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Agricultural Mechanization Timeline


In 1900 farmers represented 38 percent of the U.S. labor force. By the end of the century that number had plunged to 3 percent—dramatic evidence of the revolution in agriculture brought about by mechanization. Beginning with the internal combustion engine and moving on to rubber tires that kept machinery from sinking in muddy soil, mechanization also improved the farm implements designed for planting, harvesting, and reaping. The advent of the combine, for example, introduced an economically efficient way to harvest and separate grain. As the century closed, "precision agriculture" became the practice, combining the farmer's down-to-earth know-how with space-based technology.

  1902   First U.S. factory for tractors driven by an internal combustion engine

Charles Hart and Charles Parr establish the first U.S. factory devoted to manufacturing a traction engine powered by an internal combustion engine. Smaller and lighter than its steam-driven predecessors, it runs all day on one tank of fuel. Hart and Parr are credited with coining the term "tractor" for the traction engine.

  1904   First crawler tractor with tracks rather than wheels

Benjamin Holt, a California manufacturer of agricultural equipment, develops the first successful crawler tractor, equipped with a pair of tracks rather than wheels. Dubbed the "caterpillar" tread, the tracks help keep heavy tractors from sinking in soft soil and are the inspiration for the first military tanks. The 1904 version is powered by steam; a gasoline engine is incorporated in 1906. The Caterpillar Tractor Company is formed in 1925, in a merger of the Holt Manufacturing Company and its rival, the C. L. Best Gas Traction Company.

  1905   First agricultural engineering curriculum at Iowa State College

Jay Brownlee Davidson designs the first professional agricultural engineering curriculum at then-Iowa State College. Courses include agricultural machines; agricultural power sources, with an emphasis on design and operation of steam tractors; farm building design; rural road construction; and field drainage. Davidson also becomes the first president of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers in 1907, leading agricultural mechanization missions to the Soviet Union and China.

  1917   Fordson tractor sells for $395

Henry Ford & Son Corporation—a spinoff of the Ford Motor Company— begins production of the Fordson tractor. Originally called the "automobile plow" and designed to work 10- to 12-acre fields, it costs as little as $395 and soon accounts for 50 percent of the worldwide market for tractors.

  1918   American Harvestor manufactures the Ronning Harvestor

American Harvester Company of Minneapolis begins manufacturing the horse-drawn Ronning Harvester, a corn silage harvester patented in 1915 by Minnesota farmers Andrean and Adolph Ronning. The Ronning machine uses and improves a harvester developed three years earlier by South Dakotan Joseph Weigel. The first field corn silage harvester was patented in 1892 by Iowan Charles C. Fenno.

  1921   First major aerial dusting of crops

U.S. Army pilots and Ohio entomologists conduct the first major aerial dusting of crops, spraying arsenate of lead over 6 acres of catalpa trees in Troy to control the sphinx caterpillar. Stricter regulations on pesticides and herbicides go into effect in the 1960s.

  1922   International Harvester introduces a power takeoff

International Harvester introduces a power takeoff feature, a device that allows power from a tractor engine to be transmitted to attached harvesting equipment. This innovation is part of the company’s signature Farmall tractor in 1924. The Farmall features a tricycle design with a high-clearance rear axle and closely spaced front wheels that run between crop rows. The four-cylinder tractor can also be mounted with a cultivator guided by the steering wheel.

  1931   Caterpillar manufactures a crawler tractor with a diesel engine

Caterpillar manufactures a crawler tractor with a diesel engine, which offers more power, reliability, and fuel efficiency than those using low-octane gasoline. Four years later International Harvester introduces a diesel engine for wheeled tractors. Several decades later diesel fuel would still be used for agricultural machinery.

  1932   Rubber wheels improve the tractor

An Allis-Chalmers Model U tractor belonging to Albert Schroeder of Waukesha, Wisconsin, is outfitted with a pair of Firestone 48X12 airplane tires in place of lugged steel wheels. Tests by the University of Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory find that rubber wheels result in a 25 percent improvement in fuel economy.  Rubber wheels also mean smoother, faster driving with less wear and tear on tractor parts and the driver. Minneapolis Marine Power Implement Company even markets a "Comfort Tractor" with road speeds up to 40 mph, making it usable on public roads or hauling grain or transporting equipment.

  1932   First pickup baler manufactured

The Ann Arbor Machine Company of Shelbyville, IIlinois, manufactures the first pickup baler, based on a 1929 design by Raymond McDonald. Six years later Edwin Nolt develops and markets a self-tying pickup baler. The baler, attached to a tractor, picks up cut hay in the field, shapes it into a 16-18-inch bale, and knots the twine that hold the bale secure. Self-propelled hay balers soon follow.

  1933   Hydraulic draft control system developed

Irish mechanic Harry Ferguson develops a tractor that incorporates his innovative hydraulic draft control system, which raises and lowers attached implements—such as tillers, mowers, post-hole diggers, and plows—and automatically sets their needed depth. The David Brown Company in England is the first to build the tractor, but Ferguson also demonstrates it to Henry Ford in the United States. With a handshake agreement, Ford manufactures Ferguson’s tractor and implements from 1939 to 1948. A few years later Ferguson’s company merges with Canadian company Massey-Harris to form Massey-Ferguson.

  1935   First research on conservation tillage

Agronomists Frank Duley and Jouette Russell at the University of Nebraska, along with other scientists with the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, being the first research on conservation tillage.  The practice involves various methods of tilling the soil, with stubble mulch and different types of plows and discs, to control wind erosion and manage crop residue. This technology is common on farms by the early 1960s.

  1935   Rural Electrification Administration bring electricity to many farmers

President Roosevelt issues an executive order to create the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which forms cooperatives that bring electricity to millions of rural Americans.  Within 6 years the REA has aided the formation of 800 rural electric cooperatives with 350,000 miles of power lines. 

  1938   First self-propelled combine

In Australia, Massey-Harris introduces the first self-propelled combine—a thresher and reaper in a single machine—not drawn by a tractor or horse. Welcomed because it replaces the labor-intensive binder, handshocking, and threshing, the new combine becomes increasingly popular. By the end of the century, single-driver combines feature air-conditioned cabins that are lightly pressurized to keep out dirt and debris.

  1943   First commercially viable mechanical spindle cotton picker

International Harvester builds "Old Red," the first commercially viable mechanical spindle cotton picker, invented and tested by Texans John and Mack Rust beginning in 1927. The spindle picker features moistened rotating spindles that grab cotton fibers from open bolls while leaving the plant intact. The cotton fibers are then blown into waiting hoppers, free of debris.

  1948   Center pivot irrigation machine invented

Colorado farmer Frank Zybach invents the center pivot irrigation machine, which revolutionizes irrigation technology. The system consists of sprinklers attached to arms that radiate from a water-filled hub out to motorized wheeled towers in the field. Zybach is awarded a patent in 1952 for the "Self- Propelled Sprinkling Irrigating Apparatus."

  1954   Corn head attachments for combines are introduced

The John Deere and International Harvester companies introduce corn head attachments for their combines. This attachment rapidly replaces the self-propelled corn picker, which picked the corn and stripped off its husk. The corn head attachment also shells the ears in the field. The attachment allows a farmer to use just one combine, harvesting other grain crops in the summer and corn in the fall.

  1956   The Gyral air seeder is patented

The Gyral air seeder, which plants seeds through a pneumatic delivery system, is patented in Australia. The technology eventually evolves into large multirow machines with a trailing seed tank and often a second tank holding fertilizers.

  1966   Electronic monitoring devices allow farmers to plant crops more efficiently

The DICKEY-john Manufacturing Company introduces electronic monitoring devices for farmers that allow them to plant crops more efficiently. Attached to mechanical planters and air seeders, the devices monitor the number and spacing of seeds being planted. The newest devices monitor the planting of up to 96 rows at a time. During the 1990s, similar devices are used at harvest time for yield mapping, or measuring and displaying the quality and quantity of a harvest as the combine moves through the field.

  1994   Farmers begin using Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers

Ushering in the new "precision agriculture," farmers begin using Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers to record precise locations on their farms to determine which areas need particular quantities of water, fertilizer, and pesticides. The information can be stored on a card and transferred to a home computer. Farmers can now combine such data with yield information, weather forecasts, and soil analysis to create spreadsheets. These tools enable even greater efficiency in food production.


     Agricultural Mechanization
     Muscles to Internal Combustion
     Tractor Development
     Harvesting Combines
     Other Advances
     Essay - Donald Johnson

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