Until the 18th century, simple seed drills and wooden plows tipped with metal had not changed much since the ancient Greeks. Farming the prairies of the American Midwest and the irrigated arid soils of California during the Industrial Revolution accelerated invention of new equipment. The 19th century development of increasingly complex and efficient farm equipment made capital investment more important than labor in farm production.
Seed drill images appear on Sumerian seals dated to 3,000 BCE. Fields were plowed, and then a second plow distributed the seed through a manually fed tube. Similar drills were used in ancient India, but in Europe and America, seed was hand broadcast as late as 1800. In England in 1731, Jethro Tull published “The New Horse-Hoeing Husbandry,” describing his plow design that pulled up grass and turned it aside to dry with roots up. Tull also designed a mechanical seed drill with a rotating grooved cylinder that planted seed at precise depths and intervals.
Iron plows were not strong enough to overturn deep sod on the American prairie. In 1833, John Lane of Chicago assembled used saw blades to make steel plowshares (shears, the cutting blade) and moldboards (curved piece that overturns sod). In 1837, John Deere, an Illinois blacksmith, found an old sawmill blade wide enough to design a one-piece share with a long curved moldboard. By 1849, Deere’s factory in Moline produced 10,000 plows annually.
In 1785, Britain issued the first patent for a mechanical reaper. Joseph Boyce’s reaper of 1799 laid grain to one side as it cut a 2-foot-wide path through the field. In 1806, a man named Plunkett’s patent was the first in which the horse pulled the reaper instead of pushing it. In the United States in 1834, Cyrus McCormick’s first “reaper” was a mowing machine that cut grain, but did not stack it. McCormick’s Chicago factory produced thousands of his cutting and stacking reapers each year by the 1860s.
Steam boilers equipped with gears and wheels to move loads were called “traction engines,” nicknamed “tractors.” In 1858, J.W. Fawkes of Pennsylvania built a steam powered 2-cylinder traction engine to “drag” eight plow blades at 3 miles per hour over prairie sod. In 1871, the Royal Agricultural Society sponsored performance trials for English steam tractors. After 1875, differential gears and friction clutches were adapted to tractor and plow rigs. Much of the horsepower of steam tractors was lost to friction among gears and moving its own weight. Gasoline tractors were used after 1910.
A combine is a reaper that simplifies harvests by cutting grain and threshing it onsite in the field. By the 1880s, both John Deere and McCormick made reapers for the eastern U.S. that could bundle grain sheathes with twine. On the west coast, “headers” pushed by horses cut dry wheat short and collected it on rolling canvas. Around 1880, California wheat farmers combined the reaper, thresher and a blower to clean grain onto harvesting equipment pulled by up to 20 horses.
Sara Kirchheimer holds a Bachelor of Science in physical geography from Arizona State University and is currently retired from the transportation and travel industry in northern Europe and the western United States. In addition to commercial writing, she has contributed art exhibit reviews to Phoenix Arts and hurricane update articles to New Orleans Indymedia.