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article number 291
article date 11-26-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Many of Us Leave Farming … So We Invent Better Farm Machinery
by M. C. Horine

From the 1924 book, A Popular History of American Invention.


IN the days when farming consisted in stirring the ground with a crooked stick pulled by an ox, throwing handfuls of seed over the fallow soil, harvesting the ripened grain with a sickle, and stamping the kernels from the straw by driving animals back and forth over it, nearly every one had to be his own farmer. And so much labor was required to grow wheat for human subsistence with sufficient forage for the cattle that a farmer had little or no time for recreation and education.

The universal accomplishment then was fighting. European nations were aggressive peoples, distinguished alike for their military prowess and lack of agrarian instincts. War, rather than wheat, was their business.

Farmers were looked upon as peasants. Artisans, except those who made armor and weapons, fared little better. There were power and honor, luxury and leisure for the man who could make or wield sword and pike; but only scorn, heart-breaking toil, and hardship for the man who raised wheat and food.

Little wonder, therefore, that not until the dawn of the eighteenth century was a real plough devised, and that from the appearance of the Rotherham plough in Holland, in 1700, up to our Civil War, the ordinary farmer labored with a wooden instrument no better than the ploughs of the ancient Egyptians.

Not until the middle of the last century did broadcast sowing of grain over the surface of the ground give way to drilling and planting. About that time, also, the reaping of grain with horses first became common through the invention of the reaper. The flail and the treading floor for threshing grain were not supplanted by practical machines for separating the grain until after Lincoln’s administration.

Farmers had no practical, mechanical means of harvesting corn, the greatest of all American crops, until the early eighties. Steam and gasoline engines have been at work in the fields only since the dawn of the present century.

Landing in Massachusetts in 1620, the Pilgrim fathers soon planted wheat and oats, the seeds of which they had brought with them from the Netherlands. The soil was virgin. The Indians had simply burned off the forests, scraped the surface of the ground into small mounds, and planted the kernels of corn within them, the work being done with bare hands by the squaws.


It was twelve years after the first landing before the Pilgrims began to use ploughs. The hard, packed, and stony soil had been broken with crude spades, hoes, and mattocks. Seed was scattered broadcast by hand and sometimes partially covered by means of logs dragged over the field.

Naturally one farmer could till only a small area of land, and so could raise little more than was required by his own family. In 1637 there were but thirty-seven ploughs in the Massachusetts Bay colony.

The fortunate farmer who owned a plough was often paid a bounty by his town, and he hired himself out as a ploughman, much as traction-engine and threshing-machine owners, until very recently, made a business of doing farm work for the community.

The Puritan plough was a cumbersome contrivance of wood, twelve feet long, with a ten-foot beam and a four-foot landside. Eight to ten oxen were required to draw it, and a man had to ride on the beam to keep it in the ground. Another man followed with a heavy iron hoe to dig up the places where, despite the weight of the man on the beam, the plough had left the ground.

Had the Pilgrims not tarried in Holland on their way from England to Massachusetts, their ploughs would have been still cruder; but Holland was more advanced in plough-making than any other country, having developed the ploughshare in the seventeenth century.

Before that the plough was simply a tool to loosen and stir the soil, no effort having been made to turn a furrow that placed the sod at the bottom and new earth at the top.

The Dutch had tried to make a plough which would accomplish this. Introduced into England and there slightly improved, the wooden Rotherham plough made its appearance. Clumsy though it was, it had a mouldboard and, after a fashion, could turn a furrow.

About 1730 these ploughs were improved upon by a Scotchman named Small, who copied the Rotherham shape, but made some of the wearing parts of iron. In the same year Joseph Foljamb, in England, secured a patent on a plough.

The ploughshares required constant hardening, however, and it was not until 1803 that Robert Ransome patented a device that removed such a necessity.

Ransome was half a century ahead of his time. Not only did he propose to make a plough of cast iron, but he actually described a method of chilling the surface of the share to harden it and yet leave the body of the metal soft and tough.



All of this activity meant little to the American farmer. He was still struggling along with the heavy wooden Old Colony plough. Charles Newbold, of Burlington, New Jersey, took out the first patent on a plough, in 1797. It was of cast iron, with a mouldboard similar to that of the Rotherham plough.

The ponderous Bull ploughs, then in general use, were cut with broadaxes out of a crooked tree-fork, the mouldboard being shaped to suit the fancy of the farmer, and the angle of the point to the beam.

Newbold realized their defects. Being well-to-do for that time, he dedicated his life and fortune to giving the farmer a better plough. His aim was a plough that could be worked by one man and two oxen, that could actually turn a furrow, and that would last for years without breaking down.

Newbold, having built his plough, endeavored to prove to the farmers its advantages over the old wooden breaker. The New Jersey farmers watched the experiment. They saw the plough guided by one man and hauled by two oxen; they watched the furrows turned over neatly and smoothly; they noted the speed and thoroughness with which the ground was covered.

Then they shook their heads. There was a catch in it, somewhere. Iron ploughs would surely poison the soil, they said, and stimulate nothing but the growth of weeds. Although Newbold showed these doubting farmers the splendid fields of grain that had grown where his ploughs had broken the sod, although he had spent $30,000 in an effort to introduce his new and better implement, he finally had to give up in disgust.


Until the time of Thomas Jefferson nobody had undertaken a scientific study of the mouldboard to determine just what its shape should be. The rules laid down in 1798 by Jefferson as a result of his study were somewhat modified and amplified by James Small in 1802.

Jefferson and Small, however, did not put their theories into practice, and the American farmer, hearing nothing of them, continued to drag a rough-hewn tree behind a small herd of steers at ploughing-time.


But there was one farmer, a Quaker, Jethro Wood, of New York, who heeded the advice of Jefferson and Small, and also listened to Newbold. Although comfortably situated on his farm near Scipio, New York, a respected member of the community, friend of such men as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, he followed in the footsteps of Newbold, taking up the fight where his predecessor had been forced to leave off.

In 1819, as a result of his labor, he was granted a patent on a plough to be made entirely, except for the beam and handles, of cast iron. The various parts were to be made in separate pieces, so that any worn part might be removed and a new one substituted.

Following up the rules of Jefferson and Small with some improvements of his own, he produced the best mould-board of that time. Indeed, for a stubble or pulverizing plough the shape was practically identical with that in use to-day, although it was afterward found that different shapes were required for hillside work, prairie-breaking, and road work.

Cast-iron ploughs, copies of Newbold’s early efforts, had proved costly; they soon wore out. Over them the new plough had a great advantage. But, like Newbold, Wood spent nearly all his money, exhausted his credit, and shortened his years in perfecting his iron plough.

When success at last crowned his struggles, and farmers, forgetting the soil-poisoning superstition, sought his ploughs, scores of patent-infringers sprang up all over the country, backed by wealthy men and reinforced by clever lawyers who knew the financial limitations of the old Quaker.

Summoning all his strength and gathering what little property remained to him, Wood charged into the fray. One after another of his infringers was sued, and the contest was carried to a long-drawn and bitter conclusion. Here even the law itself failed him, for his infringers invoked a provision in the law that public use of an invention for a certain time and under certain conditions before the patent was granted rendered the patent void.

Of course Wood had tried his first models before patenting them, some of these trials having been witnessed by neighbors. In 1833, with only three more years for his patents to run, his friends laid the matter before Congress. In response to pleas by Daniel Webster and William H. Seward, Congress extended Wood’s patent for fourteen years.

The cast-iron stove and range of later years were also the result of Jethro Wood’s ceaseless and patient efforts to perfect his plough.


At the time of Jethro Wood’s death, in 1834, thousands of iron ploughs were in use. The great tide of emigration westward carried these iron ploughs into the prairie country of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

Here the farmers found very different soil from that which they had worked in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and eastern Ohio. The Western soil was of rich loam, with fewer stones and boulders than those of the East, and it yielded more bountiful crops.

But, as virgin soil, it was exceedingly difficult to plough into neatly turned furrows. The soft iron shares and “coulters” dulled rapidly, and were hard to pull through the ground. It was necessary for the ploughman to exert all his strength and struggle with the handles to keep from being roughly thrown to one side or the other as the plough continually careened, or jumped out of the furrow.

The heavy, sticky loam would not slide easily from the iron surface; it would not “scour,” as it is termed. The roots of the long prairie grass resisted the passage of the dull shares and would not permit the clods to turn over. The ploughs made trenches of irregular depth and direction, even in skilful strong hands.

Plough-founders were at their wit’s ends. They tried all manner of shapes and all manner of iron, but they found that any change in the shape of the plough only made matters worse, and that hard irons broke too easily when striking stones. They tried long “toes” on their shares to hold the ploughs down, hut found these would dig down and stop the plough altogether.


In 1833 a blacksmith, John Lane, in Chicago made a fresh start in plough building. He made a wooden plough, to which were screwed strips of the finest saw-steel obtainable. A sharp edge of saw-steel, braced with iron, was used for the share.

This plough was probably the first that successfully turned a furrow of Illinois black loam. Lane did not realize the importance of his discovery at first, for he made no attempt to patent the idea or to introduce his steel-faced plough generally.

But others heard of John Lane’s plough, and soon every country blacksmith shop round about was busy fitting old saw-plates to wooden ploughs. The supply of old saws was rapidly used up, and hundreds of new saws were cut up for the purpose.


In Grand Detour, Illinois, dwelt a young smith named John Deere, a giant in stature and a Hercules in strength. He had realized the difficulties the farmers were having with their cast-iron and steel-tipped wooden ploughs, for he found much employment in repairing them, sharpening their shares and fitting iron patches where they had worn through.

When the idea of the steel plough came to him he set about making one in a workmanlike manner. Although he was preceded one year by John Lane, it is likely that at the time he had never heard of John Lane or his plough.

The best steel obtainable was saw-steel, of course, but he was not satisfied with thin plates made from handsaws, screwed to a wooden mould-board. Instead he used the steel of a great circular mill-saw.

To get the proper shape and curvature, he cut out his pattern on a log, placed the saw-plate over it, and then hammered the steel with a wooden mallet to fit the form. Out of the pieces trimmed from the edges he made the land-side, and bolted the two parts over a white-oak frame.

The share and the mould-board were one; there was no coulter, no wood backing. It is said of this plough that it was so light that Deere slung it over his shoulder and carried it to the field where it was tested.

The plough fulfilled the inventor’s expectations. It parted the sticky soil as easily as the iron ploughs had turned sandy furrows in Connecticut. The soil made a peculiar singing sound as it scoured the mould-board and lay over, grass down, in the adjacent furrow.

Soon Deere’s little smithy was working to the capacity of its forges, making ploughs out of mill-saw blades. Deere gave up horseshoeing and blacksmithing to devote all his time and equipment to plough-making. He could hardly supply the demand.

Because the Pittsburgh steel mills would not roll saw-steel in the sizes he required, Deere imported saw-steel from Germany,
where he could get it in whatever size he wanted.

In 1847, after he had moved his works to Moline, Illinois, to be nearer the vast empire opening up in Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas, he received his first shipment of American plough-steel, rolled to his order by William Wood, at the plant of Jones and Quigg, at Quincy, Illinois.

He had turned from saw-steel to German case-hardened armor-plate, because saw-steel was not hard enough to remain sharp for a sufficient time. The German steel was hard enough, but it could not be tempered without warping; it required careful treatment by hand to reshape it after tempering.

The Jones and Quigg steel was simply high carbon steel, which, while harder than saw-steel, was still tough enough for ploughing and could be tempered without excessive warping.

JOHN DEER STEEL PLOW, 1837. Deere received his first shipment of American plough-steel, rolled to his order by William Wood, at the plant of Jones and Quigg, at Quincy, Illinois.

William Morrison, in 1868, secured a patent on a soft-centred plough steel which was the first successful metal of its kind. It consisted of a thick sheet of soft iron, sandwiched between thin sheets of steel. In this development, for once, the arts of agriculture stole a lead over the arts of war, for Morrison had unwittingly established the principle of compound armor-plate, which, however, was not applied to warships until 1877.

Even though better materials have since been developed, it is generally conceded that Lane and Deere’s contribution to plough-making made the cultivation of the great plains possible. Deere’s steel soon came into general use among plough-makers, and a royalty of three cents a plough was paid during the lifetime of the patent.


It was thought that the steel plough would eventually drive the iron plough out of existence. Steel ploughs were not only lighter, but they scoured well, were easy to draw through the soil, and their shares remained sharp long after iron shares had dulled.

Then came new experiments with the iron plough by James Oliver, a Scotch immigrant. In 1855, Oliver was filling in odd hours as a farmhand and iron-moulder in Mishawaka, Indiana. On a visit to South Bend, the young man, for he was only thirty-two years, fell in with a foundryman who faced ruin because his cast-iron ploughs failed to meet the requirements of his customers.

Oliver purchased a fourth interest in the foundry for $88.96, and immediately set to work to make cast-iron ploughs that would give absolute satisfaction.

Others before him had experimented with chilled iron in an effort to make hard-faced ploughs. Iron or steel faces, or chills, were introduced into the sand-moulds into which the molten iron was poured, thus suddenly chilling the face of the casting. This imparted density and hardness to the metal.

But the process had always made the castings brittle, producing internal strains similar to those causing a hot lamp-chimney to break if sprinkled with cold water.

Oliver spent twelve years in overcoming these difficulties. He circulated hot water through the chills, so that he could prevent the castings from cooling too rapidly or unevenly, and he improved the patterns to secure flexibility during the process.

MODERN OLIVER CHILLED PLOUGH. The production of a chilled mould-board was James Oliver’s great achievement. Oliver discovered the process whereby chilling is possible without destroying the shape and thus preventing clean scouring. Coffin, the statistician, said: “My estimate is that for a single year, if all the farmers in the United States had used the Oliver chilled ploughs, instead of the regular steel or iron plough, the saving in labor would have totaled the sum of $45,000,000.”

By this method he was able to secure castings soft and tough throughout, that is, all but the wearing face, which was of even hardness for a shallow depth. Being a practical foundryman, Oliver soon found the sort of metal that should be used to get a fine-textured face, and take a mirror polish to resist rust.

Finally he discovered he could anneal, or reheat, his plough-castings, so that the soft portions became pliable enough to work out their strains from shrinkage in cooling, without affecting the hardness of the chilled faces.

James Oliver became a successful business man. This he owed to his inventive genius rather than to his willingness to adapt himself to circumstances. Not only did he insist that Robert Burns was unequalled for his poetry, but he considered that Scotch Clydesdale horses and Ayrshire dairy cows had no superiors in the world.

When heavier and heavier horses became necessary in order to haul the larger gang-ploughs, larger grain-drills and bigger grain-reapers, he would concede nothing to the French Percheron, the English Shire, or the Belgian draft-horses. The Clyde was the best workhorse, and even the best driving horse, and to make good his assertion a huge, stodgy Clydesdale was habitually hitched to his buggy.

Oliver died in 1908, reputed to be the richest man in Indiana.

JAMES OLIVER. James Oliver, the Scotch emigrant who revolutionized ploughing. Oliver had a theory that a plough for our Middle West should be light yet strong, and that its mould-boards should scour so as to turn the soil with a singing sound, and that the share or cutting edge should be made separate so as to be easily and cheaply renewed. After twelve years of experimenting he perfected his chilled plough.


Even when ploughed, the soil is not quite ready for planting. To grow plants, the earth must be further pulverized and broken up into a mulch. The oldest method of pulverizing known is beating the clods with sticks and reducing them to a mulch with the feet. In the past, the laborers who did this work were called “clodhoppers.”

The Japanese used disk harrows so long ago that historians cannot place the date. In King David’s time the ancient Hebrews wrote of iron-spiked harrows, used as instruments of torture.

Modern inventions are concerned with spring-teeth instead of the rigid spiked pattern, so that the presence of roots, rocks, or like obstructions will not stop the harrow, deflect it from its course, or damage the teeth.

Only within recent times has the disk been recognized as of value in ploughing as well as harrowing. There are two types of disk-harrows. One, known as a pulverizer, has wavy edges which chop the clods; the second, with smooth edges, stir and break up the clods into smaller parts.

G. Page seems to have been the first in this country to realize the value of the disk, having patented the combination of a single disk-harrow as part of a plough in 1847.

So important has pulverizing and preparation of the seed-bed become that to-day it is common to employ from four to six separate tillage operations, such as breaking and turning with the plough, disk-harrowing to break up the clods, tooth-harrowing to break them up still more, disking with plain disks to refine the soil, harrowing, dragging, and rolling to smooth and pulverize it, and finally to roll the surface level and compact so as to hold the moisture beneath.



“As ye sow so shall ye reap.” Before the harvest there must be the planting. Methods of placing the seed in the ground have varied since time immemorial.

Until recent days, vegetables, potatoes, and plants had always been planted with the hands, or with hoes and trowels; grass-seed and seed-grains, from the remotest beginnings of agriculture, have been sown broadcast by hand. This was usually done after the land had been ploughed and harrowed. Then it was again harrowed or dragged with brush or small log-drags.

The method was a poor one. Either the seed was left on the surface to be eaten by birds or field mice, or buried too deep to sprout. What seed escaped such devastation was so badly distributed through the soil that the growth was uneven and unhealthy.

In the time of the American colonies, while the Dutch were first trying to improve the medieval plough, a great English agriculturist, Jethro Tull, published a book, in 1731, called Horse-hoeing Husbandry. Tull, a small landowner, farming his own land, moderately well-to-do, with leisure enough to study the soil, plant growth, and the laws of mechanics, was unfortunately so far ahead of his time that few people paid any attention to him.

Tull saw the evils of broadcast sowing and permitting grain to grow rank and wild until harvest time. In his day, such a thing as land cultivation was very little known. In small gardens it was the custom to hoe between the hand-planted rows to keep down weeds, to loosen the soil to permit the plants to breathe, and to permit water to reach the roots.

But with the grain sown broadcast, there were no rows, and consequently little or no cultivation. Tull reasoned that to permit hoeing in the wheat and rye fields, broadcast sowing must give way to planting in rows or “drills,” as they are called from their resemblance to files of soldiers drawn up for drill.

He established the fact that drilled and cultivated grain would yield many more bushels to the acre, but recognized that planting in drills by hand, and hand-hoeing between the rows required too much human labor.

Arguing that if a horse could be used to plough and harrow the ground, horses could also be used to plant and hoe it, he set about building a horse-drawn, grain-drilling machine, and a horse-drawn hoeing-machine.

He had planted grain in drills by drawing a hoe through the fresh-tilled earth and dropping the grain in the furrow before the dirt fell back into it. He had hoed between the rows of young grain by slowly drawing a hoe through the earth. Accordingly he built a horse-hoe, consisting of a beam carrying several hoes.

He then contrived a box in which the seed grain could be placed, with pipes running down to a point just behind each hoe, so that the grain would be planted while the furrows were dug, each furrow being covered to a uniform depth by brushwood dragged over the field.

He described what he had done in his book and travelled the length and breadth of England trying to introduce his principles. Later, he made a harrow attachment which followed the grain-drill and covered up the grain at once.

When he told farmers to plant their wheat in rows, like beans, and to set their horses to hoeing in the fields, they tapped their foreheads significantly, and in some cases drove him from their villages as they would drive a lunatic.

JETHRO TULL. Tull was an early proponent of scientific methods of cultivation and planting.

In 1799 an American, Eliakim Spooner, invented a grain-drill, but so little attention was paid to it that to-day nothing is known regarding the device or the inventor. Many such other implements followed.

It was easy enough to make a kind of “sulky” with a number of hoes or shoes connected by pipes with a grain-box, but it was another thing to insure even distribution of the grain between the shoes and along the rows.

When gravity alone was depended upon, the grain would feed too fast, making huge piles where the seeder was turned around, and feeding too slowly when the machine went fast.

The first step toward a practical solution of the seeding problem came in 1840, when J. Gibbons, of Adrian, Michigan, patented a grain-drill with a regulating device, so that the amount of seed which was fed to the shoes depended upon the distance covered by the machine.

In 1842, two Pennsylvania farmers, M. and S. Pennock, secured a patent on a machine so constructed that the drills could be stopped or started while in motion, individually and collectively. Their machines were so successful that in the course of the next few years several hundred were built and sold.

Others eventually took up the manufacture of machines along the same line, mostly after the Pennock patents had run out. The original patent was renewed in 1849, so that it was not until after the Civil War that grain-drills were produced in any quantity.

Modern machines drill as many as eighteen rows at a time, and are so designed that after the point has opened up a furrow and the correct amount of grain and fertilizer has fallen into it, the furrow is neatly covered with loose soil.


It is indeed a far cry from the crooked sticks, hoes, and seed-bags of the ancients to the modern ploughs, harrows, and gram-drills which now serve to produce most of the cultivated crops all over the world. Civilization owes an inestimable debt to the inventors who released mankind from the serfdom and drudgery of early agriculture and raised the status of the farmer to one of great importance.

But splendid as were their inventions and important as were the improvements they produced, greater strides have been made by modern engineers. Instead of proceeding singly, they have grouped themselves together and worked co-operatively as organizations. By so doing agricultural progress was rapid and certain.

More was accomplished in a few months than the ancients accomplished in centuries. No longer do personalities dominate the phases of agricultural development, because results are now achieved by collective work instead of by individual genius.

MODERN WHEAT DRILLER. This large machine drills wheat in the ground at the rate of eighteen rows at each trip down the field. Compare this with the small, imperfectly seeded ground which could be covered in a day by one man broadcasting from a bag under his arm.

For preparation of the soil, and for planting, modern machinery enables a larger acreage to be cultivated and reduces animal power to a minimum. Furthermore, it does this work better than before, permitting the raising of abundant crops in arid deserts and dank marshlands, and rejuvenating exhausted soil, thereby releasing a tremendous acreage for the production of human food which acreage was formerly dedicated to the growing of weeds and horse feed.

The petroleum-driven tractors of to-day plough very deep, and so bring virgin soil to the surface. Modern trenching and drainage machinery permits surplus water to be drawn away, while, inversely, irrigation carries water to the deserts and makes them fertile.

Root-threshers remove old roots of wild grass and weeds, so that the soil may be properly cultivated; and modern machines have transformed the plough from a passive blade drawn through the earth into an active tool which forcibly cuts and pulverizes the clods into a fine mulch, making it many times more fertile than the tilled soil of the past.

To-day, this is all done on a scale unknown to our grandfathers. So many thousands of acres are tilled and cultivated by one machine, the separate operations being combined in one passage over the ground, and all accomplished at a speed so great and a cost so low that older methods are entirely eclipsed.

Perhaps the most advanced of these modern tillage implements is the rotary plough, developed by Charles M. and Fletcher
T. Hamshaw, of Seattle, Washington. This machine, driven by a tractor-engine, completely prepares the seed-bed and drills the grain in one operation; it can be applied to any sort of soil, and results in complete cultivation.

It cuts, or mills, thin slices of soil to a depth of thirteen inches, throwing the sliced-off dirt to the rear, thoroughly pulverized. The drills then plant the grain, and a drag smooths off the surface and covers the seed. The cutting blades propel the entire machine forward, the tractor wheels serving to prevent too rapid movement.

It is thus seen that the tractor is really only a support for the power-plant, and a means of steering the machine. It also serves to carry the rotary plough to and from the field and around the turns, a hoist serving to raise it clear of the ground at such times. This machine serves to perform in one operation what ordinarily requires seven, and with the aid of but one man. Because the drum itself propels the machine, the great weight on the driving-wheels necessary with the conventional plough and tractor combination is obviated. Corn or potato-planters, of course, may be substituted for the grain-drills, and the drag may be adjusted for deeper or shallower ploughing than thirteen inches.



As far back as the records of the Department of Agriculture go, corn has been the leading crop of the American farms. In the sixties the corn crop exceeded by eighty-seven per cent, in number of bushels, the combined wheat and oats crop, and in value by twenty-six per cent. In 1920 the corn crop was forty-one per cent greater in number of bushels, and eighteen per cent more valuable than the wheat and oats crops combined.

Great as was the boon of the grain-drill, it was of no assistance to the raiser of corn. In the sixties, ten per cent more acreage was planted in corn than in wheat and oats combined, and four per cent more in 1920.

Corn cannot be drilled. It must be planted in hills, spaced equally in two directions, and wide enough apart to permit a man and horse to walk between the rows for cultivation, even when the stalks are quite high. The Indians planted corn with their hands. The colonists followed the Indian methods of planting, even though they ploughed and harrowed the ground beforehand.

Hundreds of patents were granted on devices to relieve the labor of corn-planting. The earliest were attachments to hoes, whereby a small can of seed-corn could be fed over the front of the hoe by the pressure of a trigger. Other types which became popular resembled a walking-stick, which planted a few kernels when thrust into the ground.

Modifications of the perfected grain-drill were tried unsuccessfully for corn-planting. These eventually took form in single-row listers, similar to grain-drills in principle, but larger. Such machines proved successful for cotton-planting and hillside corn- growing in the South.

WALKING-STICK TYPE OF CORN-PLANTER. This plants a few kernels when thrust into the ground. Courtesy Department of Agriculture.

D. S. Rockwell was the pioneer inventor of a horse-drawn corn-planter, having patented a double-row planter in 1839. This machine was very crude and could plant the corn in rows one way only, there being no way to step off the cross-rows evenly. Later inventors made minor improvements, such as providing for adjustment of the distance between hills of corn, adjustment of the amount of corn to be dropped in each hill, and means to run the parallel rows equal distances apart.

The machines did not gain in popularity, however, for the farmers were beginning to appreciate the importance of cultivating between the rows, and naturally preferred to cultivate in both directions, since cultivating in one direction only would leave strips of hard and weed-grown ground between the hills on the main rows.

MODERN CORN-PLANTER. The modern corn-planter is almost a perfect instrument for planting corn, two rows at a time, putting down the kernels in hills of two, three, or four grains single grains, one at a time, closely together. The dropping mechanism can be hand-operated in such a way as to seed by any one of these methods or combinations of them.

M. Robins, of Cincinnati, took the lead in successful corn-planting by inventing what is called the wire check-rower, which he patented in 1857. He saw that so long as the dropper depended upon the wheel to determine the location and distance between corn hills, no one could make cross-rows straight.

Some farmers stopped their machines and set the wheel at the same place at the beginning of each row in order to check the rows across the field. But they always came out uneven at the end, and the trouble of setting the wheel at the beginning of each row was too great.

Robins therefore proposed that a wire be stretched across the field from end to end, knotted at intervals one row wide, and that this wire be used to operate a dropper. But his method of operating the drop with the knotted wire was faulty, and for this reason his machine never worked properly.

Robins exhausted his slender resources in building machine after machine. None were efficient. Although he had thought of the one thing that made the corn-planter practicable, it remained for others to name it, apply it successfully, and reap the reward. Robins died, a poor and disappointed man.


John Thompson and John Ramsay of Aledo, Illinois, took up the knotted-wire corn-planter where Robins left off. They named it the “check-rower,” and secured patents, in 1864, for its use in connection with a forked trip. Thompson and Ramsay worked for eleven years upon their invention, and solved most of the difficult problems involved in the principles of its operations.

They were not skilled manufacturers, and they found that their experimenting had actually cost them more than they received for the limited number of machines they sold. However, in 1875, they secured a reissue of their patents, and assigned them to the four Haworth brothers, who were practical mechanics and manufacturers, and who did much to improve the check-rower corn-planter.


As we have already seen, the scientific development of the plough dates back but little farther than the history of this country. On the other hand, efforts to save harvest labor can be traced back to the beginnings of the Christian era. Side by side with the crooked stick, the plough of the early Egyptians, is the stone or bone sickle, their first harvest tool.

Wherever antiquarians unearth the remains of ancient peoples, there also they sooner or later find traces of the sickle and of wheat. In the prehistoric age of bronze, men reaped their wheat with bronze sickles, and learned to shape them like hooks in order to sweep the grain to one side as it was cut.

In Revolutionary days, American farmers were still using sickles much like those of Egypt and Rome, but made of steel. They were as sharp as swords, many being actually made from swords.

Yet, long before that time there had been farmers who had devised ways of reaping the ripened grain more easily and more quickly. Pliny, in his Historia Naturalis, describes, from personal knowledge, a header used by the barbarians of Gaul, comprising a two-wheeled cart, pushed through the field by an ox.

On the front edge of the cart box was a sharp knife against which the grain heads were knocked by a man who walked along, wielding a stick. This man struck the heads from their stalks, so that they fell into the cart. The straw was left standing in the field for cattle to graze upon.

The Gauls improved their header by adding a notched blade that would catch the heads and cut them off more readily. The Romans, too, had developed a scythe, having a wider, straighter blade and a longer handle than the sickle, and with this scythe a man might stand upright and cut a wider swath, closer to the ground. But after the decline of Rome, and throughout the long centuries of the Middle Ages, there was practically no progress in agriculture.

With the Dark Ages both the header and the scythe fell into disuse. During that long period between the Gallic header of the first century, and the Gaelic reaper of the eighteenth, the farmer went back to and depended upon the ancient sickle.

THE GALLIC HEADER, DESCRIBED BY PLINY, A. D. 70. Courtesy U. S. Department of Agriculture.
REAPING AND BINDLING GRAIN. The method pursued almost from Biblical times to the invention of the reaper. From a coppcr engraving by Veranzio, made in 1617.

About 1794, the Scotch reaper made its appearance and was heralded as a marvellous invention. Managed by one man, it could reap as much grain as could seven men using sickles. The Scotch, some time before, had revived the scythe, perfected the curves of its handle and the pitch of the blade, so that a man might swing long and freely and yet keep the blade parallel with the ground, cutting the stubble short.

There is some doubt as to the origin of the “cradle,” as the Scotch reaper is now called. Professor William H. Brewer, of Yale, is of the opinion that it was introduced into the colonies coincident with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or eighteen years before it was so enthusiastically acclaimed by the Scotch. The “cradle” is simply a scythe with wooden fingers to gather the grain and deposit it in windrows.


In 1807 Salmon, of Woburn, secured an English patent on a reaper which he built and demonstrated the following year. His machine was pushed by hand through the field, mowing a swath of about two feet. Salmon not only avoided errors that were subsequently made, but he anticipated several features successfully applied years later.

One of these features was the vibrating knife, consisting of a keen blade moved from side to side so as to cut the grain more readily; the grain was divided by fingers into tufts over the blade, just as a barber gathers hair into tufts before snipping it with his scissors.

Another feature was a self-raker, comprising a curious long rake, swinging from side to side, which swept the cut grain from the platform into a windrow at the right side of the machine. Salmon’s machine was abandoned because the smooth blade would not cut all the grain.

Later inventors learned the value of jagged blades. Had Salmon’s patience held out a little longer, the practical reaper might have come fifty years before it actually did.

In 1812 Peter Gaillard, of Pennsylvania, patented a grass-cutter, similar to our familiar lawn-mower, except that the beater-blades were straight. Hence a mass of grain was brought against the blade at once, causing the beater to jam, and the driving-wheel to slide.

Jeremiah Bailey, a neighbor of Gaillard, improved the machine by placing the horses at the side of the mower instead of behind it, as Gaillard had done, and by curving the beater-blades as they are in the modern lawn-mower, so that the grass would be sheared from side to side.

As a reaper of grain it was a failure, since it broke the straw and knocked the heads off, strewing the kernels over the ground, leaving the grain strewn over the field in a tangled mass, and was easily stopped when a stick or stone lodged between the beater and the blade. But the Bailey machine certainly developed the modern lawn-mower.

Henry Ogle, an English school-teacher, in 1822, patented a reaper in which a cutting-knife was made to reciprocate from side to side behind a set of stationary fingers. The cut grain fell back upon a platform, and was raked off by a man who walked along. The machine was also equipped with a reel or beater to bring the grain more forcibly against the knife, and a divider to separate the swath to be cut cleanly and evenly from the rest of the field.

But Ogle’s reaper would not cut as cleanly as the scythe, because it was pulled through the field at slow speed. A woodsman cannot fell a tree merely by pressing his axe against the trunk; he must swing it so that the edge is driven forcibly into the wood.


Patrick Bell, a Scotch minister, saw this defect in earlier reapers and made up his mind that a reaper which merely pushed a knife through the field would never harvest grain properly. He believed that grain should be reaped with shears. In 1826 he built a reaper that worked on the principle of a pair of scissors, one that gathered the cut grain into a windrow, leaving the farmer nothing to do but drive the horses.

Bell was an exceptionally clever mechanic, and had he only been a good business man and promoter, men like Hussey and McCormick, who came later, might have had little to patent.

The Bell reaper consisted of a series of scissor-blades moving in unison, a canvas belt running on wooden rollers, which received the cut grain and carried it to the side of the machine. It was driven from one of the wheels through a jaw-clutch, which enabled the farmer to stop the machinery when the machine was being turned or driven to and from the field, and it was one of the most practical and workable machines invented up to that time.

It cut the grain as fast as the horses could walk, and laid it neatly in a long mound. Only one man drove the team and operated the lever. The English farmer raised his grain on so small a scale, and was so tied down by tradition that he could not grasp the full meaning of mechanical reaping.

Thousands of men looked to harvest-time for a chance to make the greatest earnings of the year. Consternation filled them when they saw that a team of horses and a half-grown boy could reap more grain with Bell’s machine in a day than any six of them could reap with cradles. They set upon the machine, demolished it, and even threatened the inventor.

BELL’S SCISSORS REAPER. In 1826 Patrick Bell built a reaper that worked on the principle of a pair of scissors, one that gathered the cut grain into a windrow, leaving the farmer nothing to do but drive the horses. Courtesy U. S. Department of Agriculture.


In 1816 Robert McCormick, a farmer of Virginia, tried to produce a machine to harvest grain. As he performed the arduous duties of the harvest each fall, he studied the oft-repeated mechanical motions of his arms and body in guiding the scythe and rake, and spent the long winter days trying to make pieces of wood and iron duplicate these movements. He gave it up as hopeless in 1831; but his son, Cyrus, determined to carry on the experiments.

About this time, Obed Hussey, a sailor who knew more of splicing and reefing than he did of mowing, commenced experimenting with a reaper. He was a Yankee, born in Nantucket, Massachusetts. McCormick was a Southerner. In almost every other way the two men differed.

Hussey was a theorist: moody, generous, stubborn. He tired of things easily, and was inclined to be lazy, save when at work over an invention.

McCormick was practical and willing at times to adopt the improvements of others, and pay for them. Determined and intolerant of opposition, he worked ceaselessly toward a fixed goal, from which he never swerved. Hussey worked in fits and starts, brilliantly, but not patiently.

Before 1832 Hussey had never thought of inventing a reaper, or even inquired whether it was needed or in existence. It is said that the idea was born of a challenge from a friend received while Hussey was perfecting a candle-moulding machine in Cincinnati.

Before a year had past, Hussey had his machine working in the fields. He patented it at once, anticipating young McCormick bv,a year, although the latter had been working on a reaper ever since he had been old enough to hold tools for his father.

Hussey’s machine contained one feature, the cutter, of enormous importance which all others were forced eventually to copy. Accepting Bell’s reasoning, he had developed his cutter on the shear principle. He avoided the mechanical difficulties of shearing by inventing the notched cutter-bar and the slotted tufting-fingers. These improvements have since become standard on all mowers, reapers, and harvesters.

HUSSEY’S REAPER. In 1833 Obed Hussey, a sailor, invented his successful reaper, anticipating McCormick. Hussey adopted Bell’s shearing principles.
HUSSEY’S IMPROVED CUTTER OF 1847. Hussey invented the notched cutter-bar and the slotting tufting fingers, now the standard on all mowers, reapers, and harvesters. Courtesy U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Hussey’s cutter consisted of a blade with great, sharp, saw-teeth which moved from side to side in thin slots in a row of iron fingers. As the machine moved through the standing grain the fingers divided the stalks into tufts directly in the path of the rapidly moving cutter teeth.

Moving from side to side, these teeth sheared off the stalks against the edges of the fingers. The grain was cut cleanly and evenly, close to the ground. This cutter was mounted at the side of a small sulky, so that the horses walked beside it. Behind was a platform, upon which the grain fell and from which it was raked by hand by the man who sat in the seat and drove the team.

The machines sold well, and in seven years had become popular in the principal wheat-growing States of the country. They were exhibited at the London Exposition, in 1851, and received high honors.

Hussey’s obstinacy in refusing to adopt other men’s ideas, which would have improved his machines, proved costly in the end. By 1858, he had fallen so far behind his rival, McCormick, that he sold out to William F. Ketchum for $200,000, and turned to the invention of steam-ploughing machines.

Hussey was well advanced on the invention of his reaper when Cyrus H. McCormick, at the age of twenty-two, was still a farm lad. For years Cyrus McCormick had watched his father’s efforts to build a reaper, and now he attacked the problem himself.

In 1831 he built a crude machine and ran it into a field. The stand of wheat, ripe for cutting, belonged to a neighbor, at Steele’s Tavern, Virginia, and with four horses hitched to his contrivance, McCormick started around the field. Most of the neighbors were on hand to witness the test.

Having watched the elder McCormick’s experiments in the past, they were frankly sceptical, but the farm laborers, jealous of their hire, added hostility to a jeering attitude. The machine was crude and the field rough and hillocky. As a result McCormick did not make an impressive showing.

Farmer Ruff, who owned the land, protested when he saw his wheat being chewed into bits, heads knocked off, and a ragged half-cut stubble left in the reaper’s wake.

A neighbor extended an invitation to reap on his field. There McCormick succeeded in cutting six acres in one day, proving that his machine was six times as efficient as a scythe. It was not until 1834, however, that McCormick patented his invention.

McCORMICK’S FIRST REAPER. Invented by Cyrus Hall McCormick in 1831, and patented in 1834. This machine embodied the following essential principles of the modern reaper—vibrating sickle-edged blade, fingers to hold the grain, reel, divider, and platform to receive the grain.

Cyrus McCormick owed his success and his position in the history of agriculture more to his character than to his mechanical ingenuity, great as that was. Only a man of his narrow doggedness, of his intolerance to opposition could have triumphed where others, more imaginative than he, had failed.

The story of his life, chiefly a record of the reaper’s evolution, is one long record of bull-dog persistency in the face of apparently insuperable obstacles. His father was the owner of two grist-mills, three sawmills, a distillery, and 1,800 acres of rough Virginia land.

Shortly after the trial of his first reaper, Cyrus acquired 200 acres of his own and started farming. With his dream of the reaper still tormenting his brain, and hampered by the high price of iron, he induced his father and a friend to join him in building a small foundry, so that he could make his own castings.

In 1839, a general financial crash plunged the McCormick family into poverty and debt, and Cyrus lost both farm and foundry.

Returning to the old homestead, he labored with his three brothers and three sisters five years to stave off the sheriff and auctioneer. He still had his reaper, and he continued to improve it. In 1841, ten years after the first one was built, he sold two others for one hundred dollars each.

In 1842 he sold seven more for the same price. By 1844 he had sold seventy-nine more, the whole family joining with hired hands to build the home-made machines. Eight orders had come from Cincinnati, the stronghold of his rival, Hussey.

CYRUS H. McCORMICK. Cyrus H. McCormick invented the reaper and patented it in 1834. He was not only a great inventor but a great business man.

Thus encouraged, McCormick, then thirty-six years old, decided to seek a wider field in the West, where the new farm lands were being opened up by progressive, pioneer people. Steele’s Tavern was a hundred miles from a railway, and sixty from a canal.

With sixty dollars in pocket, he rode horseback through the great prairie country in the rolling flats of black loam he visioned future fields of wheat, oats, rye, and barley, and he realized he could make a million dollars with his reapers.

He saw a land better fitted to grow great quantities of wheat than he had ever dreamed of. He saw farmers who were using the best ploughs in the world, but who, for lack of proper harvesting implements, were often obliged to turn cattle and hogs into the ripened grain.

To McCormick’s mind there was but one answer—mechanical reaping. Nearly everybody wanted to reap at the same time. Since nobody had enough labor to perform the task alone, and since there was rarely time for the various farmers in a given neighborhood to band themselves together and harvest their fields in turn, there were but two solutions: slaves or machines.

McCormick had come North and West principally to find some one to build his machines. After having 150 reapers built for him in Cincinnati in 1845, and 150 more by Morgan and Seymour, of Brockport, New York, in 1846, he returned to Chicago, in 1847, and with William B. Ogden, mayor of the city as a partner, established his own factory. Ogden invested $50,000 in the business, but in a few years McCormick had bought him out.

By 1851 he was building a thousand reapers a year. Six years later he had built 23,000 reapers, and made a profit of over a million and a quarter dollars. From that time on his business improved, until to-day the International Harvester Company, the enterprise he founded, is the greatest manufacturer of farm implements in the world.

McCORMICK’S PLEDGE OF PERFORMANCE. His reaper was so startlingly new a contrivance that Cyrus McCormick had to convince farmers that it would do all that he claimed for it. Accordingly he gave each purchaser an opportunity of verifying the claims made, and only then demanded his money. This is a copy of the agreement that the farmer signed.

The reaper was accepted. McCormick was a millionaire. But the machine was still woefully crude, and there were others who had reapers in mind. When McCormick set out to make a business success of his reaper, he had no time to give to further invention.

His last important mechanical contribution to the reaper was in 1858. This was an automatic raking device, consisting of a large, heavy rake, moved over the fan-shaped platform in an awkward threshing motion, so that it raked the grain from the platform, rose, travelled back toward the cutter, and then came down to rake the platform clean again.

But rivals sprang up, eager to sell their reapers to farmers both here and abroad. An intense competitive battle ensued. McCormick, the biggest manufacturer, resorted to the courts to rid himself of meddlesome infringers of his patents, and even attacked the validity of patents granted to other inventors.

If he failed in the courts he attempted, and often succeeded, in buying out his rivals. But he was not always successful. Better machines were certain to make their appearance sooner or later. A machine which would not merely mow the grain and deposit it in long windrows or gavels, but which would actually bind it into bundles, ready to carry away, would win the day.

After the reaper had done its work, the grain had yet to be raked into piles, and bound by hand into bundles.


In achieving this, the first step was taken by two young farmers named Marsh, at DeKalb, Illinois, in 1857. One day, while using a reaper to harvest grain, the idea occurred to them that the platform might be so arranged that the grain, instead of being unceremoniously thrown off to the ground would be brought up to a bin; a couple of men, riding the machine by standing on a running-board, could then bind the grain by hand and throw off the bound sheaves.

Harvest-time is too busy for farmers to stop and work out “notions,” but during the next winter and summer, the Marsh boys applied their attachment to their reaper and tried it out in the field the following autumn.

The machine worked very well. They were able to cut and bind grain with twice the speed that had been previously possible. The next year they went into the harvester business together with John F. Hollister, at Plano, Illinois. But the Marsh harvester was not favorably regarded by the farmers; it compelled them, they said, to work like slaves; they called it a “man-killer.”

To prove that the work of binding was not severe the Marsh brothers engaged tramps and even young girls for the task, and in 1864 W. W. Marsh went out on one of his harvesters all alone and bound an acre of wheat in less than an hour. That same year E. H. Gammon and J. D. Easter formed a partnership and secured a license from the Marsh brothers to make harvesters in Chicago.

The Marsh harvester was a success because it was simple. There was nothing new, mechanically, in the attachment of an elevator and bin to a reaper. Because of its simplicity, however, it was sure to be followed by something better, something more complete.

It did not eliminate human labor, but merely improved the conditions under which that labor worked. Thinking men could see, even then, that abundant cheap labor was not to be had indefinitely. Every farmer knew that a machine which displaced a farm-hand saved him the farm-hand’s wages and board.

THE MARSH HARVESTER AS IT LOOKED IN 1866. Courtesy U. S. Department of Agriculture.

The increase in population and the area expansion of the country had been remarkable. In 1776 there had been but four people to the square mile; in 1860 there were over ten, and in 1876, one hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, there were fifteen to the square section of land.

Industrial expansion was at hand. Railroads had to be built. The Civil War was calling for every able-bodied man that could be spared from the shops and fields.

There were over five acres of improved farm-land for every person in the country. That meant that for every man able to work in the fields there were about twenty acres to be farmed. The time was coming when there would be proportionately fewer farmers than city dwellers, when there would be more mouths to feed, more acres to be cultivated, and fewer hands to do the work.

The first recorded effort to eliminate the raking and binding of the grain, necessary with all successful machines up to and including the Marsh harvester, was made by Esterly, who, in 1848, patented a harvester consisting of a wide wagon-box, the front end of which was occupied by a lawn-mower type of cutter and beater, driven by one of the wheels. The complete machine was arranged to be pushed by horses. It proved a failure.

The next year, Haines, of Illinois, built a push reaper with an endless canvas platform, the canvas running over rollers. The moving canvas raised the grain to a wagon which was pulled along with the machine as it went through the field. Haines’ idea was to take the grain by the wagon-load directly from the field to the fanning-mill to have it threshed, thus eliminating raking and binding.

But grain needs to be sunned in the field before it is threshed, and the farmers preferred to bind it into sheaves and leave it in the shock for a few days. Moreover, threshing was a faster process than harvesting, at least in those days of small, crude harvesters and big, stationary fanning-mills.

Consequently Haines’ machine was not successful at first. Later, when the big bonanza farms of the West were opened up, the Haines harvester was adapted merely to cut the heads off the grain, leaving the straw to be burned off or turned under.

Headers are extensively employed to this day. They fill wagons driven alongside, the principle being similar to that of the original Haines machine.



Big, complicated and expensive machines did not appeal to the majority of farmers, although they would have welcomed any attachment to their Marsh hand-binding harvesters that would eliminate the extra hands needed for binding. John E. Heath, of Warren, Ohio, was the man to supply this want.

The poverty of his parents had obliged him to learn the trade of wood-worker while still a boy in Tollard, Connecticut, his native town. He had made axe-helves, and the great wooden oxen-yokes then in use.

Seeing that he could never become skilful enough to earn a competence in this fashion, he set his brains to work to aid his hands. Before long he had perfected a machine which made better and more helves and yokes than a dozen men could produce with hand-tools. Heath prospered in a modest way, and had some leisure in which to employ his thoughts and his money for further advancement.

In 1840, Heath moved to Ohio. He had invented a mower which he considered better than others of the time, and he knew there were more farmers willing to buy mowers in Ohio than there were in Connecticut. He built his mower and exhibited it at the Illinois State Fair, in Chicago, in 1840. In the ten years which followed, he worked continually to perfect his mowing-machines, building and selling enough of them to enable him to continue his work.

Observing the great amount of labor needed to bind the grain, once it was cut, he decided to incorporate a binding device with his mower so that the farmer might both cut and bind the grain by machinery. He wisely chose twine as the binding medium. Later, other inventors of binders tried wire, flax cord, hemp, or sisal twine, but only those who adhered to Heath’s original idea of twine succeeded.

A SUCCESSFUL WIRE BINDER—LOCKE’S (1873). Courtesy U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Heath, in 1850, secured the first patent ever issued on a grain-binder, and started in to manufacture mowing-machines with binder attachments. He was a good mechanic and a clever inventor, but did not have the ability of McCormick, Hussey, and others to push his machines to the front, nor the wisdom to sell out at a good figure to the bigger manufacturers.

Succeeding inventors avoided the mistake of applying their binders to only one kind of reaper. Had Heath applied his binder to the popular reapers and harvesters of the day, it might have survived.

In 1858, a young farm-hand, John F. Appleby, made a model of a twine-knotter: a machine that would tie a knot in a piece of twine. The idea of such a labor-saving device sprang from his own distaste of farm drudgery. He succeeded in inducing a country school-teacher to invest fifty dollars in the scheme, but the partner withdrew leaving him in debt.

Appleby’s first models were sold for seventeen cents at auction, the buyer presenting them to the inventor.

After the Civil War, during which he invented a rifle-attachment, Appleby returned to Wisconsin and at once began to develop his grain-binder. In 1867, his first working model was demonstrated, and Doctor E. D. Bishop became his partner by investing $1,500 in the enterprise.

Meantime J. F. and J. H. Gordon, of Rochester, New York, had been working for five years on a wire binder. This machine was to collect a quantity of grain from the platform and then pass a piece of wire around it, twisting the two ends together and allowing the bundle to drop off behind.

They secured patents on the machine in 1873, and after the Osbornes had secured an interest in it, they succeeded in selling the manufacturing rights to McCormick.

About the same time, Sylvanus D. Locke, of Janesville, Wisconsin, had approached the wire-binder problem from a different angle. His original intention had been to put out his binder as an attachment to the Marsh harvester and hand-binder, which was then being made by a number of different concerns, and of which about 100,000 were in use.

Provided with packers, and binding the bundles more neatly than did the Gordon machine, it was extremely simple and did its work well.

It had been developed to the practical stage by a farmer-mechanic, C. B. Withington, from whom McCormick purchased manufacturing rights, in 1874, thereby precipitating perhaps the greatest legal battle in the history of farm machinery, from which the Gordons and their allies, the Osbornes, came out victors to the extent of nearly half a million dollars.

But the wire binder was not altogether popular with the farmers. The wire was liable to become mixed with the straw, endangering their cattle and horses. Objections also came from the threshermen and the fanning-mills; pieces of wire might injure conveyor belts and fans, clog the cylinders, and refuse to blow out with the straw.

Meanwhile Appleby had completed his twine-binder. In the course of his studies he had come across the knotting-bill, patented by Jacob Behel, of Rockford, Illinois, in 1864, which solved his greatest difficulty.

It was easy to make a machine to tie wire about a sheaf of grain, because the wire did not require knotting, but could be hooked or twisted together. Appleby’s binder not only bound the sheaves with twine, but it tied a knot in the twine.

William Deering, who had joined Gammon, the original licensee of Marsh brothers, soon heard about the Appleby twine-binder. He sent for the inventor and witnessed a test of the binder. Gammon, his partner, was silent, but Deering, seeing that the hand and wire binders could not last with Appleby’s invention, promptly bought it himself.

With this twinebinder he felt he could dominate the field, and he moved his factory to Chicago and started building Marsh harvesters equipped with Appleby binders. The harvester of to-day is only a slight improvement on the perfected Deering twine-binder.

THE HARVESTER OF TO-DAY. When William Deering heard of the Marsh binder and witnessed a test he saw that the wire-binder could not last. With the Marsh twine-binder he felt that he could dominate the field. He bought the invention. The harvester of to-day, here shown, is but a slight improvement on the perfected Deering-Marsh twine-binder.

In 1881, McCormick also started the manufacture of the Appleby binder. The original, basic patents having run out, it has since then been combined with Marsh harvesters the world over. Harvesters and binders to-day are made for all manner of crops, such as rice, clover, and other hayseed and grain. Mowers, reapers, and headers are also manufactured and used extensively.

The highest development of the harvester is the combined harvester and thresher, or “combine,” as it is called. The machine, performing the complete harvesting operation on a wide swath of grain at one passage, is undoubtedly the largest and most complicated as well as the most wonderful machine used by the American farmer.

From standing grain, it cuts, threshes, cleans, and bags the grain in one operation. These machines are operated by gasoline-engines, so that all the tractor has to do is to move them over the field.



The development of machinery for the harvesting of corn came later than that for the harvesting of wheat. One reason for this is that corn is a hardy plant and can be left on the stalk for weeks after it is ready for harvesting, while cereal grains must be harvested soon after ripening. Another reason is that the ears can be easily picked and husked at leisure.

Corn is used principally on the cob, whether for stock fed or table use. Cereal grains have only a few small kernels per head, each head on the end of a slender stalk, whereas corn grows on great ears, from three to seven to the stalk. To reap a bushel of wheat or oats requires the cutting of 40,000 or 50,000 small straw stalks, whereas a bushel of corn is yielded by only from 150 to 175 corn-plants.

Probably more than ninety per cent of the wheat crop is sold, but less than twenty per cent of the annual production of corn in the United States is sold, the remaining eighty per cent being fed to stock right on the farm where it is grown.

To-day, however, the percentage of the corn crop that can be marketed is increasing; there is a growing demand for it as food, and industry is finding new uses for corn products. Also, many cattle-raisers and farmers have discovered that it is more profitable to devote all their land to pasturage, and the corn they once raised to feed their cattle they now purchase.

Owing to this, added to the scarcity of farm labor and the steady increase in wages, economy in corn cropping became as necessary as it did in other crops.

The corn crop is the largest crop of the American farmer, amounting to about two and a half billion bushels annually. The value of the 1919 corn crop was three and a half billion dollars, or nearly one-fourth the value of all crops, and nearly twice the value of all wheat.

It is thus seen that although the amount of corn which the farmer can sell is only one-fifth of what he raises, this fifth is worth one-third as much as the wheat crop, and is more valuable than any other.

Although corn was the first grain grown in this country, the methods of planting and harvesting it have been slow in developing. Before the discovery of America, Europeans had never seen corn. When they settled in the colonies, they learned to cultivate the wild maize of the Indians by Indian methods.

The wheat, oats, and rye they brought with them had been cultivated by man since the dawn of civilization, but with corn the American farmer had to develop civilized methods of culture, and to transform a half-wild, stunted, and scrubby weed into the king of grains that it is to-day.

Departing from the Indian method of stripping the ripened ears from the standing stalk, the early planters of Virginia, New York, and New England soon found that it was better to cut the stalks close to the ground, using sharpened hoes to start with. The Mexicans, too, learned the advantages of this method and developed the machete, a heavy, sword-like knife, useful in cutting paths through the jungle, and valuable as a defense against wild beasts.

The American planters developed shorter, lighter knives, the earliest being converted old scythe-blades. Later the corn-hook was substituted for the knife, the hook having a curved blade attached at right angles to a wooden handle. The corn-hook made stooping and swinging of the knife unnecessary, so that more work could be done with less fatigue and greater safety.

Another form of corn-cutter was a sharp blade strapped to the boot and braced to the knee, somewhat like a telephone lineman’s climbing-irons. With this the farmer merely kicked vigorously at each stalk to cut it.


In developing mechanical corn-cutters, inventors at first attempted to follow the principles that had proved successful in harvesting wheat. The tough, thick stalks baffled these dreamers and their machines.

In 1850, Edmund W. Quincy, of Illinois, patented a machine to pick corn. In that day very little use was made of the fodder, the farmers raising the corn for the ears alone. The usual method of gathering the ears was to drive a wagon along the rows of corn while two men on foot tore the ears from the stalk and tossed them into the box.

This work was generally, one of the last tasks of the autumn, hogs being afterward turned out to browse on the trampled fodder, which was ploughed under next spring.

Quincy’s machine picked the ears by means of wooden rollers, studded with iron pegs. As the stalks passed between the rollers, the pegs tore off the ears and dropped them upon a canvas belt, which carried them up to a trough from which they slid into a wagon driven alongside.

Quincy spent forty years of his life trying to perfect his machine. Travelling from farm to farm, living in abject poverty, often without food or shelter for days at a time, he constructed his crude machines with the money given by sympathetic but sceptical farmers. He was known as ‘Old Father Quincy’ throughout the corn belt.

After Quincy came a score of inventors who devised machines for the husking of ears, for snapping the ears from the stalk, and even for shredding the stalks.

William Watson was simply an imitator. He obtained a patent on a corn-picker and husker, using picking-rolls similar to Quincy’s. Most of these later machines were stationary, so that farmers no longer picked corn in the field, but cut the stalks with knives and hooks, after the manner of their forefathers, then carrying the stalks to the machines.

What was needed was a machine that would cut corn in the field.

In 1886 J. C. Peterson, of West Mansfield, Ohio, patented a cutting device that became the forerunner of a long line of sled-cutters. It was simply a sled with a deep V-notch in front, lined with sharp, steel blades. It was drawn along the rows by two horses, while a man riding upon it gathered the stalks in his arms so that they were cut by the knives.

Later types were arranged to cut two rows at once, and the runners were eventually replaced by wheels. These again were refined by several inventors, who added a vibrating knife to Peterson’s notched cutter, and also divider snouts to raise fallen stalks from the ground.

Later came gathering chains and shocking poles, which greatly reduced the labor of harvesting, and which can hardly be credited to any one inventor. In 1888, A. N. Hadley invented a machine which would not only cut the corn, but would assemble it in a large shock, which was carried by the machine, and which could then be lifted off by a small crane and set on the ground.

HADLEY’S MACHINE FOR CUTTING AND SHOCKING CORN (1888). This machine would not only cut corn but assemble it in a large shock, carried by machine. The shock could then be lifted off by a small crane and set on the ground. Courtesy U. S. Department of Agriculture.


About this time inventors began giving serious thought to the possibility of threshing and separating corn in the same manner as wheat is threshed and separated, so that the whole corn-plant, as cut by the corn-harvester, could be fed into a machine from which shredded fodder and husked or even shelled corn might be taken out.

Sliced fodder, similar to silage, had been tried as cattle-food; it was found too tough and hard unless it had been wetted down and fermented in the silo, the airtight wooden, brick, or cement tower, then popular with dairymen, and later adapted successfully to feeding beef herds.

Except for silage, the farmers had not experienced much success with corn fodder as forage for live stock. And yet the demand for corn meant an accompanying production of great quantities of fodder which would go to waste if not fed to the animals; also, by using corn fodder, every acre that could be spared from hay cropping meant one more acre for corn.

It was thought that by threshing the corn, the ears could be husked mechanically, and the fodder shredded, so that better feed for live stock would be obtained. The ordinary grain-thresher, of course, could not be used; hence efforts were made to combine corn shredders and huskers in single machines.

Among these developments, that patented by J. F. Hurd of Minnesota, in 1890, was the first. This original machine was rapidly improved, and many other machines of the sort appeared.

As they were developed, refinements which had been added to grain-threshers were rapidly adopted, such, for example, as fans to blow away the shredded fodder, and self-feeders. It was found convenient to deliver the corn in bundles rather than as loose stalks, and this, in turn, led to a demand for corn-harvesters with binding attachments.

SECTION THROUGH A HURD CORN HUSKER AND SHREDDER. Courtesy U. S. Department of Agriculture.
(left half of CORN HUSKER AND SHREDDER diagram)
(right half of CORN HUSKER AND SHREDDER diagram)


A. S. Peck, of Geneva, Illinois, secured a patent in 1892 which covered most of the fundamental features of successful corn-binders since developed. Peck built his machine but received very little recognition. It embodied no radical departures, but simply assembled into one compact, well-balanced machine the essential features of a successful corn harvester and binder.

Peck used the machine with eminent satisfaction in his own fields, and built a number for his neighbors, who were likewise well satisfied. This attracted manufacturers to Peck’s patent, some of whom acquired the right to manufacture corn-binders under it, while others set out to evade it by building machines slightly different in principle.

A. S. PECK’S CORN-BINDER PATENTED IN 1892. This machine includes most of the fundamental features of successful corn-binders since developed. Courtesy U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Attempts were later made to produce successful combined corn-harvesters and huskers, which were operated by separate gasoline-engines, and hauled through the field by horses or light tractors. Some of these machines were designed to harvest two rows at a time, but none of them was developed much beyond the experimental stage.

About 1902 interest revived in corn-pickers, and some very beautifully designed machines, based on old principles, were produced.

Other corn machinery of more or less importance was developed for stationary use. Corn-shellers are simply huskers operating under higher pressure, so that the ears are forced against spiked rolls hard enough to cause the kernels to be dislodged from the ear.

Silo-fillers have been made which, when bundles of corn are thrown into a hopper, or upon a feeding-table, automatically slice the whole plant, and blow the slices through a large canvas or metal tube to the top of a silo.



In the early days, men threshed wheat by beating it with staves, or driving oxen over sheaves laid upon the hard ground. The Assyrians developed a threshing-sledge, or sled, a crude implement still used in parts of Syria, Greece, and Asia Minor.

Primitive staves were subsequently improved upon by cutting them in two and joining the two pieces with stout thongs. This was called the flail; the standard threshing-tool for fifteen or twenty centuries. Better threshing could be accomplished with the flail, since the joined end, swinging loosely, struck the grain flat and with greater force.

But flails accomplished only part of the task and required a prodigious amount of hard labor. They merely dislodged the kernels from the stalks, leaving the more complete separation to a succeeding winnowing process.

This process consisted generally in picking up the wisps from the ground, shaking out the kernels by hand, and casting the straw upon a stack. Then the kernels were swept up, sifted, and sent to the mill to be ground into flour. Pitchforks were later employed in the winnowing process to save labor.


In this country, the flail and pitchfork were long the only tools known for threshing and winnowing the grain. A farmer hardly dared raise much wheat because he knew he could only use as much as he could thresh, and if he employed every man and woman on his farm he could thresh but little.

To-day, we have progressed so far in the threshing of our grain that 4 million Americans on 60 million of acres of land can produce over 1 billion bushels of wheat in one year, averaging seventeen bushels to the acre.

Before the advent of modern machinery, it required about two and a half hours of human labor to plough, sow, and harvest fifteen bushels to the acre; this same amount of work is now done in seven minutes, with tractor-drawn gang-ploughs, grain-drills, and binders.

The improvement of the plough, the invention of grain-drills and harvesting machinery reduced, enormously, the hours of labor necessary for the raising of a bushel of grain. Ancient ox-drawn ploughs, made of wood, took hours to do what a modern tractor-drawn gang-plough can do in minutes.

Grain-drills plant wheat, and plant it with greater accuracy, in a fraction of the time it took by hand.

By hand-reaping with the “cradle,” an active man might possibly cut one acre before sundown, but it was more than he could rake together, bind, and shock the next day. A modern binder of the conventional type enables one man to reap, bind, and shock twenty acres of wheat in a single day.

Before wheat is ready for the mill—where it is converted into flour, breakfast cereals, and other foods—the kernels must be separated from the straw and heads.

This is known as threshing, and is perhaps one of the most important operations in grain culture. Not only was ancient threshing generally unclean, but it was also an exceedingly laborious business, taking up more time than all the preceding operations combined.

Therefore men dreamed of mechanical threshing long before they thought of mechanical tillage, planting, or harvesting. Yet despite the early start, progress has been much slower in thresher development than with any other type of agricultural machinery.

This is because threshing is more difficult than the other operations. Wheat kernels are tender and easily injured. They are enclosed in a tight sheaf of chaff, strongly secured to the stalks in bunches or heads. A machine to extract this tender kernel, unharmed, and with the minimum of waste, must be extremely sensitive and precise in its action.



In 1732 Michael Menzies, a Scotch Highlander, patented a remarkable machine turned by a water-wheel. This was a great wooden cylinder on which a number of flails were mounted. As the cylinder turned, the grain was struck 1,320 blows to the minute; the equivalent work of thirty-three men with hand flails.

But the farmer had to bring his grain to the machine to be threshed, winnow it himself, then haul it back to his farm. The result was that he was not much better off than if he had threshed it with flails on his own floor. Besides this, it was dangerous to approach too near the machine in order to pitchfork the grain under the flails, and the violence with which the flails beat the straw resulted in their frequent breakage.

Another Scotchman, named Leckie, improved upon Menzie’s machine about 1758, by working the flails on a vertical pole within an upright cylinder, open at both ends. The pole was revolved at considerable speed by a water-wheel, and the grain fed into the top of the cylinder.

The flails at once beat it against the sides of the cylinder, so that, as it worked its way down, the kernels were well beaten out. It was too violent, however; it threw whole heads down and bruised the kernels. As with Menzies’ machine, the grain had to be winnowed after being threshed.

The first truly successful threshing-machine was invented in 1786, by Andrew Meikle, the third Scotch pioneer. He originated, in crude form, the fundamentals of all successful modern threshers. Meikle’s machine consisted of a horizontal beater somewhat like a wide paddle-wheel, surrounded with a closely fitting concave casing.

The sheaves of grain were fed head first between two rollers, like those of a clothes-wringer, in such a way that they passed between the beater and the concave casing slowly. The beater, turning at considerable speed, smashed the heads. After passing over the beater the grain dropped on a grating, where with the chaff it fell through into a hopper below. The straw passed over the grating, and out.

Meikle patented his machine in 1788, and continued to make improvements. In 1789 he added a second beater over the grating which, made to fit it closely, beat the kernels out of the straw. Then, back of the grating, he added a third which raised the straw as it left the grating and threw it back to a place where it could be pitched away into wagons or upon a stack.

Up to this time the threshing-machine was quite separate from the fanning-mill. Grain which had been threshed and winnowed from the straw was still unfit for the mill because the grain and chaff were not separated.

THRESHER FROM 1880s. Horse powered and portable.

About the time that Meikle began building his threshing-machine, others had started fanning-mills, often operated in connection with flour-mills. These old fanning-mills were simply large boxes containing several sieves and a huge fan or bellows.

The grain was shovelled in at the top and gradually sifted through the sieves, which were violently shaken or vibrated by the power of a mill-wheel or windmill. The air-blast from the fan or bellows picked up the dust and chaff and blew them out through a hole at the back, the kernels dropping through into a hopper below.

In 1800 Meikle combined a threshing-machine and fanning-mill by placing the receiving hopper of the fanning-mill below the grating of the thresher. He built his machines to be driven by water, wind, or hand power.

Some were of tremendous size, the windmills having sails which could be furled or unfurled to suit the breeze; the power with which to turn the mills and roll up the sails came from adjacent and smaller windmills. There were even roller conveyers to conduct the straw to a stack.

The big stationary mills were of little use to the small farmer located at a distance from them, for they could not afford the long journey with the bulky loads of straw. But the hand-threshers, moved on a wagon and operated by three persons, became popular throughout Europe.

From now on, European threshers were speedily developed and improved. The most important improvement was the substitution for Meikle’s first beater, of a revolving cylinder with teeth interlacing similar teeth on the concave casing. The other essential features of the Meikle machine remain to this day.

As more and more of these machines were built and set up at points more convenient to the wheat-fields there was increasing dissatisfaction over water and wind power. Accordingly, horse-power machines were introduced. In these, the familiar horse-windlass principle, used by the Egyptians to raise water from the Nile before the Christian era, was employed.



A few of the crude European threshing-machines were imported into the United States as early as 1825. There was a persistent demand for a portable type, and this was met by open-cylinder machines, or “Bull” threshers.

Mounted on wagon wheels and operated by horse-power, they were not equipped with fanning-mills or separators, since it was still thought impossible to compress the fanning-mill to portable proportions. Fanning-mills sprang up at every crossroads. American manufacturers copied the European machines, re christening them “Ground Hogs.”

Experiments were made with other types of threshers, in which power was obtained from the road wheels, horses hauling the machine about the field in order to keep the wheels turning as it threshed.

Two advantages were claimed for this arrangement: the machine could go to the shocks of grain direct, thereby eliminating the haulage of the grain to the thresher; and it also spread the straw over the ground as it moved, ready for burning as fertilizer.

But the practice of hauling a clumsy piece of machinery over the ground by horse-power was hardly popular. Contemporary inventors tried to include rakes to gather the reaped grain from the ground, and even mowing attachments.

A combined harvester and thresher was therefore an early nineteenth-century conception, and its advocates failed to produce a successful combination only because harvesters and threshers had not been perfected.

Samuel Lane of Hallowell, Maine, secured a patent for a combined harvester and thresher, in 1828. He was also the inventor of the endless apron conveyor, to-day a part of every harvester. In his combined harvester he attempted too much, and although some parts of his machine possessed merit, they were ignored. He died in the poorhouse, in 1844.

Others followed his lead. E. Briggs and C. G. Carpenter secured a patent in 1836 on a travelling thresher with a detachable grain-cutter. In the same year H. Moore and J. Rascal of Kalamazoo, Michigan, patented the first American threshing-machine combining a fanning-mill.

Like its predecessors, it was of the travelling type and designed to harvest as well as thresh; behind the threshing cylinder was a large sieve upon which the threshed straw fell. This sieve was vibrated in such a manner that the straw worked back until it fell to the ground, while the kernels and chaff fell through holes upon screens, where the fan blew away the chaff. The separated kernels were then elevated to the top and fed into bags.

Though not perfect, this machine was superior to the “Ground Hogs,” and it threshed more wheat from an acre’s yield.

In 1830 Hiram A. Pitts, of Winthrop, Maine, secured a patent on an improved horse-power treadmill. He and his brother, John A. Pitts, formed a partnership and manufactured these horse-powers for use with “Ground Hog” threshers. The inventor, the more aggressive brother, introduced his machine to thresher-men throughout New England.

He operated these crude threshers himself, and became so disgusted with their poor work that he determined to invent a better type. With his brother, he built a combined threshing and fanning-mill in 1834.


The machine had a cylinder, similar to that of the “Ground Hog,” and back of this was an endless apron conveyor, as in the slat-type horse-power treadmill which they manufactured.

Over it was a beater to agitate the straw, and a picker, or rotary pitchfork, to throw it off the end. The grain fell from the cylinder and the conveyor into a trough, which conducted it to the fanning-mill, mounted under the machine.

Hiram Pitts noticed that when the grain passed through the sieves, complete heads or parts of heads passed over and were blown out with the chaff, because they were too big to go through the sieves.

He therefore arranged a trough, just behind the sieves to catch the heads, allowing the chaff to blow over and away. The bits of grain so saved, known as “tailings,” were conducted by a small belt conveyor to the sieves to be refanned. He patented his thresher in 1837.

Pitts’ threshers proved to be the best of their time, and were among the first to be driven by steam-engines. In 1840 John
A. Pitts left his brother and established a factory at Albany, New York, which he later moved, first to Rochester, New York, then to Springfield, Ohio, and finally to Buffalo, New York. There he produced the Buffalo-Pitts thresher, and there he died in 1880.

EARLY STEAM THRESHING-ENGINE WHICH WAS PULLED BY HORSES. The machine was available for belt work only.

Other inventors, among them being D. A. Church and Edward Boston, encouraged by the Pitts brothers’ success, became active. Jacob V. A. Wemple and George Westinghouse, father of the air-brake inventor, formed a partnership in 1840 to perfect a threshing-machine.

Wemple had been a blacksmith and wheelwright in Montgomery County, New York, and had repaired some of the crude open-cylinder “Ground Hog” threshers. About 1830 he became interested in improving them. He found that the round-peg cylinder-teeth then in use were inefficient, and that the usual practice of simply driving them into the wooden cylinders, like spikes, was untrustworthy.

They were apt to loosen and, at the speed at which the cylinders were turned, were sometimes hurled out with force enough to kill a man. On the other hand, if their renewal was necessary, it frequently happened that they could not be drawn from the wood without much difficulty.

So Wemple worked out a flat-blade type of tooth that did much better work, and also arranged a bolted connection, making their removal easy yet preventing accidental loosening.

George Westinghouse, like his illustrious son, then not yet born, was a mechanical genius. He had manufactured “Ground Hog” threshers and could appreciate the value of Wemple’s invention. Westinghouse and Wemple developed a combined thresher and fanning-mill, incorporating the Wemple flat-bolted tooth with a raddle or vibrating rack.

The straw from the cylinder was raised to this raddle by a canvas belt-conveyer. The raddle rested upon square rollers, which as they turned, shook it violently, thus jarring more grain out of the straw. The grain dropped into the fanning-mill or shoe, as it is now called, and the straw was thrown to the rear.

The machine was patented in 1843 and was built by Wemple and Westinghouse at Fonda, New York. Westinghouse soon after withdrew and established his own factory at Central Bridge, New York, where he built similar machines.

Hiram A. Pitts moved from Maine to Alton, Illinois, in 1847, and in 1851 to Chicago, where he produced the Chicago-Pitts thresher. The Buffalo-Pitts, Wemple, Westinghouse, and Chicago-Pitts machines by this time had demonstrated their superiority over the “Ground Hog,” English “Bull” threshers, and “chaff pilers,” as the travelling type was called.

John Cox and Cyrus Roberts, who were building threshers at Belleville, Illinois, improved on the Pitts and Wemple machines by developing a raddle violently pitched by cranks; they patented the idea in 1852. Nichols and Shepard took over its manufacture a few years later, John Nichols improving it by the addition of jagged fingers, so moved by cranks and pitmans that they gave the straw a rising and pitching motion and broke up matted portions.


The original Cox and Roberts machine was short-lived because the severe motion of the raddle shook the machine too violently. Nichols corrected this by using two raddles working in opposite directions, a machine he christened the Vibrator.

The Aultman and Taylor Company, of Mansfield, Ohio, was licensed in 1867 to manufacture Nichols and Shepard machines. Since then, practically all threshing machines have evolved from the vibrator principle.

More recent improvements have increased the efficiency of the cylinders and concaves by enlarging the cylinders or extending the concaves higher, thus giving more surface for threshing.

The straw rack has been greatly improved to agitate the grain more thoroughly, and screens and drafts in the shoe have been developed to rid the grain of chaff, dust, and weed seeds. Tailings are now carried back to the cylinder to be re-threshed.

Modern machines not only thresh and separate the grain automatically, but also weigh and bag it.

COMBINED HEADER AND THRESHER ON AN IDAHO DRY FARM. The machine cuts the heads from the grain over a sixteen-foot swath, threshes it, and deposits the kernels in a wagon drawn along with it. A gasoline-engine furnishes power for the machinery and thirty horses pull it through the field. Tractors are now used instead of horses.


Originally the straw thrown out by the thresher had to be pitched away with forks, constituting one of the hardest jobs around a thresher and requiring in the operation from six to eight men. In the seventies a few machines appeared with long elevators that carried the straw straight back, and built up a stack some distance away.

Reeves and Company, of Columbus, Ohio, developed a radial stacker of the belt-conveyer type in 1882, permitting the building of a horseshoe-type of stack.

James Buchanan invented the first stacker worked by a fan draft, in 1879. He built a model and exhibited it at the Indianapolis Fair, in 1884. A powerful blower fan blew up a pipe, causing a suction on a branch to the end of the thresher, thereby picking up the straw and blowing it upon a stack.

It was new and so it was opposed. Old thresher-men declared it would pull the grain out of the pipe or shoe with the straw, and that it would consume too much power. To overcome these objections Buchanan’s men ran the stacker by hand-power, and turning off the separator fan, laid ten-dollar bills in the shoe to prove that the wind-stacker would not draw the grain from it.

In 1891 A. McKain bought Buchanan’s and all other patents of importance, paid Buchanan $ 1,000 a year royalty and built up one of the most remarkable monopolies in the history of farm machinery. For two years he fought an apparently losing fight against the prejudice of thresher-men and the opposition of manufacturers.

By repeated demonstrations, however, McKain built up a demand for his stacker and exacted heavy royalties from manufacturers who were forced to adopt his principles.


The next great improvement was the self-feeder, by which the bundles of wheat were automatically fed to the cylinder at just the proper speed, and their bands cut. The first self-feeder of importance was invented by F. H. Marshall, of Darlington, Iowa. The latest improvement is the dust-collecting fan, developed under the direction of the United States Department of Agriculture.


The combined harvester and thresher, which marked the first attempt at threshing-machine development in this country, was long regarded a hopeless dream. From 1841, when D. A. Church built what was probably the last of the early harvester-threshers, until about 1881, harvesting and threshing were considered as two separate and distinct operations.

But in that time California had grown from a little-explored and lawless province of Mexico to the greatest gold-mining, fruit-growing, and wheat-raising State in the Union.

On the great bonanza farms in the swampy delta country in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, labor, sufficient to harvest, haul, and thresh wheat in the old way, could not be secured. Horse traction was almost as impracticable.

Stockton Berry, Daniel Best, and Benjamin Holt, solved their own problems by building the largest agricultural machines ever known, before or since. They built steam-propelled combined harvesters and threshers, some of them having wheels eighteen feet wide. When the great dry farms of the open plateau country to the north and east were opened up, they offered another field for “combines,” as the giant machines are called.

Some of these machines were entirely self-contained. Steam drove them and operated the harvesting and threshing machinery, straw being used under the boilers. Later, “combines” were equipped with steam-engines only, the steam being supplied through a hose leading to a steam traction-engine by which they were drawn through the field.

With the advent of the gasoline-engine, horses in spans of twenty to thirty were used to haul the machines, gasoline-engines supplying power to operate the machinery. To-day “combines” are drawn by tractors.

A “COMBINE” OF THE HORSE PERIOD. From 1841, when D. A. Church built what was probably the last of the early harvester-threshers, until about 1881, harvesting and threshing were regarded as separate and distinct operations. But when California became the greatest wheat-raising State, labor sufficient to harvest, haul, and thresh wheat in the old way could not be secured. Combined harvesters and threshers (“combines”) were built. These were drawn by great teams of horses, as here shown. Gasoline-engines were used to supply the power for the machinery, the horses being used only for hauling. Nowadays tractors take the place of horses.


On the big bonanza farms of our own far West, as in Siberia and Australia, arose the cry for mechanical farm traction. To the ordinary farmer, the suggestion that he substitute a steam or a gasoline traction-locomotive for horses at first seemed fantastic.

All farm machinery was built to suit the capabilities of the horse, and a fair proportion of the crop acreage and pasturage of the average farm was devoted to equine sustenance.

The big ranchers, however, were not concerned with precedent. Existing farm implements, or any of the other considerations which lead farmers to cling so tenaciously to the horse, had nothing to do with their problem.

Either they had to develop their own machinery, or have it developed especially for them. They were engaged in a new kind of farming.

Their operations were on such a huge scale that the cost of equipment was of no moment. On the other hand the cost of cropping their millions of acres mattered mightily, for the difference of a quarter of a cent per acre in the cost of ploughing the ground would amount to hundreds of dollars by the time all the mile-square fields had been cultivated.

The first use of power-driven farm machinery was in ploughing. The first recorded work in this direction was that of David Ramsay and Thomas Wildgoose, of England, in 1618, whose efforts, for want of a suitable propelling-engine, were fruitless.

In 1854, Fowler and Smith, Englishmen, introduced the steam-plough, and in later years the English method of steam-ploughing enjoyed a considerable vogue.

This method was to mount winches upon steam-engines, situated on opposite edges of the field, which engines drew ploughs back and forth across the field by winding cables. The ploughs used were in two sets, one set ploughing in one direction while the other set was carried high in the air.

FOWLER AND SMITH’S STEAM ENGINE. Note the cables beneath the boiler.

But the method never gained favor in America because the larger fields here would have required cables of excessive length.

The first and the greatest development of steam traction-engines in this country was in threshing. Here, as had been the case with steam-ploughing in England, investment in such expensive machinery paid only if the owner of the engine hired himself out to many farmers in the ploughing or threshing season.

Threshing-machines have always been operated by specialists who hire out by the day or the bushel, rather than by the farmers themselves.

These threshing-engines were designed primarily to furnish power for the belt which drove the threshers, and, if not designed to be drawn by horses, were equipped with a very light and simple drive to the wheels, adapted to move only their own weight at very slow speed.

In 1888, Jacob Price designed a steam-ploughing engine in which sufficient power was delivered to the rear wheels to draw, behind it, a gang-plough. About the same time Daniel Best produced a steam ploughing-and-harvesting engine which was widely copied.

It was of immense proportions, comprising two enormous driving-wheels and a single front wheel for steering. Perhaps the largest of these steamers was built by Benjamin Holt at Stockton, California. These giants had wheels eighteen feet wide, or a total wheel width of thirty-six feet. In front was a large steering-wheel and ahead of this a barrel-shaped roller to smooth the ground.

Despite the great width of tread the machine packed the soil to hardpan, making it extremely difficult to grow crops. This led Benjamin Holt to look about for a more practical form of traction-engine. In order to secure sufficient traction to pull the gangs of ploughs, or harvesters, great weight was necessary to prevent the wheels from slipping.

Increasing the width of the wheels distributed the weight over a greater width of ground, but it did not materially increase the supporting area. Holt turned to the lag-bed.

STEAM PLOUGH. The steam engine would give way to the gasoline engine for farming.


The origin of the lag-bed is somewhat obscure, but the basic idea seems to have been conceived by a man named Keeley, in England, in 1825. His steam-tractor was supported by a sort of belt, built up of wood and iron, which ran over two notched pulleys, front and rear, with intermediate wheels to distribute the weight over a large surface in contact with the ground.

The engine was steered by a single wheel in front.

In order to overcome the resistance to the necessary sidewise slipping, or skidding of these long belts when turning, each section was provided with rollers on its outer surface. These rollers were placed so that they could roll sidewise and acted as grouts or cleats to dig into soft ground, and provide traction. However, the machine was a failure.

In 1859, W. P. Miller, of California, designed and patented a steam-driven engine having a type of lag-bed, the sections of the bed or belt being joined by a shear-like hinge. Before 1900 about a hundred patents were granted on various traction devices, based on the lag-bed principle.

In all of these the fundamental idea was to substitute a wide, flat bed for the small contact of a round wheel, this bed being made in sections or links. Within the endless belt so formed, were wheels supporting the machine, propulsive power being supplied by one of the end wheels or sprockets which supported the belt. As it rolled forward the bed was continuously being picked up behind and laid in front.

In 1901, Alvin O. Lombard, of Waterville, Maine, patented the first practical lag-bed tractor. His machine was practically identical with the familiar type of steam logging locomotive, so far as the engine was concerned, but instead of driving-wheels, it had a lag-bed of original design.

To secure flexibility over uneven ground and the easiest running possible, Lombard substituted for small wheels a flat iron skid or runner, mounted on a single pivot, with a chain of rollers between the bed or belt and the skid. Thus, as the machine moved along, the skid rolled along over the bed on the many little rollers between the two. The belt was picked up by the rear sprocket and carried forward to the front sprocket, which set it down on the ground again.

The chain of rollers, after passing under the skid, ran around a pulley at the back, then another at the front, and so under the skid again. At the front was a seat and a steering-wheel. Under this was a pivot on which might be mounted either sled runners for snow, or wheels for ground.

Benjamin Holt brought out his lag-bed or caterpillar steam-tractor in 1903, using the same general construction he had used for his round-wheel tractors, but substituting lag-beds for driving-wheels. Unlike Lombard, who was a lumberman, Holt developed his tractor primarily for agricultural work.

THE FIRST HOLT CATERPILLAR, HAULING A GANG-PLOUGH. It was steam-driven, like the round-wheel type, and was likewise very large.

He soon changed over to gasoline-power, greatly simplifying the machine and reducing its weight while increasing it’s pulling power.

The success of the Holt machine, which is known as the “caterpillar,” was so marked that a number of other manufacturers in the United States, and recently in Europe, have been encouraged to develop lag-bed vehicles.

During the war the Holt caterpillar construction was extensively used in mounts for great siege-guns, artillery tractors, and “tanks,” not only by the Allies, but by the Germans and Austrians as well.

GASOLINE-DRIVEN HOLT CATERPILLAR TRACTOR FOR HEAVY FARM DUTY. The caterpillar tread (Holt’s invention) distributes the weight so that the tractor will not sink into soft soil.


Meanwhile, developments on the smaller farms of the Central and Western States had given rise to greater interest in smaller tractors. The growing scarcity and high wages of farm labor had induced the farmers to purchase larger machines and more powerful horses.

Percherons, Clydesdales, Shires, and Belgian draft horses were in great demand on the farms. But these big horses, besides being costly, required more attention and care than the common farm horses. Pasturage and hay were becoming more valuable and land values were rising to a point where farmers were obliged to secure the utmost productiveness from their soil.

For more and better power the farmer was compelled to turn to the machine.

Steam traction-engines had been extensively utilized in the Dakota and Minnesota wheat country, but had given little satisfaction. They were heavy and cumbersome, expensive to run, and dangerous on account of the sparks that poured from their smokestacks.

The solution seemed to be the internal combustion engine which was fast driving the horse from the city streets and country highways. Gasoline-engines of those days were in the experimental stage and consequently gasoline-tractors were not successful.


In 1892 two young farmers, unknown to each other, set out along parallel lines. Both entered universities, determined to devote their lives to the application of power for farm labor.

C. H. Parr, of Iowa City, Wisconsin, entered the University of Wisconsin, and C. XV. Hart, of Charles City, Iowa, enrolled in the State College at Ames, Iowa. A year later Hart went to Wisconsin and there met young Parr. They became friends and devoted the rest of their stay at college to joint research on gasoline-engines.

On graduation, in 1896, Parr and Hart started a factory in Madison, Wisconsin, for manufacturing gasoline-engines. In 1898 the Hart-Parr Company produced the pioneer oil-cooled engine, the principles of which were later incorporated into their tractor in 1901, after the factory had been moved to Charles City, Iowa.

Only one of these was built the first year—a rough frame of structural steel with front and rear wheels similar to those used on steam traction-engines; the single-cylinder engine being a huge stationary type with a chain drive to the rear wheels; the oil-radiator of cast iron, being in fact a large steam radiator, of the type once used for heating buildings.

Despite its crudity, this machine ran continuously for seventeen years before it was broken up.

The following year, fifteen improved oil-cooled tractors were built in the Hart-Parr works. In 1904 and 1905 the Hart-Parr Company developed a method of burning kerosene instead of gasoline in the engine.



Following the gasoline-tractor pioneers — Holt, with his caterpillar, primarily produced for bonanza farms, and Hart-Parr, with their round-wheel type, originally intended for Middle-Western farmers—a host of farm-tractor designers and manufacturers sprang up.

Caterpillars from 120 horse-power down to orchard machines of fifteen horse-power were developed and used on farms of all sizes in every part of the world. Round-wheel tractors, from eighty horse-power giants for fields measured in square miles down to garden tractors have been developed, burning anything from gasoline to unrefined oil.

In 1920 nearly a hundred firms were engaged in building farm tractors, the annual production being over 200,000. In the development of tractors, much more originality and variety of invention have been displayed than in any other farm machines. No other machine has been called upon for such a variety of work as the tractor, and none has had so profound an effect upon the mechanical implements of the farmer.

At the time of writing, progress is proceeding at such a rapid pace and along so many radical lines that an attempt to summarize it would be vainly exhausting, since no one can foresee the eventual trend.

Results show, however, that the old idea of a farm tractor as merely a field locomotive to be hitched to implements originally intended for horse-power and providing a pulley for belt work, must be abandoned.

Patient inquiries by the Department of Agriculture have established that modern tractors have not made serious inroads upon the use of horses on farms simply because they were not sufficiently versatile.

They could not perform a wide variety of tasks. They could not successfully cultivate between corn rows. They could not economically haul crops considerable distances over the road.

They could not turn square corners, as horses do, and they wasted far too much space on the turns. Few of them could be used successfully for hillside work.

Nevertheless, each year sees improvement. Implement makers have been obliged to make drastic alterations in their machines to adapt them to tractors, and the application of the light-weight, economical internal-combustion engine promises amazing economies in farm operation by combining many operations into one. Such are the soil-millers, rotary plows, combined grain harvesters and threshers, and combined corn pickers, huskers, and binders.

THE BIGGEST TRACTION-ENGINE EVER BUILT. The Holt steamer. Designed to pull a combined harvester-thresher in California Delta country. Each wheel was eighteen feet wide so as not to sink into the soil.


Contemplating the miracles wrought by machinery since the year of American independence, one ceases to marvel that a single decade doubles the value of farm land, of buildings, implements, and of farm products; that with the same acreage of improved farm land per capita in 1920 as in 1850 the increase in yield of grain per acre has been nearly ten per cent, with a decrease in rural population per farm from twelve to eight.

Not all these eight actually live on farms, however; rural population includes those living in villages and small towns, so that it may safely be said that the average farm shelters about six persons.

One farm in three has an automobile, one in fifty a motor-truck, one in twenty-eight a tractor, and two out of five have telephones. The farmer is producing more food with less help and receiving more for his labor in the way of comfortable living and enjoyment of life than ever before in history.


Over-abundance of wild food, as in the tropics, deprives men of the urge to work, to scheme, to learn, so that they remain in contented savagery. On the other hand, too little food has a degrading effect. In time of famine men sink lower than beasts. Neither superabundance nor famine are conducive to a peaceful, enlightened, and cultured existence.

It is good for men to have to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows, but it is not well that all men should sweat at the same tasks.

The farmer is the great civilizer. The first farmers were women, who in ancient time, as now, were the conservers. The farmer became a civilizer because he produced food in abundance, thus making plunder and butchery of other men unnecessary to the preservation of life.

In this scanning of the slow and painful rise of the farmer from the meanest station in society to the position he occupies to-day, it is seen with what insuperable obstacles the early seeker after mechanical relief from drudgery was beset.

Strangely enough, it was the farmer and in particular the farm laborer who most opposed progress. The farmer was raised from serfdom in spite of himself. His productiveness has been trebled and his labors lightened. His comforts have increased and his financial condition has improved.

The average man consumes seven bushels of wheat per year. This means that the United States, which produces twenty per cent of the world’s supply of wheat in normal years, requires 770 million bushels of wheat for itself, or only a trifle less than the average of 795 million bushels produced during the second decade of the present century.

Rural population continues to decrease, and the number of mouths to be fed increases. This means that the production of wheat must increase. Such an increase must take the form of increased acreage of wheat at the same rate of yield, or more bushels per acre for the same acreage.

Yet, the acreage of wheat land has hardly increased at all in the same decade, while the yield per acre is actually less. We have been spared a shortage by the timely entrance of Argentina, Canada, and Australia into the European export field, lessening our wheat exports. Even so, the increase of demand the face of an almost stationary production has caused the price of wheat to more than double.


Machinery has served agriculture and in so doing it has affected civilization profoundly. It has released the majority of men from farm labor and made the complex industrial growth of modern life possible.

But the task is not yet done. Tillage machines are needed which will more thoroughly prepare the soil. Seeding and planting machines must be built which will plant even more effectively than those we now have.

Perhaps the greatest need is for mechanical cultivators which will hoe around the growing plants, loosening the soil and keeping down the weeds.

Harvesting-machines must be devised which will further reduce human labor, not only for wheat and grains, but for cotton, vegetables, berries, and that king of crops, corn.

Farm power needs development for greater simplicity, reliability, economy, and, above all, versatility. All farm machinery must be improved along these lines and in addition greater accuracy and standardization is needed in manufacture to simplify the mechanical maintenance problems of the farmer.

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