with moving canvases that carried the grain to a platform where it was tied into bundles by someone riding on the machine.

In 1867, the first twine knotter was demonstrated by John Appleby. Sylvanus Locke developed a wire binder about 1874, which was adopted by McCormick. Wire dominated for a short while, but bits of wire got into the grain and ended up inside livestock and flour with disastrous results. William Deering adopted the twine tying mechanism for his popular Deering harvesters, and about 1881 McCormick did as well.

III. Thresher. When grain was being cut by hand, the method for separating the kernels from the straw was equally slow and labor intensive. Grain was hauled to a barn where it was spread out on a threshing floor and either beat with hand flails or trampled by animals. This knocked the kernels free of the straw, which was then raked away. The remaining mixture was winnowed by tossing it into the air where the wind was relied upon to blow the chaff and lighter debris away from the heavier grain which fell back onto the threshing floor.

First thresher. The first threshing machine with a revolving, toothed cylinder and concaves was invented in 1786 in Scotland by Andrew Meikle. In 1830, brothers Hiram and John Pitts are credited with the first successful American separator, as well as for adapting a horse tread power to run the thing. Hiram soon added a fanning mill to the threshing drum to separate and clean the grain at the same time.

 Later improvements resulted in machines that extracted virtually all the grain from the straw, along with thoroughly cleaning it, while blowing the straw into a stack.

IV. Steam engine.  Until the end of the 18th century, American farmers relied primarily upon the strong backs and arms of themselves, family members, hired men, or slaves. The new farm machines then being developed required more power, so oxen, horses and mules were pressed into service.

Machine power. Stationary steam engines were used early on to run cotton gins and mills. The additional power required by the improved threshing machines led to the development of portable steam power, which made its first appearance about 1849.

At first, portable steam engines were pulled from place to place by horses. During the 1870s, several inventors developed practical drive systems and the self-propelled steam traction engine became common as power for the many threshing rigs around the country. They were also used for pulling multiple gang plows in the large fields of the wheat belt.

By the 1920s the steam traction engine was on its way out, but it paved the way for the gasoline tractors that followed.

V. Combined harvester-thresher.  Although a “traveling thrasher” or combined harvester-thresher, had been patented as early as 1828, the first successful machine was built by Hiram Moore in 1834. Moore’s combine successfully cut and threshed grain, although it had to be winnowed later.

Horse drawn. After the Civil War, big horse-drawn, ground-driven combines were developed in the wheat growing regions of the northwest. In 1871, B.F. Cook put a steam engine on a combine to drive the mechanism, making it possible for fewer horses to pull. About 1886, a California farmer named George Berry built a combine around a steam traction engine and voila! The self-propelled combine was born.

That’s the first five of my top 10; the remaining five will appear in two weeks.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Read the next five significant advances in ag machinery.  

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