Since the dawn of time, man has continually used his ingenuity to develop and perfect the tools needed to feed and clothe himself and those around him.
From soil-scratching sticks — the first farm “implements” — to satellites that provide signals to automatically guide high-powered tractors and combines, farm equipment has evolved through the ages to continually meet the food and clothing needs of Earth’s ever-growing population.
And as mankind advanced technologically, farmers and machine makers were among the first to adapt the breakthroughs to the implements and machinery of their trade. For those who call their life’s work farming, each innovation in agricultural equipment represents another step forward in meeting their only goals — produce more food to feed more people.
At the same time, no one has a more abiding respect for the land than those involved in agriculture — though it didn’t always seem that way. Poor farming practices and drought led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and devastated millions of acres of fertile land. It taught us many lessons. Today, crop rotation, conservation tillage and new equipment aimed at minimizing soil and wind erosion assure that agriculture will not repeat mistakes of the past.
Through it all, the tools of farming continued to evolve, a process marked by temporary setbacks and enormous leaps forward.
The era when farm equipment moved beyond tools to “real” ag machinery was inaugurated in 1784 with the invention of the first stationary threshing machine. Developed by British farmer Andrew Meikle to help ease the backbreaking work of agriculture, it was a landmark invention that, while not achieving commercial success, provided more than a glimpse of where the industry was heading.
Ten years later, Eli Whitney unveiled the first hand-powered cotton gin, considered a marvel at the time because it was able to separate seeds, hulls and other unwanted materials from cotton after it is picked.
But it was Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, first demonstrated in 1831, that laid the foundation for the farm equipment industry we know today. This device, along with McCormick’s self-raking feature, allowed one man to cut 40 acres in a day compared with what 5 men could do by hand. Not only was it the machine that set McCormick apart from other inventors of his time, but it was also his unmatched product development, marketing and manufacturing innovations that created the model that others would follow for the next century or more — from J.I. Case to John Deere to Massey-Ferguson.
By the mid-1800s, “real” horsepower began to give way to “mechanical” horsepower as the portable steam “traction” engine quickly followed the development of the stationary steam engine. These developments heralded the coming of the tractor and farming would never again be the same. It was the tractor that brought each new innovation directly to the farmer’s field.
It was the genius and creative thinking from individual entrepreneurs that provided many of the greatest breakthroughs in agricultural history, and spurred many of today’s full-line manufacturers. This will become readily evident as you study the accompanying timeline of “Ag Equipment Firsts.”
This project represents a “first,” best effort by the editors of Farm Equipment to uncover and report significant milestones in the evolution of farm machinery that have shaped agriculture throughout history. We’re aware that with each proclaimed “first” comes debates as to who really invented what and when. For example, while Cyrus McCormick is generally recognized as the inventor of the mechanical reaper, records show that Obed Hussey was awarded a patent for a reaper a year before McCormick. Hussey spent much of the rest of his life and nearly all of his fortune trying to prove it — to no avail.
The editors also wish to acknowledge the time and devoted to this project by Charles Glass, Glass Management Group, and Phil Needham, Needham Ag Technologies.
What was Ag Equipment’s Biggest Breakthrough? Tell us in the comments.
5500 BC — The first plows were forked sticks that Sumerian farmers would drag through the dirt to form a trench in which to plant their seeds.
5200 BC — The earliest known Egyptian farm implement is a stone sickle bar point. An early scythe, completely intact with stone points attached, was found in 2008 in excavations in the Fayium depression, a fertile oasis about 50 miles west of Cairo.
1500 BC — Excavation at the Egyptian town of Guft show trench silos for storage of grain to produce bread and beer.
1500 BC — Wooden plows, pulled by domesticated animals, became the accepted tool to prepare ground for planting
475 BC — China agriculture flourishes in the Hunan states with the development of an iron plow. It was a simple hammered iron sweep that penetrated the ground and rolled the soil in two directions to develop a furrow for planting.
1698 — Thomas Savery invents a crude steam engine which initiates a chain reaction of events that leads to the development of the steam traction engine.
1702 — Jethro Tull of Great Britain invents the seed drill and is perhaps the best-known inventor of a mechanical planter. The seed drill consisted of a box of grain and seeds hauled by a horse. The seeder is built using the foot pedals of a church organ. Because the seeds are planted in rows rather than randomly, it is much easier for a horse-drawn cart to remove weeds that formed around the crop.
1784 — British inventor Andrew Meikle devises a machine to thresh grain, but it was not commercially successful.
1784 — Thomas Jefferson, U.S. president, statesman and inventor, develops the first plow designed with the use of a mathematic formula to reduce soil resistance during plowing.
1785 — A plow that features a cast iron moldboard and share is developed in Scotland by James Small.
1794 — Eli Whitney develops the first hand-powered cotton gin on the General Nathaniel Greene plantation near Savannah, Ga. The cotton gin separates seeds, hulls and other unwanted materials from cotton after it is picked.
1797 — Charles Newbold patents the first cast iron plow in America.
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