American Farm Machinery and Technology Changes from 1776–1990

factors of production

MECKY / Getty Images

Only a couple of centuries ago, farming was very different and used very little technology. See how the agricultural revolution and inventions changed farming so that far less manual labor is needed to feed the world today than in previous eras.

01
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16th–18th Century: Oxen and Horses

Woman plows a field with her dog and work horse.

Art Media / Print Collector / Getty Images

This period featured the use and emergence of such farm equipment as oxen and horses for power, crude wooden plows, hay and grain cutting with a sickle, and threshing with a flail. All sowing was done by hand and cultivating by hoe.

02
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1776–1799: The Cradle and Scythe

Animated cotton gin

ThoughtCo / Hilary Allison

The farm technology revolution began in this period. Notable agricultural inventions and new farm technology included:

  • 1790s: The introduction of the cradle and scythe;
  • 1793: Invention of the cotton gin;
  • 1794: Testing of Thomas Jefferson's moldboard of least resistance;
  • 1797: Patenting of the cast-iron plow by Charles Newbold.
03
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Early 1800s: The Iron Plow

Jethro Wood patented an iron plow with interchangeable parts.
Jethro Wood patented an iron plow with interchangeable parts.

The agricultural revolution picked up steam during these years, with notable agricultural developments including:

  • 1819: Jethro Wood's patenting of the iron plow with interchangeable parts;
  • 1819–25: The establishment of the U.S. food canning industry.
04
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1830s: The McCormick Reaper

Lithograph of the McCormick Reaper
Lithograph of the McCormick reaper. Getty Images

In 1830, about 250 to 300 labor-hours were required to produce 100 bushels (5 acres) of wheat with a walking plow, brush harrow, hand broadcast of seed, sickle, and flail. Inventions included:

  • 1834: The McCormick reaper was patented.
  • 1834: John Lane began to manufacture plows faced with steel saw blades.
  • 1837: John Deere and Leonard Andrus began manufacturing steel plows—the plow was made of wrought iron and had a steel share that could cut through sticky soil without clogging.
  • 1837: A practical threshing machine was patented.
05
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1840s: Commercial Farming

Buffalo grain elevators
Buffalo, New York, grain elevators. Maureen / Flickr

The growing use of factory-made agricultural machinery increased farmers' need for cash and encouraged commercial farming. Developments included:

  • 1841: A practical grain drill was patented.
  • 1842: The first grain elevator was used in Buffalo, New York.
  • 1844: A practical mowing machine was patented.
  • 1847: Irrigation began in Utah.
  • 1849: Mixed chemical fertilizers were sold commercially.
06
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1850s: Self-Governing Windmills

Wooden Windmill in Holland Michigan
Wooden Windmill in Holland Michigan. csterken / Getty Images

In 1850, about 75 to 90 labor-hours were required to produce 100 bushels of corn (2 1/2 acres) with walking a plow, harrow, and hand planting. Other agricultural developments included:

  • 1850–70: Expanded market demand for agricultural products brought the adoption of improved technology and increases in farm production.
  • 1854: The self-governing windmill was perfected.
  • 1856: The two-horse straddle-row cultivator was patented. 
07
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1860s–mid-1870s: Steam Tractors

Steam tractor

The period from1862 to 1875 signaled a change from hand power to horses, characterizing the first American agricultural revolution. Farm inventions included:

  • 1865–75: Gang plows and sulky plows came into use.
  • 1868: Steam tractors were tried out.
  • 1869: The spring-tooth harrow or seedbed preparation appeared.
08
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1870s: The Age of Barbed Wire

Foal

Ephraim Muller Photography / Getty Images

Silos came into use throughout the 1870s, and other developments included:

  • 1870s: The deep-well drilling was first widely used.
  • 1874: Glidden barbed wire was patented.
  • 1874: The availability of barbed wire allowed fencing of rangeland, ending the era of unrestricted, open-range grazing.
09
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1880s–1890s: Mechanization

farmer plowing ground with two mules

Underwood Archives / Archive Photos / Getty Images

In 1890, 35–40 labor-hours were required to produce 100 bushels (2 1/2 acres) of corn with a 2-bottom gang plow, disk and peg-tooth harrow, and 2-row planter.​ Also in 1890, 40–50 labor-hours were required to produce 100 bushels (5 acres) of wheat with a gang plow, seeder, harrow, binder, thresher, wagons, and horses. Other developments included:

  • 1880: William Deering put 3,000 twine binders on the market.
  • 1884–90: The horse-drawn combine was used in Pacific Coast wheat areas.
  • 1890-95: Cream separators came into wide use
  • 1890-99: The average annual consumption of commercial fertilizer was 1,845,900 tons.
  • 1890s: Agriculture became increasingly mechanized and commercialized
  • 1890: Most basic potentialities of agricultural machinery that were dependent on horsepower had been discovered.
10
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1900–1910: Diversification of Crops

Portrait Of George Washington Carver
Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

Throughout the decade, George Washington Carver, director of agricultural research at Tuskegee Institute, pioneered in finding new uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans, thus helping to diversify Southern agriculture. Additionally, the average annual consumption of commercial fertilizer was 3,738,300 tons.

11
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1910s: Gas Tractors

Tractors
Big open-geared gas tractors came into use in areas of extensive farming.

Big open-geared gas tractors came into use in areas of extensive farming during the first half of the decade. Additionally:

  • 1910–1919: The average annual consumption of commercial fertilizer was 6,116,700 tons.
  • 1915–20: Enclosed gears were developed for the tractor.
  • 1918: The small prairie-type combine with an auxiliary engine was introduced.
12
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1920s: A New Light Tractor

Right side view of a man sitting near an orchard, on a Fordson tractor.
Fordson farm tractor.

Archive Photos / Getty Images

  • 1920–29: The average annual consumption of commercial fertilizer was 6,845,800 tons.
  • 1920–40: The gradual increase in farm production resulted from the expanded use of mechanized power.
  • 1926: The cotton-stripper was developed for the High Plains.
  • 1926: A successful light tractor was developed. 
13
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1930s: Increased Wheat Production

A wheat farm in Oregon
Farms in 42 states, like this one in Oregon, contribute to global wheat production.

Edmund Garman / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

In the 1930s, the all-purpose, rubber-tired tractor with complementary machinery came into wide use. Additionally:

  • 1930–39: The average annual consumption of commercial fertilizer was 6,599,913 tons.
  • 1930: One farmer could supply nearly 10 people in the United States and abroad with food.
  • 1930: Fifteen to 20 labor-hours were required to produce 100 bushels (2 1/2 acres) of corn with a 2-bottom gang plow, 7-foot tandem disk, 4-section harrow, and 2-row planters, cultivators, and pickers. The same number of hours were also required to produce 100 bushels (5 acres) of wheat with a 3-bottom gang plow, tractor, 10-foot tandem disk, harrow, 12-foot combine, and trucks.
14
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1940s: Second Agricultural Revolution

Old Time Tennessee Tractor
Old Time Tennessee Tractor.

Jan Duke

During this decade and through 1970, farms experienced a sea change from horses to tractors, including the adoption of a group of technological practices, which broadly characterized the second American agriculture agricultural revolution. One farmer could supply enough food for almost 11 people in the United States and abroad by 1940, and throughout the decade, the average annual consumption of commercial fertilizer was 13,590,466 tons. Additional agricultural developments included:

  • 1941–1945: Frozen foods were popularized.
  • 1942: The spindle cotton picker was used commercially.
  • 1945: Ten to 14 labor-hours were required to produce 100 bushels (2 acres) of corn with a tractor, 3-bottom plow, 10-foot tandem disk, 4-section harrow, 4-row planters and cultivators, and 2-row picker.
  • 1945: Forty-two labor-hours were required to produce 100 pounds (2/5 acre) of lint cotton with two mules, a one-row plow, a one-row cultivator, a hand how, and a hand pick.
15
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1950s: Cheap Fertilizer

Anhydrous Ammonia Tank
Anhydrous Ammonia Tank.

DHuss / Getty Images

Throughout the decade, the average annual consumption of commercial fertilizer was 22,340,666 tons, and as early as 1950, one farmer could produce enough food for 15.5 people in the United States and abroad. Other agricultural developments included:

  • 1954: The number of tractors on farms exceeded the number of horses and mules for the first time.
  • 1955: Six to 12 labor-hours were required to produce 100 bushels (4 acres) of wheat with a tractor, 10-foot plow, 12-foot role weeder, harrow, 14-foot drill, self-propelled combine, and trucks.
  • Late 1950s–early 1960s: Anhydrous ammonia was increasingly used as a cheap source of nitrogen, spurring higher yields.
16
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1960s: Federal Aid for Irrigation

Nebraska irrigation system
Nebraska irrigation system. Jan Tik (c) 2006

Throughout the decade, the average annual consumption of commercial fertilizer was 32,373,713 tons, and as early as 1960, one farmer could supply food to nearly 26 people in the United States and abroad. Additional developments included:

  • 1965: Five labor-hours were required to produce 100 pounds (1/5 acre) of lint cotton with a tractor, 2-row stalk cutter, 14-foot disk, 4-row bedder, planter, and cultivator, and 2-row harvester.
  • 1965: Five labor-hours were required to produce 100 bushels (3 1/3 acres) of wheat with a tractor, 12-foot plow, 14-foot drill, 14-foot self-propelled combine, and trucks.
  • 1965: Ninety-nine percent of sugar beets were harvested mechanically.
  • 1965: Federal loans and grants for water and sewer systems began.
  • 1968: Ninety-six percent of cotton was harvested mechanically. 
17
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1970s: Increased Production

Harvester combine harvesting wheat on agricultural field

Slavica / Getty Images

By 1970, one farmer could supply nearly 76 people in the United States and abroad with food. And throughout the decade, no-tillage agriculture was popularized. Additionally:

  • 1975: Two to three labor-hours were required to produce 100 pounds (1/5 acre) of lint cotton with a tractor, 2-row stalk cutter, 20-foot disk, 4-row bedder and planter, a 4-row cultivator with herbicide applicator, and 2-row harvester
  • 1975: Fewer than four labor-hours were required to produce 100 bushels (3 acres) of wheat with a tractor, 30-foot sweep disk, 27-foot drill, 22-foot self-propelled combine, and trucks.
  • 1975: Just over three labor-hours were required to produce 100 bushels (1 1/8 acres) of corn with a tractor, 5-bottom plow, 20-foot tandem disk, planter, 20-foot herbicide applicator, 12-foot self-propelled combine, and trucks
18
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1980s–90s: Sustainable Agriculture

agriculture-organic-impact-climate-change-sustainable-farm-photo.jpg

By the 1980s, many farmers began using no-till or low-till methods to curb erosion. Additionally, by the late 1980s, just one-and-one-half to two labor-hours were required to produce 100 pounds (1/5 acre) of lint cotton with ​a tractor, 4-row stalk cutter, 20-foot disk, 6-row bedder and planter, a 6-row cultivator with herbicide applicator, and 4-row harvester. Other developments from this period included:

  • 1987: Only three labor-hours were required to produce 100 bushels (3 acres) of wheat with a tractor, 35-foot sweep disk, 30-foot drill, 25-foot self-propelled combine, and trucks
  • 1987: About three labor-hours were required to produce 100 bushels (1 1/8 acres) of corn with a tractor, 5-bottom plow, 25-foot tandem disk, planter, 25-foot herbicide applicator, 15-foot self-propelled combine, and trucks
  • 1989: After several slow years, the sale of farm equipment rebounded
  • 1989: More farmers began to use low-input sustainable agriculture techniques to decrease chemical applications
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Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "American Farm Machinery and Technology Changes from 1776–1990." ThoughtCo, Feb. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/american-farm-tech-development-4083328. Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 6). American Farm Machinery and Technology Changes from 1776–1990. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/american-farm-tech-development-4083328 Bellis, Mary. "American Farm Machinery and Technology Changes from 1776–1990." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/american-farm-tech-development-4083328 (accessed March 1, 2021).