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Who said: “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”
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by Edward H. Knight


From Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1874)

Drawings of ancient hoes and early plow

[p.70] There is no apology needed for beginning our review with farming implements. However disinclined a citizen may be to blister his hands by chopping fire-wood or mauling rails, he freely admits the respectability of the employment and its ancient fame. Admitting, then, the precedence of the husbandman, we will first look at the principal agricultural tool—the plow.

This tool has never outgrown its resemblance to the forked limb which was first used as a hoe and then as a plow. With such tools as they could muster, men shaped the tough limbs and crotches of trees into implements. The forked piece (A) was trimmed and became the hoe (B), a thong binding the handle and blade portions to prevent their splitting apart. We give pictures (C) of two ancient Egyptian hoes now in the Berlin Museum. A similar one maybe seen in the Abbott Museum, New York. Two suitable sticks (D) were notched and lashed together. Two other resources of a people destitute of metal are shown (E, F), one, of the South Sea Islanders, the blade made of a scapula, the other made of a walrus tooth on a handle. It is shown (G, H, I) how men made plows from similar materials; one limb formed the share, the other the beam; or (as in I) one the beam and the other the handle and sole, with a point which forms the share.

[p.71] The actual change in the plow for more than thirty centuries has been but local. The greater part of the world uses a plow much like those pictured on the palaces of Thebes. Those used in our colonial period were a very slight departure from that pattern. The plow was of wood; it was formed of pieces whose shape adapted them to become parts of the structure. The beam, standard, and handles—if the plow had two, which was not always the case—were of seasoned stuff; the mould-board was a block of wood which had a winding grain approximating the curve required.

Drawings of an East Indian plow, an Egyptian plow, a Mexican plow, a Chinese plow, an ancient British implement
RUDE MODERN PLOWS. A, an East Indian plow. B, a modern Egyptian plow. C, a Mexican plow. D, a Chinese plow. E, an ancient British implement, which yet survives in the western wilds of Scotland. The latter is pointed with iron, and may have been the origin in the bull-tongue plow. more familiar to men of ’76 than to the farmer of the present day.

The accompanying figures show a number of plows yet used in some foreign countries. These differ in no essential respect from plows shown on the tombs of Egypt, the vases of Etruria, the bass-reliefs of Greece, and the medals of Rome. The plows of the south of France, of Spain, of Calabria, Greece, Turkey, and Syria are very similar.

The plow of the past is now utterly abandoned, and we have a new tool of a different material, still, however, preserving the peculiar family feature; it will never get over the resemblance to that primordial limb.

Drawings of an East Indian plow, an Egyptian plow, a Mexican plow, a Chinese plow, an ancient British implement

The plow of 1776 was all of wood except the wrought iron share and some bolts and nuts whereby the parts were fastened together. The standard rose nearly vertically, having attached to it the beam and the sole-piece. On the nose of the beam hung the clevis; the mould-board and share were attached to a frame braced between the beam and the sole. The wooden mould-board was sometimes plated with sheet-iron or by strips made by hammering out old horseshoes. A clump of iron shaped like a half spear formed the point. It was known as a “‘bull plow,” “bull-tongue,” or “bar-share” plow. Two pins in the standard formed the handles, and it required the strength of a man to manage it. The work was slowly and ill performed by cattle.

The shovel plow, which until lately was the principal plow of the South, and is yet largely used in furrowing out ground for hoed crops, such as corn, cane, and potatoes, and in tending the same, is clearly a derivative from the old crotched stick.

Drawings of Small’s plow, Wood’s plow, Gibb’s plow.
PLOW: 1785-1874. a, Small’s. b, Wood’s. c, Gibb’s

The order of improvement is about as follows: Some time in the last century a certain plow was imported into England, probably from Flanders, which had been long far in advance of England in gardening and horticulture. Queen Elizabeth used to get salads from Flanders as a change from the interminable beef and beer. This implement was known as the Rotherham plow; [p.72] but whether the name was a corruption of Rotterdam no one knows. It was a very tidy implement in shape, but was all of wood, with the exception of a sheet-iron covering to the working parts. This required frequent renewal. James Small, of Berwickshire, Scotland, introduced the plow (a) with a cast iron mould-board and a wrought iron share. His was the first cast iron plow. He made the shares also of cast iron in 1785.

Thomas Jefferson from 1788 to 1793 studied and experimented to determine the proper shape of the mould-board to do the work effectively and offer the least resistance, treating it as consisting of a lifting wedge and an upsetting wedge, with an easy connecting curve.

Newbold, of Burlington, New Jersey, in 1797 patented a plow with a mould-board, share, and land-side all cast together.

Peacock in his patent of 1807 cast his plow in three pieces, the point of the colter entering a notch in the breast of the share.

Ransome, of Ipswich, England, in 1803 chilled the cast shares on the under side, so that they might keep sharp by wear.

Jethro Wood, of Scipio, Cayuga County, New York, patented improvements in 1819. He made the best and most popular plow (b) of its day, and was entitled to much credit for skill and enterprise, but lost his fortune in developing his invention and defending his rights. He, however, overestimated the extent of novelty in his invention. He seems to have thought it the first iron plow. Its peculiar merit consisted in the mode of securing the cast iron portions together by lugs and locking pieces, doing away with screw-bolts and much weight, complexity, and expense. Wood did more than any other person to drive out of use the cumbrous contrivances common throughout the country, giving a lighter, cheaper, and more effective implement. It was the first plow in which the parts most exposed to wear could be renewed in the field by the substitution of cast pieces.

In 1820 Timothy Pickering, of Salem, Massachusetts, first recognized the importance of straight transverse lines on the mould-board. The shape was such that it might be cut from a conical frustum.

In 1854 the Gibbs plow (c) had its straight transverse lines horizontal, the surface from which it might be cut being a cylinder with its axis horizontal.

Drawings of the Howard Wheel Plow in side view and top view

The Howard plow shows the favorite style of plow in England. The long stilts give great power to the plowman. The wheels determine the depth accurately, except in short and sudden rises and hollows.

It is impossible here to describe the minor improvements of this implement, great as is the sum of their importance—the rolling colter, the wheel which takes the place of the sliding sole, adaptations for setting the plow for depth and for land, to prevent clogging, etc.

Aaron Smith, of England, first made that form of double plow which has a small advance share and mould-board to turn over the sod, followed by the usual share and mould-board to invert the furrow-slice, and thus completely bury the surface soil. It is now much used in England, and is especially made by Ransome. In the West it is called the double Michigan plow.

Substitutes for the plow are found in spading machines, which aim to do the work more in the order of hand spading, which is confessedly better than plowing. They are not likely to supersede plows. Other forms of substitutes are the various cultivators, known by the local names of grubbers, scarifiers, horse-hoes, etc., their action being to drag teeth or small shares through the ground to loosen and aerate it, giving it a tilth suitable for sowing or planting. They are also used for stirring the ground in the balks between rows of growing plants, known as hoed crops, such as corn, cane, or potatoes, but the more a man sticks to his cultivator, and the less he bothers with [p.73] the hoe, the better will be the result, if the amount of the planting be large.

The steam-plow has proved a success under favorable circumstances. Few are at work in the United States; many hundreds in England. A large number were sent to Egypt, where the Khedive is determined to be a second Pharaoh on the old order announced by Joseph, who bought the personal property, then the land, then the people, and then rented the land to them for a fifth of the produce—the same share as Solomon received for his vineyard.

Drawing of Fowler’s steam-plow in mid-field being drawn from side to side, powered ropes driven by a steam engine at one side

Steam-plows are constructed on several principles:

1. A traction engine dragging plows: this is not a success as yet.

2. A pair of engines on trucks on the sides of the field, and dragging gangs of plows back and forth, the engines moving a piece ahead between each pull. The cut shows a modified form with a single engine, endless rope, and a traveling truck on the opposite side of the field to carry the pulley over which the rope runs and returns.

3. A single engine, and ropes so arranged around the field on bearers, known as porters, as to drag the plow-gang in any required direction by suitably changing the position of the porters which determine the direction of motion of the rope.

The improvements in seeding machines and grain drills have effected a saving of seed, more careful planting or sowing, and greater economy in labor.

Drawing of Fowler's steam-plow plowing across the field from side to side using ropes powered by a steam engine at one side

One hundred years ago our fathers toiled in the harvest field with the sickle. In Flanders they had a kind of cradle known as the Hainault scythe, but it was unknown to English-speaking peoples. The bent back, the gathering left arm, and the sweeping sickle painfully reaped the bunches of grain, which were thrown into heaps large enough to form gavels for binding. The cradle was a great improvement upon the sickle, the long and deep-reaching blade of the grain scythe, aided by the fingers of the cradle, making a progress in the harvest field which left the sickle and reaping-hook far in the rear.

The American War of Independence was not long over before attempts were made to construct machines which would bring into use horse labor as a substitute for the severe hand-work.

The reaping machine has attained its present degree of completeness after seventy-five years of persistent effort. General attention had been but little directed to the subject until the year 1851, when at the World’s Fair in London the American machines created much excitement, and caused the forgotten experiments of half a century to be withdrawn from their limboes and exhibited to cool the enthusiasm of “those [p.74] foreigners.” Experiments in reaping machines had been pursued to a much greater extent in Britain than in the United States until within a then comparatively recent period; hut the essential features which secured success were American.

The first reaping machine on record is that described by Pliny about A.D. 60, and by Palladius some centuries later. It is stated by these authors to have been used in Gaul; the former writer says in the extensive plains in that part known as Rhætia. It consisted of a cart pushed by an ox, and having a comb-like bar in front which stripped off the ears of the wheat and allowed them to fall into the box, while the straw remained on the ground. It was used in level places, and where the straw was not wanted for winter fodder. The implement has been re-invented after the lapse of fourteen centuries, and is now used as a “header” for gathering clover seed.

After this Gallic implement there is a long gap, and the first machine, or rather suggestion, of the moderns is that of Pitt, in 1786, which had a cylinder with rows of combs or “ripples,” which tore off the ears and discharged them into the box of the machine.

It is a part of our purpose to show the cumulative character of invention, and also to illustrate the fact that nearly the whole aim seems to be fixed in a particular direction for a long course of years; then the germ of the eventual success enters unexpectedly, and remains unnoticed for a period, after which the interest is transferred to the previously overlooked type, which in its immature form gave little prospect of success.

For about twoscore years attention was principally directed to revolving cutters or systems of revolving blades. The motion of the cutting apparatus being derived from the rotary motion of the wheels supporting the implement, it naturally occurred to connect the axle or wheels with a rotary cutter, and later with an oscillating one, which had its analogues in the swing of the scythe and the reach of the sickle. The first reciprocating knife was in 1822.

As to the mode of attaching the horses, it was almost universally deemed necessary to hitch them behind the implement, which they pushed before them. Up to 1823 but four inventors hitched the team in front of the implement. As soon as this idea did occur to inventors, they made the horse walk alongside the swath cut by the knives, constituting what is known as the side cut.

Drawing of top view of Gladstone’s reaping machine

In 1806 Gladstone, of England, patented his front-draft side-cut revolving-knife machine. A segment bar with fingers gathered the grain and held the straw while the knife cut it, the fingers having the function of shear blades. The forward draft was also adopted by Mann in 1820, and by [p.75] Ogle, of England, in 1822, who shows the first reciprocating knife bar. It is the type of the successful machines, but was constructed so poorly that its merits never became apparent. It was drawn by horses in advance; the cutter bar projected at the side, and it had a reel to gather the grain to the cutter. The machine had a grain platform, which was tilted to drop the gavel. This was the first dropper. In 1826 Bell made a working machine. It was pushed before the horse; the grain was cut by knives vibrating on pivots. It had a grain reel; the grain fell upon an inclined traveling apron, which carried it off and delivered it at the side.

Drawings of Bell’s reaping machine being pushed ahead of two horses into the crop to be cut.

In 1828 Samuel Lane, of Maine, combined the reaper and the thresher.

In 1833 Hussey, of Maryland, made the first valuable harvester. It had open fingers, with the knife reciprocating in the space. The open-topped slotted finger was patented by Hussey in 1847. The cutter bar was on a hinged frame.

In 1834 M’Cormick, of Virginia, patented his reaper, which, with various improvements in 1845 and 1847, received a Council medal at the London World’s Fair in 1851. This machine had a sickle-edged sectional knife reciprocated by crank and pitman by gear connection to the drive-wheel on which the frame rested; spear-shaped fingers gathered the grain, which was laid over to the cutter by a revolving reel. A divider was used on each end of the platform. The driver and raker had seats on the machine.

In 1849 Haines, of Illinois, suspended the frame carrying the conveyer, reel, and cutter to the axles of the bearing-wheels, and hinged the frame to the tongue, so that it was capable of turning upon its bearings by means of a lever to elevate and depress the cutter.

Since 1851 nearly 3000 patents have been granted in the United States for harvesters and attachments therefor.

In the summer of 1855, at a competitive trial of reapers, about forty miles from Paris, France, three machines were exhibited from America, England, and Algiers. The following was the result in a field of oats: the American machine cut an acre in twenty-two minutes; the English machine cut an acre in sixty-six minutes; the Algerian machine cut an acre in seventy-two minutes.

Some of the subsequent improvements may be enumerated as follows: The Sylla and Adams patent (1853), having a cutter bar hinged to a frame, which is in turn hinged to the main frame. This is the principal feature of the “Aultman and Miller,” or “Buckeye,” harvester. The combined rake and reel of the “Dorsey” machine (1856), sweeping in a general horizontal direction across the quadrantal platform. The “Henderson” rake, on what is known as the [p.76] “Wood” machine (1860), having a chain below the platform, which carries the rake in a curved path. The Sieberling “dropper” (1861), which is a slatted platform vibrating to discharge the gavel. The Whiteley patents, which constitute the “Champion” machine of Springfield, Ohio.

Drawing of the American Self-Raking Reaper machine

The threshing machine first saw the light in 1786. It was invented by Andrew Meikle, of Tyningham, East Lothian, Scotland. It is true that attempts had been made by Menzies in 1732 and Stirling in 1758, but they proceeded on a wrong principle, and were abandoned. Menzies’s had a series of revolving flails, and Stirling’s had a cylinder with arms upon a vertical shaft running at high velocity.

Diagram, cross-sectional side view of path of crop through three rotating drums and beaters inside Meikle’s threshing machine.

Meikle invented the drum with beaters acting upon the grain in the sheaf, which was fed between rollers. The English improvement was to make the beating drum work in a concave known as the breasting, the grain and straw being scutched and rubbed between the two and carried to the shaker, which removed the straw from the grain and chaff, a large amount of grain also falling through the bars of the concave.

Drawing of the American threshing machine.

The American improvement upon this consists mainly—besides numerous details which secure speed, lightness, and effectiveness—in having upon the drum, spikes or teeth which pass between fixed spikes on the concave; the grain in the straw being subjected to a severe beating and rubbing action as it passes in a zigzag course between the two, being carried by the teeth of the drum. The latter is now usually a skeleton cylinder of iron bars with sword-shaped spikes secured by threaded tangs and nuts. The front edges of the spikes are rounded and smooth to prevent breaking of the grain; the spikes of the concave have smooth edges presented toward the coming grain for a similar reason. The English still adhere to the flat beaters, like narrow wings or slats, placed longitudinally, and with edges projecting outwardly from the drum. The Americans adhere to the spiked cylinder. A fair trial between the two was had on the farm of Mr. Mechi, Tiptree Hall, Kelvedon, England, in 1853. The American machine was operated by the two persons who had shipped it from the United States; one of them was the present writer. The trial was conclusive. The American machine was driven by a portable engine of six horse-power, and averaged sixty-four bushels of wheat per hour; 448 bushels of barley were threshed in six hours, nearly treble the work of the English competing machines, and the grain in much cleaner condition.

The editor of the London Times, Mr. Mowbray Morris, himself witnessed the operation, and wrote as follows in an editorial of the following day, November 1, 1853:

“The machine, which is portable, weighs only fourteen hundred-weight, threshes easily, and without waste, at the rate of one bushel in forty seconds, and turns out the grain perfectly clean and ready for market. It is therefore about twice as light in draught as the lightest of our machines of the same description; docs as much if not more work than the best of them, and, with much less power, dresses the grain, which they do not, and can be profitably disposed of at less money than our implement-makers charge. … We build threshing-machines strong and dear enough and tremendously heavy either to work or to draw. The American farmer demands and gets a machine which does not ruin him to buy or his horse to pull about, which runs on coach and not wagon wheels, and which, without breaking the heart of the power that drives it, yields the largest and most satisfactory results. Nothing, therefore, can better illustrate the difference in mechanical genius in the two countries than this grain separator as compared with its British rivals.”

Drawing of steam engine driving thresher with crops tossed into the top and grain sacks filling at several bottom ports.

It may be mentioned that the apparent perversity with which the British retain flat beaters instead of the teeth is that in many parts of Britain there is a profitable market for trussed straw; the straw is less broken by the beaters than by the teeth, is in more unbroken lengths, and trusses more readily and handsomely.

The saving in the operations of husbandry by the use of modern implements and methods is equal to one-half the former cost of working. By the improved plow, labor equivalent to that of one horse in three is saved. By means of drills two bushels of seed will go as far as three bushels scattered broadcast. The plants come up in rows, and may be tended by horse-hoes; being in the bottoms of little furrows, the ground crumbles down against the plant, which is not so readily heaved out by the winter’s frost. The reaping machine is a saving of more than one-third the labor when it cuts and rakes, and will eventually save fully three-fourths when it is made to bind automatically, as it shortly will be. The threshing machine is a saving of two-thirds on the old hand-flail [p.77] mode. The root-cutters for stock in England, and in some places in the Northern States and Canada, much reduce the labor of winter feeding. The saving in the labor of handling hay in the field and barn by means of horse-rakes and horse hay-forks is equal to one-half. With the exception of the grain drill, which had a precarious existence previous to 1776, all these improvements have been commenced and brought to the present relative perfection within the century now closing.

Images and text from Edward H. Knight, 'The First Century of the Republic: Mechanical Progress', Harper's New Monthly Magazine (Dec 1874), 50, No. 296, 70-77. (source)

See also:
  • Cast Iron Plow - a brief history: Charles Newbold, David Peacock, Jethro Wood

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