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Agricultural Machinery


AGRICULTURAL MACHINERY. Before the late eighteenth century, farmers tilled their fields with wooden moldboard plows. In order to prevent the moldboard from wearing out quickly, plowrights or blacksmiths plated it with thin iron strips. Wooden moldboard plows could not be mass-produced or repaired easily because they did not have standardized designs or parts. Only iron, which could be cast, wrought, or molded, would enable consistent duplication of plows specifically designed for a variety of soils. In 1807, David Peacock, a New Jersey inventor, patented the first successful plow with a cast-iron moldboard and a wrought-iron, steel-edged share that made the plow easy to repair. The concept of standardized, replaceable parts for the manufacturing of plows, however, is usually credited to Jethro Wood of Scipio, New York. In 1814, Wood patented a plow with replaceable parts. Wood's plow probably did more to replace the wooden moldboard plows than any other design, and farmers quickly adopted it. After Wood's invention, plow technology, design, and manufacturing changed little until 1837, when John Deere of Grand Detour, Illinois, made a plow to cut through the thick sod and heavy prairie soil. Deere's plow had a highly polished wrought-iron moldboard and a steel share, and it required only half the draft power of other plows. Deere's plow became known as the "singing plow," because it produced a whine or hum as it cut through the soil. During the late 1870s, large-scale wheat farmers in California and the Red River Valley of North Dakota began using two-bottom sulky or riding plows. These plows enabled a farmer to turn from five to seven acres per day, compared to one acre per day with a one-horse walking plow, but four or five horses were required for draft power. Plows with more than four moldboards remained impractical until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when steam-or gasoline-powered tractors could provide the necessary force to pull them through the soil.

Farmers usually seeded their crops by hand. In 1841, however, Moses and Samuel Pennock of Chester, County Pennsylvania, designed a grain drill that deposited seeds through tubes attached to a box. By the mid-1860s, farmers that raised small grains commonly used the grain drill. Farmers typically used a dibble stick or hoe to plant their corn crop by hand. In 1864, however, John Thompson and John Ramsay of Aledo, Illinois, developed a corn planter that dropped seeds at designated spots in the furrows through a tube that extended to a hopper. This implement became known as a check-row planter, because it planted evenly spaced seed that permitted cultivation of the crop from four directions. The check-row planter became the standard corn-planting implement until it was replaced by drills in the twentieth century.

Until the development of the reaper, farmers cut their small grain crops with a sickle or scythe, permitting them to harvest just three acres per day. In 1831, Cyrus Hall McCormick tested a reaper in Rockbridge County, Virginia. McCormick improved his reaper by adding a reel to collect the stalks uniformly before the cutter bar, but he did not market it until 1840. In 1833, Obed Hussey tested his reaper in Hamilton County, Ohio. Instead of a reel, Hussey's machine used a reciprocating sickle with large triangular teeth that cut through the stalks. Hussey and McCormick continued to improve their reapers while other inventors developed similar implements. By 1855, wheat farmers commonly used the reaper to harvest grain. By the mid-1860s, reapers had a self-raking mechanism to clear the cut grain from the platform for the oncoming binders.

During the 1850s, inventors worked to develop a machine that would bind sheaves of small grains into bundles. In 1856, C. A. McPhitrigde of St. Louis, Missouri, patented the first machine to bind grain with wire. This machine had a mechanism that wrapped wire around the gavel of cut grain and deposited the bundle of the ground ready for shocking. By the mid-1870s, the binder had become popular among grain farmers, but the wire was expensive, heavy, and difficult to dispose. During the mid-1870s John Appleby gave his attention to developing a twine binder. As early as 1857 he worked on a device that wrapped twine around a bundle of grain and tied a knot. He solved this technical problem about 1874 or 1875 and, in 1878, Parker & Stone of Beloit, Wisconsin, built four binders with Appleby's knotter. By 1880, the twine binders were rapidly replacing wire binders. Twine binders would remain the primary implement for harvesting small grain crops until farmers began replacing these machines with combines during the 1920s. Reapers and binders enabled farmers to harvest from twelve to fifteen acres per day.

Threshing machines date from 1791, when Samuel Mulliken, a Philadelphia inventor, patented the first implement. Yet, it was not until the 1820s that workable, hand-and horse-powered threshing machines were developed. Jacob Pope, a Boston inventor, built the most popular threshing machine. This hand-powered machine only separated the grain from the heads as the operator fed the stalks into the revolving threshing cylinder. Pope's threshing machine did not remove the straw or winnow the chaff. By the early 1830s, horse-powered sweeps and treadmills drove the working parts of threshing machines and enabled farmers to thresh more grain with less labor. In 1837, Hiram A. and John A. Pitts of Winthrop, Maine, patented a threshing machine that separated the grain, removed the straw, and winnowed the chaff in one operation. This machine could thresh about 100 bushels per day. By the 1850s, farmers who raised small grains commonly used threshing machines.

In 1831, Hiram Moore, with the aid of John Hascall in Kalamazoo County, Michigan, tested the first successful machine to harvest and thresh small grain crops in one operation. By 1843, Moore believed that he had developed a practical combined harvesting and threshing machine, but it was too large and expensive for small-scale grain farmers. The development of the combine came during the 1870s at the hands of David Young and John C. Holt of Stockton, California. Although one day it would become a major improvement, no one produced the combine on a large scale until the organization of the Stockton Combined Harvester and Agricultural Works in 1884. The large-scale wheat farms and dry conditions in California proved ideal for combine harvesting. The working parts of the combine were powered by steam, oil, and, by 1904, gasoline engines, while teams of twenty or more horses or mules pulled it through the fields. The largest of these machines could cut 100 acres and thresh 2,500 bushels of wheat per day. Smaller combines pulled by gasoline-powered tractors with power-take-off mechanisms that drove the machine's gears helped make this implement popular in the Midwest by the late 1930s.

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, horses, mules, or oxen provided the power to operate the tillage, planting, harvesting, and threshing machinery. In 1849, A. L. Archambault of Philadelphia manufactured the first mobile or portable steam engine. By the Civil War several dozen agricultural manufacturing companies built steam engines, all designed for belt work, that is, to power farm implements such as threshing machines, but steam engines were not used on a widespread basis until the 1870s. These steam engines, however, were not self-propelled and farmers used horses to pull them from place to place. In 1873, the firm of Merritt and Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan, marketed the first traction steam engine. During the late 1870s, manufacturers also began producing steam traction engines that could pull a plow. By the 1890s, large traction steam engines easily plowed forty-five acres per day in the wheat lands of the West. These steam engines, however, were too large and expensive for the small-scale farmers, and their popularity peaked about 1915, when gasoline-powered tractors began replacing them for plowing and threshing.

During the early twentieth century, farm machinery companies began building gasoline tractors. The Hart-Parr Company of Charles City, Iowa, built a popular tractor, but the early designs were too large, heavy, and expensive for small-scale farmers. Gasoline-powered tractors did not become practical until Henry Ford offered the Fordson for sale in 1918. Farmers could use this lightweight, low-cost, two-plow tractor for tillage and threshing, but its four-wheel design made the cultivation of row crops difficult. In 1924, the International Harvester Company produced a small, low-priced tractor with a tricycle design, the Farmall, which enabled farmers to cultivate row crops without crushing the plants. By the mid-1920s, the Fordson and Farmall had relegated the steam tractors to the past. By the late 1930s, a farmer could plow an acre in about thirty minutes, but it took nearly two hours with a horse and plow. By 1955, tractors exceeded the number of horses on farms.

While the tractor became the most important agricultural machine nationwide, the mechanical cotton picker became the most important farm machine on a regional basis during the twentieth century. Although the first mechanical cotton picker received a patent in 1850, the International Harvester Company did not develop a successful mechanical picker until 1942, and quantity production did not begin until 1948. The success of this spindle picker, however, required changes in the cotton plant so that it would ripen uniformly and produce bolls in clusters for easier picking by the machine. By 1975, the mechanical picker had mechanized the cotton harvest.

Agricultural machinery has enabled farmers to conduct more work with less labor, and convert fields used to feed horses to cropland for food and fiber for human consumption. Agricultural machines also enabled farmers to work more land and contributed to the consolidation of farms and the decline of the agricultural population. The tractor and the cotton picker helped end sharecropping in the South, while the threshing machine and combine, used for both wheat and corn, let farmers expand their operations. Although agricultural machines helped

remove many farm men, women, and children from the land because they were not needed for agricultural production or could not afford the implements or the land to operate them efficiently, overall, agricultural machines have helped farmers increase production, eased their labor, and improved the quality of farm life.


Holley, Donald. The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Hurt, R. Douglas. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1994. Revised edition, West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2002.

McClelland, Peter D. Sowing Modernity: America's First Agricultural Revolution. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Williams, Robert C. Fordson, Farmall, and Poppin' Johnny: A History of the Farm Tractor and Its Impact on America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

R. DouglasHurt

See alsoCotton Gin ; McCormick Reaper ; Steam Power and Engines .

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Agricultural Equipment Industry


The mechanization of agricultural equipment in the mid-nineteenth century began a period of rapid change and advancement for the agricultural industry. Mechanization made the processes of planting and harvesting quicker and reduced the industry's reliance on manual labor. Until mechanization began in the 1850s, farmers used hand tools made of wood or iron. The industrial revolution and the modernization of equipment sometimes brought rebellions by rural workers who feared machines would eliminate their jobs.

These fears were not completely unfounded. By using machine work in place of many tasks traditionally done by laborers, mechanized equipment did lessen the agricultural industry's dependence on manual labor. In 1850, the first threshing machines were created independently by Cyrus McCormick (18091884) in the United States and Patrick Bell in Scotland. Plow improvements enabled farmers to work easily in different types of soil, while technological advances mechanized the planting and measurement of corn. An early breakthrough came in the 1850s, in Galesburg, Illinois, when George W. Brown developed the first semi-mechanized method of corn planting using a horse-drawn machine that manually dropped seed. These first innovations stimulated further inventions. For example, "furrow openers" or shoes were placed on the front of the vehicle to prepare the soil. Seed-dropping became more refined, which allowed the vehicle operator to pay closer attention to where the corn was placed. Hay rakes, hay-loaders, harvesting machines, and milking machines also appeared at about this time.

Steam power, which came to be used on farms in the 1860s, made mechanized equipment a vital part of the farming industry. It rapidly turned the curve of development upward by expanding into so many areas of farming technology that in 1860 the U.S. Patent Office issued hundreds of new patents. Among these were patents for harvesters, shellers, huskers, cultivators, and cob crushers for corn, as well as smut machines and seed drills.

When the first gasoline-powered tractor was built in 1901, most American farmers could not afford it, but in 1917 automobile entrepreneur Henry Ford offered his Fordson tractor for $397, a price that made the product much more accessible to farmers. Seven years later International Harvester introduced its versatile Farmall tractor with removable attachments. One such attachment was the cultivator, which could penetrate the soil at different depths. Other attachments included rotary hoes that could chop up weeds, and spraying devices that could spray in circles of up to 100 feet. Gasoline-driven tractors came into wider use during the 1920s and 1930s, increasingly replacing the horse for farm labor. Between 1940 and 1960, five million tractors replaced an estimated twelve million horses.

The era of the western and southern farmer coincided with the era of the railroad, as it was the rail system during the second half of the nineteenth century that allowed the farmer to get his crop to market. Advancements in the transportation industry in the early twentieth century had a profound impact on agriculture. The truck and the airplane both significantly contributed to the production and transportation of farm products. After they first appeared on farms between 1913 and 1920, trucks changed the marketing and production patterns of farm products. Their importance to harvesting the fields was paramount because they could haul items such as fertilizer, feed, crops, and livestock. Later on, the development of portable refrigeration units allowed trains and trucks to carry freshly slaughtered meat to market. Trucks also carried pigs to centralized meatpacking centers in the cities.

Farmers found many uses for the airplane in farm work. In the early twentieth century, one of the first uses for the airplane was to scatter poison dust over cotton fields infected by the pink mollworm. Other early tasks included dusting against disease and insects, spreading fertilizer, transporting breeding livestock, and dropping bales of hay to livestock stranded in snowstorms. The use of the truck and the airplane helped alleviate many problems faced by agricultural workers, such as crop failure due to disease or insects.

At the same time improvements in steam power and gasoline-driven vehicles continued. The versatile Farmall tractor in the early 1900s replaced the steam-driven reaping and threshing machine that was first introduced in the 1880s. Despite wide use of the Allis Chalmers' All-Crop Harvester as early as 1936, however, crop harvester advancements were delayed because of World War II (19391945). The All-Crop was a diesel-driven combine with a capacity for mass-harvesting, but consumers still preferred the more affordable picker-sheller machines, which were more affordable if less advanced. The use of silos and improved storage methods eventually gave the All-Crop Harvester an unbeatable advantage in the farm implement market.

The advancements in agricultural equipment slowed in the latter half of the twentieth century and some of the industry's old standbys began to weaken. During the 1980s, American farmers bought about 50,000 large tractors, but by the 1990s only a little over 20,000 were purchased. Combine harvesters also began to lose their appeal. Only 130,000 were sold during the 1980s compared to 300,000 in the 1970s. This trend continued into the 1990s. Showroom viewing of new farm equipment became less popular, creating a swollen inventory in early 1991. Farmers were also subject to a variety of short-term hazards like the old problem of excess yields, which caused prices to drop. Also, high interest rates brought many farm bankruptcies in 1991.

Tied to the always shaky farming sector, the economic highs and lows of the agricultural equipment market also continued to affect employment in the farm implement industry. In the early 1990s tractor and industrial truck manufacturing was concentrated in 139 factories in the five-state region of Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Illinois. The manufacturing of farm machinery generated large revenues and employed a substantial number of people. In 1993 Deere & Company, a leader in the industry, employed 36,500 and had sales of $7 billion. Another industry leader, J.I. Case, employed 7,000 and generated sales of $3.7 billion.

See also: Agriculture Industry, Cyrus McCormick


Brandon, Hembree. "Machinery Sales Pace Quickens." Implement and Tractor, November/December 1993.

Brezonick, Mike. "How Deere Designed Its New Ag Tractors." Diesel Progress Engines and Drivers, April 1993.

Little, Dale L. "Legacy of Science." Farm Chemicals, July 1993.

Semling, Harold V. "Commerce Predicts Good MH Sales Year." Material Handling Engineering, March 1982.

Witt, Clyde E. "Partnering Gets Lift from Crane Manufacturers." Material Handling Engineering, January 1992.

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