History of the Agricultural Revolution

Several key factors led to this period of rapid farming development

Early sugar farming and processing by slaves in the West Indies, 1753.
Early sugar farming and processing by slaves in the West Indies, 1753. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Between the eighth century and the eighteenth, the tools of farming basically stayed the same and few advancements in technology were made. This meant that the farmers of George Washington's day had no better tools than the farmers of Julius Caesar's day. In fact, early Roman plows were superior to those in general use in America eighteen centuries later.

All that changed in the 18th century with the agricultural revolution, a period of agricultural development that saw a massive and rapid increase in agricultural productivity and vast improvements in farm technology. Listed below are many of the inventions that were created or greatly improved during the agricultural revolution.

Plow and Moldboard

By definition, a plow (also spelled plough) is a farm tool with one or more heavy blades that breaks the soil and cut a furrow or small ditch for sowing seeds. A moldboard is a wedge formed by the curved part of a steel plow blade that turns the furrow.

Seed Drills

Before drills were invented, seeding was done by hand. The basic idea of drills for seeding small grains was successfully developed in Great Britain, and many British drills were sold in the United States before one was manufactured in the States. American manufacture of these drills began about 1840. Seed planters for corn came somewhat later, as machines to plant wheat successfully were unsuited for corn planting. In 1701, Jethro Tull invented his seed drill and is perhaps the best-known inventor of a mechanical planter.

Machines That Harvest

By definition, a sickle is a curved, hand-held agricultural tool used for harvesting grain crops. Horse-drawn mechanical reapers later replaced sickles for harvesting grains. Reapers were then replaced by the reaper-binder (cuts the grain and binds it in sheaves) and in turn, was replaced by the swather before being replaced by the combine harvester. A combine harvester is a machine that heads, threshes and cleans grain while moving across the field.

The Rise of the Textile Industry

The cotton gin had turned the whole South toward the cultivation of cotton. While the South was not manufacturing any considerable proportion of the cotton it grew, the textile industry was flourishing in the North. A whole series of machines similar to those used in Great Britain had been invented in America and mills paid higher wages than in Britain. Production was also far ahead of the British mills in proportion to hands employed, which meant the U.S. was ahead of the rest of the world.

Wages in America

Take-home pay, measured by the world standard, was high. Additionally, there was a good supply of free land or land that was practically free. Wages were high enough that many could save enough to buy their own land. Workers in textile mills often worked only a few years to save money, buy a farm or to enter some business or profession.

Advances in Transportation Lines

The steamboat and the railroad enabled transportation to the West. While steamboats traveled all the larger rivers and the lakes, the railroad was growing rapidly. Its lines had extended to more than 30 thousand miles. Construction also went on during the war, and the transcontinental railway was in sight. The locomotive had approached standardization and the American railway was now comfortable for passengers with the invention of Pullman sleeping cars, the dining cars, and the automatic air brake developed by George Westinghouse.

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Bellis, Mary. "History of the Agricultural Revolution." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/agricultural-revolution-1991931. Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 26). History of the Agricultural Revolution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/agricultural-revolution-1991931 Bellis, Mary. "History of the Agricultural Revolution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/agricultural-revolution-1991931 (accessed March 21, 2023).